A provocative furniture exhibition opened on November 30, 2006, at the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts. Called Inspired By China, the show presents antique Chinese furniture alongside contemporary pieces that were made in response to the antiques.
Co-curators Nancy Berliner, a historian of Chinese furniture at the museum, and Edward S. Cooke, Jr., professor of decorative arts at Yale University, invited 22 makers from the U.S., Canada and China to participate. In June of 2005, the makers were invited to a three-day workshop at the museum, where they were exposed to a wide range of Chinese furnishings and also observed several traditional Chinese craftsmen at work. Participants were then asked to return to their shops and create a new piece for the show in response to what they had seen at the workshop.
Although Chinese furniture developed in relative isolation over the centuries and was largely restricted from export, it has nevertheless had a significant impact on Western furniture, as evidenced by the adoption of the cabriole leg by European and American furnituremakers and by clear examples of stylistic borrowing like Chinese Chippendale. The curators hope their show will serve as a catalyst for further exchange of ideas and techniques between Chinese and Western makers, and for a deepened understanding of traditional Chinese furniture.
The format of the show is unorthodox, but not unprecedented. Edward S. Cooke curated a show with a similar premise at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1989. That show, New American Furniture, asked makers to build new pieces in response to antiques in the MFA's superb collection of American furniture, and the show and the accompanying catalog have become landmarks in the field.
The current show is also accompanied by a superb catalogue, and is well documented on the Peabody Essex Museum website, at www.pem.org/ibc/.
Photos: (from top) Matt Berger, Dean Powell and Dennis Helmar