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A leg up
The Milwaukee Art Museum’s storied chair exhibition offers a window into past design

Photos by Matt Haas

March 2016

The array of 20th century modern chairs exhibited since Nov. 24 at the Milwaukee Art Museum is more than a revealing window into past design — it is a study in various materials and shapes that some local designers say resonate today.

"Architecture, Materials and Modernity," created by MAM curator Monica Obniski, introduces a history of industrial production that includes diverse materials of tubular steel, plywood and mold injected plastic. The display also notes an emerging era of 3-D printing technology.

While each of the 19 pieces displayed has merit in telling a historical perspective of chair design and production, Obniski pointed to a few examples that may still have legs for 2016 tastes.

"Side Chair," a 1960 creation by Danish designer Verner Panton, is an undulating "S" shaped single piece of smooth, glossy plastic that comes in a variety of bold colors and is still manufactured by Swiss manufacturer Vitra.

The "Womb Chair," designed in 1947 by Eero Saarinen of Finland, emulates its moniker with chrome-plated steel, a fiberglass, plastic and wood particle shell, latex foam and upholstered fabric. New York-based Knoll International Inc. still manufactures it.

The "1949 Armchair" (Model JH501) by Danish designer/cabinetmaker Hans Wegner relies on oak for its frame and weaved cane seat to give it its natural, material classic form. Like other classics from this entire exhibit, the chair can be found on various websites (such as or through auction houses.

Local interior design experts echoed Obniski’s reference to the web as an important tool in searching for authentic originals or replicas.

The questions for those designers — Magdaline Benson of Bergson Interiors in Dousman, Vicki Beaudoin of Haven Interiors in Milwaukee and Greg Holm of Peabody’s Interiors in Milwaukee — included whether the midcentury chairs would be a good companion to other furniture styles and if the original pieces were worth the price tag.

"Sometimes you can use a particular accent piece in a particular corner or another place where it’s a nice, eclectic mix," Benson says. "Sometimes it’s a piece you love, but it just doesn’t work and then you just say, ‘Don’t do it.’ It’s not worth what is usually a very high price for originals."

Beaudoin, who says she is all for transitional and eclectic mixes when they work, says it may be difficult to use these pieces in traditional interiors. "Unless you really want the original, there are companies that do knockoffs," she recommends.

Holm says the chairs could play well with what he sees as a midcentury modern resurgence over the past few years. "I could see them being part of an eclectic mix with traditional or standing on their own as a sculptural form," Holm says.

He favors additional MAM pieces, including the aluminum and upholstered "Barwa Lounge Chair" of 1946 designed by Americans Edgar Bartolucci and John Waldheim.

Obniski says the 20th century exhibit will live on in its present form for an undisclosed period and gradually change with different designs — a nod to the public’s interest in ever-evolving style.

Upholstery - Now trending 

While the style of a furniture piece is important, so is the upholstery, which provides an ample amount of the work’s personality. We asked experts in design and in the hands-on craft — Shelly Dineen and Kim Schmidt from Manhattan Textiles in Wauwatosa and Greg Mueller from Mueller Upholstery in Thiensville — to weigh in on the current trends.


Polyester is still favored, based on durability and price. Additionally, polyester blends well with other fabrics, including linen and silk, to give it more dimension and a luxurious feel.

"Poly can imitate almost anything," Schmidt says. "Velvets and linens have been around a long time and continue to be popular as well."

Mueller adds, "I see all kinds of fabrics, but polyester has been more popular because it is inexpensive and a lot of the less expensive materials are being manufactured in China."


Muddy colors blending into each other are out while bright, clear and bold are in.

"Bright teals, pinks, oranges and other pops of color are in," Dineen says. The designers also note that warm gray – "greige" – also currently trends well because it can be easily accessorized with brighter colors.


A variety of geometric patterns are in, including ogee, an hourglass shape. While not the designers’ favorite, chihuly print also trends. Among patterns fading out, they say, is the more embroidered look of suzanni.

"People still like novelty patterns like crazy bird," Dineen notes.


Headboards, benches and coffee table ottomans have become more popular options. Mueller says those who value their antiques also want to refresh them to today’s popular styles. 



This story ran in the March 2016 issue of: