Visual Arts

More than miniatures: Children’s collectible chairs envelop and embrace

When most people think of children’s furniture, they typically think of garish, toy-like pieces that barely make it to the hand-me-down stage. But one exhibition in Little Haiti’s Gallery Diet hopes to change the conversation on how we see design for kids, with an exhibition on collectible children’s furniture.

“Wrap Your Arms Around Me” covers this overlooked area of design with a selection of objects from the 1940s to the present day. The exhibition is presented in collaboration with Kinder Modern, a New York-based gallery dedicated to historical children’s design.

Although Gallery Diet largely specializes in contemporary art, the space recently has made waves in design, representing the likes of Miami’s Emmett Moore and Brooklyn’s Katie Stout, whose works blur the lines between design and art.

This venture into children’s design is unique for the gallery. Founder Nina Johnson-Milewski says there has been no Miami precedent for an exhibition like this, which features furniture makers using ingenious design solutions to address the needs of children.

“I think for the designers, it really is a fundamental place to start; it has to be useful, it has to be scaled appropriately, and it has to be durable,” says Johnson-Milewski.

The exhibition title derives from a recurring motif in the objects on view. Many of the works are intended to envelop and contour to children’s bodies, much in the same way a mother or father would embrace a child. That’s most evident in works like Bernard Holdaway’s Tomtom Chair and Louis Avril’s Desk and Chair, mid-century works that both feature sharp circular backs that wrap around the children seated in them.

While works on display cover a period of 70 years, themes and forms such as cutouts and rounded edges crop up throughout the decades. A desk set designed in the 1950s by Bopita in the Netherlands, a U.S.S.R. rocking chair designed by Albrecht Lange and Hans Mitzlaff in the 1960s and colored plywood chairs designed by Isku Kinder-Link in the 1990s all carry similar design typologies.

Some of the objects are children’s versions of furniture intended for adults. One example is Hand Chair, a tyke-size version of an anthropomorphic chair resembling a human hand inspired by a seat originally created by artist Pedro Friedeberg in the 1960s. Mod Chair, attributed to the designer Eero Aarnio (maker of the famous Egg chair), is a sleek, rounded, low-profile pod that appears to be a smaller prototype of the Formula chair, a Formula 1 racing-inspired armchair for adults.

Other objects don’t seem to be furniture at all. In particular, two chairs by Henner Kuckuck appear more like industrial sculptures than seating for tots. White Formica & Rubber Edge Chair resembles a gadget from a bygone era, while Black Rubber Chair has a foreboding, dark form that can be converted from a seat to a round column by adjusting a metal lever.

Though much of the exhibition focuses on historical pieces, the exhibit includes several new works. Sarti Shani Hay’s Crocodiles (2010) are large, white floor pillows that figuratively interpret the reptile, while Philippe Nacson’s Mini Ant Chair (2016) takes the insect’s form into abstracted, circular shapes to form a lounge chair.

Lucas Maassen touches on contemporary topics related to gender with a pair of handmade miniature chairs, one designed for girls and the other for boys. The girls’s chair features a rectangular cutout in the center of the seat’s edge, while the boy’s chair features a small rectangular protrusion extending the bottom of the chair. Titled “La Chaise — Le Chaise,” the chairs touch on issues of gender in ways that contemporary design does not normally address. (The title references the French language’s gendered phrasing of objects.)

Accompanying the design works are new paintings from Michael Clifford and Nate Heiges. Drawing inspiration from grade school activities like recess and homework, Clifford’s deliberately crude painting style feels at home in the exhibition, likely because his deliberately slapdash aesthetic comes off as playful here rather than with his usual punk attitude. The strongest of the works, “After School,” depicts a wobbly chain-link fence engulfing the field of view atop a cloudy blue sky, creating a strange and dreamy landscape.

As a mother herself, Johnson-Milewski sees the exhibition as an opportunity to show how we can inspire children by introducing them to thoughtful design at a young age.

“Of course we need kids to live with things that are functional, but we also want them to be informed aesthetically. We want them to be surrounded by objects that look to ask the same questions we want to ask ourselves when we look at art.”

This exhibition marks the end of a chapter for Gallery Diet. Following the closing of this exhibition on Sept. 3, the gallery name will change to Nina Johnson, making its founder the namesake of the space originally opened in Wynwood in 2007.

IF YOU GO

What: “Wrap Your Arms Around Me,” collaborative show of historic and collectible children’s furniture.

Where: Gallery Diet, 6315 NW Second Ave., Little Haiti

Through: Sept. 3

Info: 305-571-2288; gallerydiet.com

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