In reimagining a classic piece of midcentury furniture, Associate Professor of Art and Architecture Kirin Makker and project interns Abbey Frederick ’20 and E. Ainsley Rhodes ’19 are giving voice to “a womb narrative common to human experience but largely under-diagnosed, poorly studied and lacking in successful treatments: pelvic inflammatory disease.”
As Makker writes on the project website, Eero Saarinen’s chair is “a cultural icon of midcentury modern design…routinely employed as a power prop in male spaces.” With The Womb Chair Speaks, Makker is taking on “the cultural and physical mythologies of the womb” to reclaim the chair “from its narrow associations with sexual compliance and male repose” and expose the “typically invisible uterine narrative, one of struggle, difficulty, pain, violence and loss.”
In addressing pervasive but marginalized disease through a piece of art, the project has led to “research on the history of women’s health, women’s health activism, modernist design and theoretical texts about space and culture,” Frederick says. “It has been an exciting challenge to communicate the spirit of this project through the mediums of felt and thread: essentially, to make the womb chair ‘speak’ for itself.”
Makker, Frederick and Rhodes are using felted wool applique, fibre art textures and embroidery, the abstract explains, to refashion the chair’s “form and surfaces to recast, retool, and rerender the womb as a uterus in biological operation…[T]he chair’s layered red textiles, articulated stitching, and re-forming will reveal a womb that has managed three decades of pelvic inflammatory disease….The womb ceases to be a space of compliance, titillation and repose, and instead becomes a site of resilience and complex narrative and memory.”
Using the chair’s accompanying footstool as a canvas, they have “been working to establish a unified ‘language’ in felt,” including “a ‘vocabulary’ of felt objects and textures which can be made repeatedly and arranged in all kinds of ways,” Frederick says. She and Rhodes “created dozens of felt models and have begun to establish our vocabulary,” which includes felt flowers “as well as motifs like ‘veins’ and ‘scarring’ (couching) and clusters of French knots.”
For the month of September, as part of the HWS Faculty Show, the Womb Chair Speaks will be on display as a work-in-process in the Solarium Gallery at Houghton House. Makker and her interns will be working on the chair intermittently throughout the month. When the Chair is finally completed (anticipated summer 2019), it will be installed as part of a larger art installation on invisible illness, on view at various art and architecture galleries in the region.
Follow the project’s progress on Instagram.