Gertrude Stein’s 1914 book, Tender Buttons, begins, “A carafe, that is a blind glass.” She goes on to depict chairs, cushions, and other domestic items and spaces in this experimental, admittedly perplexing prose. The book is often read as a metaphor for sexual intimacy — including hints of her relationship with Alice B. Toklas — and as a treatise on queer domesticity. Art dealer Jacqueline Sullivan took Stein’s book as an invitation to conduct a similar exercise: to scrutinize the objects we surround ourselves with until they become unfamiliar and surprising. “Thinking about a chair or glass or these really banal things in an almost alien way was interesting to me,” she says. Stein’s poetry, bewildering as it is, “makes you excited and curious” and inspired “Substance in a Cushion,” the inaugural exhibition at Sullivan’s eponymous Tribeca gallery, which opened this week on the fourth floor of 52 Walker.
The exhibition, which features both vintage and new furniture, encapsulates a 300-year time span (the oldest piece is a late-17th-century wooden chair from Yorkshire, and the newest were commissioned for the show). For Sullivan, the exhibit represents the “things that I love all coming together” — less a didactic exercise than one motivated by “what kind of feels right.” She worked with the London-based creative consultant Ruby Woodhouse and vintage-furniture sourcer Abel Sloane on the collection, which feels cohesive despite its historic and stylistic range. All of the items in the show are peers; they reflect an intense dedication to craftsmanship, ideas, and materials, whether it’s a 1970s plywood cabinet by the Belgian brutalist architect Juliaan Lampens or a crimson resin chair by Gaetano Pesce from 2002. As Sullivan writes in a publication accompanying the show, “When I think about furniture and objects, I think about presence, of collecting, of use … They exist as material that guides us, instructs us, consoles us, and inspires curiosity and wonder. They become anchors to an otherwise confusing yet wildly expansive human experience.”
For the contemporary designers in the exhibition, Sullivan invited them to approach domestic objects the way Stein did. The resulting pieces include extruded-clay tulipieres by Philadelphia-based ceramicist Jordan McDonald that are inspired by industrial stoves, borosilicate-glass carafes shaped like surreal plants and sea creatures by the Italian designer Valentina Cameranesi Sgroi, and tactile wax-painted handmade paper lamps by the Danish designers Christian and Jade. But the sensibility of the show is perhaps best represented by Kristin Dickson-Okuda’s contribution: She dressed a series of wood-and-rush chairs designed by Philip Webb for William Morris in 1865 with blush-pink silk armrests tied on with long black ribbon, slip-on knitted leg warmers, taffeta poufs, and a long veil. Dickson-Okuda — who’s known for the Los Angeles boutique Iko Iko and her scrunchielike cord covers — describes it as “clothing that lets the chair maintain its presence.” Sullivan also brought a 19th-century Flemish tapestry and Josef Hoffmann chairs from her personal collection, which contribute to the overall experience of the show as a celebration of handmade design.
The literary and historical inspirations for her first show come from Sullivan’s own background: She grew up going to the Brimfield Antique Market with her mother, studied poetry alongside design history, and worked at the Cooper Hewitt before deciding to open her gallery. She wants her space to be for anyone, a place where visitors can learn about design history and, above all, enjoy the objects. As Sullivan walked me through the exhibition, we lingered longest on a 19th-century cabinet made from ebonized wood and adorned with leather panels embossed with a metallic floral pattern. It most likely would have been used to store a floral arrangement. Looking at a piece of furniture dedicated to just that moment of contemplation echoed the experience of the gallery itself: as a space that invites us to dwell on exceedingly beautiful, surprising things.