Friday, February 19, 2016

Longhorns and Trust Falls

Don't bother taking the first man that's offered to you in the morning.

Walking down Grace Street at the ungodly hour of 9:15, a woman heads toward me with an obvious gray cloud over her head.

"You want a boyfriend?" she asks, clearly seething. "You can have mine!" I'm inclined to say no but that fact is confirmed when I see a guy walking down the middle of the street in her direction.

"How can you hit a tree?" she hollers just before spotting her car. "Thomas!"

"What?" he asks innocently. "I didn't see the tree!"

"How can you not see a tree? Thomaaaaaas!" she wails.

I walk faster in the opposite direction, passing a guy who says, "Good morning, pretty girl!" and making me forget all about the drama behind me.

Arriving at the Virginia Historical Society for the preview of "The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design," I mingle, check out the colonial flag collection and eat a mini-doughnut before following the president into the galleries to see the show.

You might be surprised at how well 43 chairs can chronicle the evolution of American taste, but you wouldn't be if you saw this exhibit.

From the simplicity of a Shaker rocking chair with a lovely blue and tan checkerboard seat to an elaborate throne-like chair on casters designed in 1854 for representatives to sit in inside the House of Representatives grand, formal hall, these chairs all tell a story.

And like architecture, they can reflect the styles - Gothic Revival, Egyptian Revival, Colonial Revival - popular at the time or the image of the place they were created. An 1890 chair from Texas incorporates both longhorns, ivory and Tiffany ball casters in a strikingly "Western" style chair, while a Southern Appalachian chair is evocatively made of willow branches.

Even office chairs dazzled, such as the Frank Lloyd wright chair designed for the Johnson Wax Company that echoes the rest of the building's design and color scheme.

Things got groovy in the back gallery once we got to the post-WW I era, with chairs in Lucite, plywood and patterned fiberglass. Eero Saarinen's Grasshopper American chair was beautifully sculptural and, unlike so many earlier chairs, actually looked quite comfortable.

I couldn't have been more surprised to see Frank Gehry's compressed cardboard high stool, mainly because I remember seeing all his cardboard furniture for sale at Bloomingdale's back in the '80s. What a fool I was not to buy one.

You could almost feel the good vibrations from Jon Brooks' 1970 solid elm ball chair carved from a massive piece of elm, complete with cracks and highly polished surface. It looked like the kind of thing created at a commune while listening to Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers" album and smoking pot with a couple of hippie chicks breastfeeding their babies on a blanket.

That's what I mean about the exhibit coming across like a cultural history lesson (only way more enjoyable). As society eased up on rules, even chairs morphed into something more comfortable, more colorful and more likely to show up in the everyday person's home and not just the well-off.

Richmond, we keep getting cooler. This is just the kind of show that people from D.C. are going to drive down to see because of its uniqueness and hip factor. These are some amazingly cool chairs.

When I left the Historical Society, I took a meandering walk, part of which took me down Broad Street and past Assado, where their sign read, "Taco fact #1: Tacos are healthier than crystal meth."

Certain that would bring in lots of business, I was equally impressed with Rumors Boutique's sign, reading, "How do snakes know who their real friends are if they can't do trust falls?"

That's a one-two punch of sign wisdom you don't see just every day.

My walk eventually deposited me at the handsome new VCU Cabell Library where a friend who works there had offered me a tour. Having only been inside the auditorium, why wouldn't I want to see what years of construction had wrought?

Holy, moley, Batman, this is a library like none you've ever seen before.

The now-shuttered Anderson Gallery's collection lives here now and piece by piece, some of it is being installed on the walls. A couple of sublime Theresa Pollaks here, a six-panel Gerry Donato there, it's a who's who of the talent that taught at VCU.

Views like you can't imagine (unless, perhaps, you lived in the Prestwould) provide a bird's eye view of the top of the Cathedral, the rooftop garden and wind turbine on top of the Pollak Building and the sweep of the Compass (sadly, Bad Hackysack Guy was nowhere to be seen).

A terrace on the third floor seemed like the ultimate library destination until I saw the reading porch full of rockers with - wait for it - windows that open and sun streaming in them. Be still, my heart.

White boards were everywhere, even on that porch, because apparently today's students use them like we used to use notebooks and scrap paper. "We can't have enough white boards," my library friend shared.

Everywhere we went, students were sprawled out, some asleep, many checking their phones, some companionably studying in small groups but not interacting (this is called "parallel play" when you're talking about toddlers), and, another favorite, the silent floor, where it truly sounded like the libraries of my youth.

For me, the Innovative Media Center might as well have been from a sci-fi movie, with laser printers where my friend informed me a med student could create a replica of a human heart while an art student made a shirt sleeve out of LED lights.

There were sewing machines, record players so students could digitize their vinyl collection and, yes, even a gaming room. Most adorable was a curio cabinet of things known only to students' parents and fans of history: slide carousels, film projectors, ViewMasters. All the stuff the AV geeks used to live for, now locked up in a museum-like display.

But that's because this library is geared to a different generation, one that had to get the hang of revolving doors on the new entrance and liked being asked to test out various chair styles and vote on their favorite before final decisions were made. One that is the reason why the library Starbucks is in the top four in the entire country.

And to think we used to go to the library solely to look for books. How hopelessly old-fashioned.

Afterwards, we strolled over to 821 Cafe for lunch - I had black bean nachos because they're healthier than crystal meth while she chose the most fattening sandwich she could conceive of, according to her - and some non-library conversation, finishing out for me a full but fabulous Friday around the city.

You know, just checking out the excellent new chair exhibit and VCU's impressive LEED-certified library, no big deal.

And, no, I don't want Thomas or any man who can't see a tree, or even the forest for it. Thanks, anyway.

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