Park It — in Milwaukee

A friend and I visited the Milwaukee Art Museum on Saturday and arrived in style by parking in the garage beneath the Calatrava building. The fees are a bit extravagant, yet so is the garage itself. It shares the same robust, engineered skeleton as the art spaces upstairs. MAM garageSwooping arches are anchored by bog bolts and the whole space, when unoccupied, is shades of white, with natural light filtering in from clerestory windows tucked along the upper edges of the outer walls. It is the best temporary home my car has ever known.

I found myself equally taken by a park inside the building.

Downstairs in the older 1975 building is a “chair park” where visitors are invited to try out a collection of chairs from a simple Windsor chair and Chippendale side chair to 20th century seating by star designers including Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, Gerrit Reitveld and Philippe Starck.

Though I’ve been past the chair park before, this time my friend and I took up the invitation to sit.

So did four others who were visiting the museum and we quickly started talking about which we liked and which we didn’t, which were comfortable and which were impossible.

Panton S chair

The S Chair by Verner Panton

It was the kind of free-wheeling exchange you’d never get in a gallery where whispers are the norm and no touching is allowed. And each of us had a direct connection, quite literally, with each chair we sampled. You sit and it either works or it doesn’t. Individual comfort rules. Theory and history are irrelevant.

Several of the chairs were in the galleries, including a couple in the European Design Since 1985 exhibition currently on display in the Calatrava building. There I could admire them as objects of desire and design.

By the way, the Wright reproduction in the chair park, his Peacock Chair for the Imperial Hotel, was quite comfortable, thus belying a frequent complaint about his furniture. Also high on my list was Verner Panton’s S Chair and the generous Chippendale. The big loser? Reitveld’s Berlin chair, better in the abstract than the real world of “parking it.”

–Michael Bridgeman

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