‘Tall Pulpit Chair’, 2019-2021
STANDING 2.7 METRES tall in the centre of the Meeting House at Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts, Thomas Barger’s scarlet red ‘Tall Pulpit Chair’ commands presence much like the spire of a nearby church. This piece is part of a collection of new pieces Barger recently developed that specifically respond to this historic site – steeped in the rich tradition and history of Shaker craft and spirituality.
Created using the New York-based designer’s idiosyncratic paper-pulp and resin techniques, the spire-esque seat takes on a seemingly organic appearance while still maintaining its distinct angularity. Barger initially developed this design approach by covering discarded furniture armatures with found materials. His first solo exhibition at Salon 94 Design in 2018 – predominantly populated by works in this plasticine category – catapulted the emerging talent onto the collectible design scene.
This new collection of work, informed by the Shaker movement’s proto-modernist ideals of practicality, honest design and utopianism, is presented as part of the ‘Heaven Bound’ exhibition at Hancock Shaker Village (on view until 28th November). The various works range from chairs to ornamental vessels and reinterpreted laundry shoots. Incorporating both symbolic and iconographic elements from the locale, these collage-like pieces incorporate many references. Barger adopted the same attention to detail and craftsmanship that the Shakers are renowned for, but didn’t hold back in applying his own particularly tactile amorphous and mash-up style.
Barger grew up on a cattle ranch in rural Illinois, where he struggled to find his place in a highly conservative and religious community. Coming to New York at a young age allowed him to fully access his identity and find his artistic calling, focusing more on emotional expression than functionality. Referring to this current exhibition, he reflects, “Wrapping my own journey alongside the rich context of the Shakers allowed me to confront my background in religion, design and farming. I love how they are self-sustaining, resourceful and inventive. I was excited to delve into my own understanding of utopia, which revolves around concepts found in modern architecture and Christianity. There’s a certain assuredness to both. Within my own journey as a queer man, I have resisted this reality of utopia. It’s a fascinating concept, and I’ve become curious to explore its successes and failures.”
“What is important to me isn’t so much the design aspect of the work, but highlighting the relationships I find significant in my life,” the designer explains. “I’m more excited about sharing a story than making a chair.” Historically, the Shakers followed a similar path in this deviation from oppressive Protestant structures to create a sense of heaven on earth. Placed next to traditional Shaker chairs produced in the New Lebanon community, ‘Tall Pulpit Chair’ literally and figuratively reaches for that promised land. “For this body of work, I looked up at steeples and skyscrapers, the towers of my past and present,” he concludes. “After a long process of trying to decipher these points of inspiration, my goal was to scale down these structures into a humble size, relatable to people.”
Thomas Barger ‘Heaven Bound’ at the Meeting House and the Ministry Shop at Hancock Shaker Village runs until 28th November, 2021.