Essay ǀ Furniture at the Yale Center for British Art: A Selection

While the Yale Center for British Art is internationally recognized for its landmark building, designed by Louis I. Kahn (1901–1974), the history of the Center’s furniture is less well known. Officially hired after Kahn’s death, the architect and interior designer Benjamin Baldwin (1913–1993) was known to be Kahn’s choice to furnish the new building, which opened to the public in 1977. Described by Kahn as "the dean of American interior designers," Baldwin was a designer with an extensive portfolio of elegant residential and commercial interiors—flowing spaces that had an emphasis on simplicity, with a particular consideration for the inclusion of fine art. He also designed a furniture line and was highly versed in the realm of garden design. 

The designers and manufacturers that Baldwin chose to work with reflect this aesthetic. They included Don Chadwick (born 1936), whose modular seating had recently debuted with the manufacturer Herman Miller. This versatile, comfortable seating compliments the domestic interior that Baldwin strove to create throughout the galleries. Ward Bennett (1917–2003), the sole designer for Brickel Associates, produced an innovative collection of chairs that included the Lounge Chair-Straight Line, which is featured in the Center’s library and offices. Claud Bunyard (1910–2005), creator of the CB10 Chair, a reinterpretation of the traditional Windsor chair, remains a constant throughout the galleries and common areas. Baldwin also included the Sofabed from CI Designs, and Kahn’s succeeding architects, Anthony Pellecchia (born 1940) and Marshall Meyers (1931–2001), designed several pieces of oak furniture for the galleries. The Center was the final building designed by Kahn, and the furniture chosen by Baldwin can be seen as an integral part of this final chapter in Kahn’s career. 

This exhibition takes place in the Lecture Hall Lobby, a space Kahn designated as a connection between the Center’s Lecture Hall and the Lower Court, the exterior sunken courtyard. This space is unique in that it is the only externally viewable lower-level space at the Center. Like the galleries upstairs, there are architectural elements such as concrete and glass, which envelop the room. The steps that lead from Chapel Street down to the Lower Court open to brick flooring, measuring 40 ft. square, similar in plan to both the Entrance Court and portico. This choice in flooring is indicative of the transitional space between the outside world and the inner walls of the Center. 

Claud Bunyard’s CB10 Chair

Designed by Bunyard in 1963, the CB10 Chair is a reinterpretation of the traditional Windsor chair and can be seen throughout the Center’s galleries, libraries, offices, and other common areas.

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Don Chadwick’s Modular Seating

Chadwick’s modular seating debuted with the furniture manufacturer Herman Miller in 1974. The Center has examples of both the straight module and the 30-degree inside module.

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Pellecchia and Meyers’ Oak Furniture

Pellecchia and Meyers designed white oak planters, featuring an interior construction of copper flashing and fiberglass, and a series of a series of oak tables and benches, all originally placed in the Entrance Court.

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Ward Bennett’s Lounge Chair-Straight Line

Ward Bennett was the sole designer for the furniture manufacturer Brickel Associates in New York from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s. In those years, Bennett designed many different forms of seating and other furniture under the direction of Brickel, including this chair. Some of the lounge chairs are still in use today throughout the Center’s library and offices.

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CI Design’s Sofabed

The 124 Sofabed by CI Designs is one of the Center's unique pieces of furniture. For decades, this sofa could be found in the sublevel ladies’ restroom lounge area.

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The Center’s furniture, long familiar to staff and visitors, attests to the unique collaboration between Kahn and Baldwin, who honored the architect of the museum with his selection. In many ways, there is a seamless architectural union between these objects and the building’s fabric—but the pieces of furniture can now be viewed and admired in their own right as prime examples of modernist art and design. 

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Furniture at the Yale Center for British Art: A Selection, Yale Center for British Art, photo by Rachel Hellerich