“The Modern Table” at The Riffe Gallery

By Sara Pearce

Workmen were setting up large, plastic-topped folding tables outside the Riffe Gallery in Columbus just as I began wandering through “The Modern Table” exhibition. I could see them through the gallery’s large glass windows. The sight provided a perfect juxtaposition: ugly, mass-produced tables versus beautifully designed, often handcrafted ones.

The exhibit uses the table as a stepping off point to explore the state of furniture design throughout, well, the state. The makers include fine artists, industrial and product designers, engineers, furniture makers, architects, and a few people with no background in design/art/etc. who turned to furniture making.

There are coffee tables, dining room tables, end tables, desks, and a smattering of chairs, stools and benches. They are made from steel, glass, wood, gypsum, plywood, aluminum, concrete, PVC, and reclaimed materials such as concrete and metal.

Their design reflects myriad trends and influences, from industrial chic and Ikea to mid-century mod and Shaker. That range is one of the things that makes the exhibit interesting, because even though there are a few threads connecting pieces, generally, it’s a free for all.

I gravitate to rough-hewn tables such as Kevin Shahan’s “Lazy D Coffee Table,” a low-slung, blue and gray table that, when looked at head on, resembles the letter D turned on its belly. The Kent artist, whose company has the tongue-in-cheek name Swanky Design Studio, used reclaimed steel for the sculptural piece, which rests on tiny, slightly curved metal legs. Exposed metal along the edges and obvious seams give it the feel of something pulled out of a landfill, but it is far too polished for that.

A few feet away, stands Jason Radcliffe’s “Mouse Desk,” my favorite piece in the exhibit. It is a sleek, seemingly simple design of stainless steel – similar to a Parsons table, but slimmer in profile and sleeker in design. There is elegance in its construction, which reflects Radcliffe’s background as a steel fabricator in Cleveland. The mitered corners on the front are the only hint of a narrow drawer hidden within. A clever touch that I didn’t find out about until later, when I happened to stroll into Grid Furnishings on High Street.

It turns out that the store’s owner – Tim Friar – curated the exhibit for the Ohio Arts Council. I was drawn into the shop by a table in the window – “Bundle Side Table” – which I had just seen in the exhibit.

The petite table by Cincinnati maker Tim Karoleff of Ampersand has a circular, white Corian top resting on a bundle of rounded wooden legs that are gathered together through a white Corian disc a few inches below the table’s top. The leg ends poke through the top, creating a geometric series of dots that become inlays. It is smart and fun.

Equally witty are two examples of Virginia Birchfield’s “Sculptural End Table.” The Mt. Vernon designer tops blackened steel cubes with thin cross sections of tulip wood that loosely resemble a paisley print. It is a bold nod to highly decorative furniture of the past, and its combination of industrial and natural materials perfectly reflects the current mood in furniture making and design.

There are a number of similar combinations throughout the exhibit. Wood and steel are paired in Cincinnatian Brad Musuraca’s minimalist, Japanese-tinged “Roberts Stool.” White oak, aluminum, stainless steel and glass are used in “Fold,” a glass-topped table by Michael Ina of Lyndhurst that rests on four diagonal legs that look as though they could collapse at any moment.

While many makers have embraced a back-to-the-earth, wholly handcrafted ethic, just as many are toying with new technology – computer assisted design, 3-D printing – to achieve something fresh and artful. Both ends of the spectrum are represented, as is the middle in which computer design assists designers in the creation of pieces that are ultimately hand crafted.

As I left the gallery, and walked past the plastic tables in the building’s lobby, I was comforted in the knowledge that the state of furniture design in Ohio is quite healthy.


“The Modern Table: Ohio Furniture Designers,” through Jan. 12, 2014. 10a-4p Tuesday, 10a-5:30p Friday, 10a-8p Thursday, noon-4p Saturday & Sunday. Closed Dec. 24-25, and Jan. 1. Free admission. Ohio Arts Council’s Riffe Gallery, Rhodes State Office Tower, 30 E. Broad St., Columbus, OH 43215. 614-644-9624, HYPERLINK “http://www.oac.state.oh.us/riffe/” www.oac.state.oh.us/riffe/

Sara Pearce is a Cincinnati-based writer and artist.

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