Seeing the Peacock Feathers

The Andrew W. Mellon Summer Internship Program offers college students an opportunity to work in the Museum on significant projects. The goal of the program is to provide an overview of museum functions and in-depth experience working in the conservation, curatorial, education, or registration departments. Several of our interns from 2013 have contributed their reflections.

For a good portion of my internship with the RISD Museum’s Decorative Arts and Design Department, I have been writing labels for the furniture pieces that will be showcased in the upcoming exhibition Making It in America. Through a variety of American paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts pieces, the exhibition will tell the tale of achieving prosperity in the United States, as well as feature the great craftsmanship and aesthetic choices of early American designers on their road to recognition as praised “makers.”

The majority of the decorative arts pieces in the show come from Pendleton House, the Museum’s wing dedicated to American decorative arts and design. For those unfamiliar with Pendleton House, it was intended to replicate the 1799 house Charles Pendleton lived in between 1897 and 1904. Although the rooms do not completely correspond to specific historical time periods, the house does read as an ode to early interest in preserving American decorative arts. Pendleton House is considered the first American decorative arts wing of any museum in the country. For many of these pieces, this is the first time they will leave the Pendleton House nest, where they’ve been safely confined over 100 years. In the sleek Chace gallery setting, these great works will tell their stories in a fresh environment that will include contemporary testimony from faculty and local artists about the processes of constructing these pieces and roles they play in the history of design.


As a major in furniture design and a summer intern, I had the opportunity to write one of the “makers” captions, which was exciting not only because I got to revisit a familiar object but also because I was able to discover a great deal more when I considered the object apart from the room in which it’s typically placed. The act of looking closely is a vital part of creating a piece, and my background gives me a context to understand furniture objects, including the time and energy dedicated to the construction process and the steps involved. As a student, I have learned that when designing anything, it is very important to consider all aspects of the product and to act decisively and critically while making design choices, so with these ideas in mind I chose to write about the Elastic armchair by Samuel Gragg.

RISDM 85-024

Samuel Gragg
American, 1772-ca. 1855
Elastic Armchair, ca. 1808
Oak, hickory, maple, and beech
85.1 x 51.4 x 63.5 cm (33 1/2 x 20 5/16 x 25 inches)
Gift of the Wunsch Americana Foundation, Inc. 85.024

The Elastic armchair is normally located on the top floor of Pendleton House and featured in a parlor or living-room scene. Very different from this set up, in the exhibition the piece will be placed next to a classic Windsor armchair with a continuous bentwood back, since Samuel Gragg originally worked as a Windsor chair maker and drew inspiration from that iconic form. Patented in 1808, the Elastic chair is a clear indicator of fine craft and thought, integrating the recent technology in bentwood lamination with design and painted details referencing classical imagery, such as a Greek klismos chair and peacock feathers. The piece offers a great deal of information to the viewer in a very refined way, and was made using the steam-bending technique that well-known designers John Henry Belter and Michael Thonet popularized about 50 years later.

photo (41)

Samuel Gragg, Elastic Armchair (detail), ca. 1808. Gift of the Wunsch Americana Foundation, Inc.

By approaching the object outside of its normal context, I now have a completely different impression of Elastic chair. One of my favorite features, which I didn’t notice before, is the front two feet, which are shaped to resemble animal hooves. The addition of these hooves is something very exciting that in my opinion adds a surprising charm and depth. Noticing this detail at a second glance, away from the camouflage of the chair’s normal setting, I can only imagine what new conversations and rediscoveries will emerge regarding other pieces featured in Making It in America.


Alicia Valencia RISD BFA 2015, Furniture
Brown University BA, 2015