Art Gallery’s Hume Furniture Study Center settles into West Campus home

John Stuart Gordon places a drawer into an antique armoire at the new furniture study center.
John Stuart Gordon, the Benjamin Attmore Hewitt Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts, said the new furniture study center at West Campus was designed to be a “user friendly” space for teaching and research.

Curator Patricia Kane opened the drawer of a sturdy 18th-century Connecticut River Valley sunflower chest. She noted that the drawer’s sides are constructed of thick oak.

This 17th-century joined furniture is really hearty and heavy,” she said. “The thickness of these drawer sides is amazing.”

It is unknown when the sunflower chest — so-called due to the flower carvings that decorate its front panel — arrived at Yale. It was stored for a time at the Yale School of Art. Today, it resides at the Yale University Art Gallery’s (YUAG) newly opened Leslie P. and George H. Hume Furniture Study Center on Yale’s West Campus along with more than 1,300 examples of American furniture and wooden decorative pieces dating from 1650 to the present.

Kane, the Friends of American Arts Curator of American Decorative Arts, turned to an 18th-century high chest of drawers across the aisle made by John Townsend, who was one of the premier cabinetmakers in Newport, Rhode Island. She pointed to the elegant carved shell decorating the mahogany chest, a typical feature of Newport furniture of the period. She noted that, in contrast to the older sunflower chest’s heavy drawers, the sides of the high chest’s drawers are thin and lightweight.

This is the kind of thing that furniture scholars study,” she said.

She drew attention to the chest’s distinctive “claw-and-ball feet,” noting the airy space that Townsend elegantly carved between the talons and the balls.

Collectors gravitate to these aspects of Townsend’s work,” she said.

This kind of close examination and teaching will happen regularly at the new furniture study center, which opened Sept. 10. The study center, which was founded in 1959 by former curator Meyric R. Rogers, was relocated to West Campus from its original home at 149 York St. in downtown New Haven. The relocation represents the gallery’s transformation into a leading destination and resource for the study of American furniture, said Stephanie Wiles, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the art gallery.

A colorfully striped sofa on display.
Objects on display are arranged chronologically by form.

What was for decades a ‘hidden gem’ in a basement space one block from the museum is now a spacious, state-of-the-art facility and a truly dynamic center for appreciation, teaching, and learning,” Wiles said. “The visitor experience combines close looking with a deep dive into stylistic considerations and an enjoyable lesson in how these objects were made.”

The 17,850 square-foot facility features two levels: a ground floor where cupboards, chests, sideboards, desks and other large objects are arranged in long rows chronologically by form, and a mezzanine level that houses smaller pieces, such as chairs, tables, and looking glasses.

It’s magical up there,” said Kane of the mezzanine, which offers a bird’s-eye view of the heavier pieces displayed below.

The furniture study space

About half of the objects are part of the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, which is renowned for its strength in the colonial and early Federal periods. More than 200 of the heavier objects are stored on moveable pallets to facilitate their use for teaching and scholarship.

We wanted to make this space is as user friendly as possible for the broad range of constituents who will utilize it,” said John Stuart Gordon, the Benjamin Attmore Hewitt Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts.

Interpretive displays interspersed on both levels provide visitors insights into various aspects of furniture making. One describes the kinds of joints used in making furniture, such as dovetail and mortise and tenon joints, and another describes the process of building a table beginning with the felling of a tree.

Seminar spaces are located at the front of the facility and on the mezzanine. The ground-floor space is set against the backdrop of 30 examples of architectural woodwork arrayed on the study center’s two-story front wall. Most of the objects in the display have been kept in storage since the 1930s, Kane explained.

An area just inside the study center’s entrance provides space for workshops and demonstrations by furniture makers and craftsmen, which were popular events at the York Street location. The space features a collection of historical tools and workbench.  

We wanted to put this material right in the window to foreground the idea that making is integral to this space and to our understanding of the furniture here,” Gordon said. “We want to honor the craftsmen who made this material and continue to make it today.”

wooden decorative pieces on display
The study center features a display of wooden decorative pieces often crafted using the same techniques that shop joiners employed centuries ago to make furniture.

The study center also houses the Bass Sack Family Archive, which includes about 10,000 photographs, a 300-volume library, and 225 binders of comparative studies of furniture forms from the record of Israel Sack, Inc. — a family-owned business that was a premier vendor for early American furniture until it closed in 2002. The business is widely credited with making American antique furniture as commercially appealing as furniture made in Europe.

To have the archive adjacent to the collections is a boon to furniture scholars,” Kane said.

The study center’s proximity to other YUAG departments and resources at West Campus, such as the Margaret and Angus Wurtele Study Center, the conservation lab at the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, and photography studio will encourage collaboration and improve efficiency, Gordon said.

Previously, if we needed to have a piece touched up and photographed for any reason, it involved bringing in a crew of art handlers, creating special packaging, putting the object on a truck, transporting it to two maybe three different facilities,” Gordon said. “Now we’re under the same roof as our photography and conservation labs. It has streamlined how we treat and document our collections, but it also has ecological ramifications because we’re not relying on packaging materials and trucks.”

Free public tours of the Hume Furniture Study Center take place on Fridays at 12:20 p.m. Express shuttle service to West Campus leaves from the gallery at noon and return service departs West Campus at 1:30 p.m. For details on weekly tours and special thematic tours, visit the Yale University Art Gallery upcoming events page

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548