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The Riggins Lecture in Art: Edward S. Cooke, Jr., Yale University

October 23, 2014 @ 5:30 pm - 7:00 pm

“The Inside Story: Materiality and Agency in Wooden Chests”

Formal analysis and a focus upon external, visible aesthetic decoration has dominated the study of historic material culture, especially furniture.  Such an emphasis leads naturally to a hierarchical sense in which an idealized style is identified and then charted as it moves linearly outwards from the center to the periphery.  Within a colonial structure, the emphasis has often been placed on cultural lag, imitation, and misunderstanding.  But what happens when one begins from the inside, to look at the choice of materials and techniques from a wide variety of possibilities and come to grips with an object on its own terms?  What can be learned from an understanding of the interior of an object and then moving outwards?

This talk will focus upon two different kinds of case furniture: a chest of drawers made in rural New England in 1795 and a cabinet made in the Nagasaki area of Japan around 1600.  Close attention to the physical evidence of these works, and comparison to related examples, documents the movement of material ideas across time and space, reveals a greater sense of asymmetries within the colonial systems of the past, and allows for the recovery of agency in the acts of makers.

Edward S. Cooke, Jr., the Charles F. Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts in the Department of the History of Art at Yale University, focuses upon American material culture and decorative arts. His Making Furniture in Pre-industrial America: The Social Economy of Newtown and Woodbury, Connecticut explores the artisanal world of colonial and early national America, while some of his work on modern craft has historicized and explicated more recent forms of production. This can be seen in his role as founding co-editor of The Journal of Modern Craft as well as his work as co-curator and publication author of five different exhibitions: New American Furniture (Museum of Fine Arts, 1989); Inspiring Reform: Boston’s Arts and Crafts Movement (Davis Museum, Wellesley College, 1997); Wood Turning in North America Since 1930 (Yale University Art Gallery, 2001); The Maker’s Hand: American Studio Furniture, 1940-1990 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2003); and Inspired by China: Contemporary Furnituremakers Explore Chinese Traditions (Peabody Essex Museum, 2006).


Left: chest of drawers, Bates How, New Marlborough, Massachusetts, 1795; cherry, white pine.

Right: cabinet, Nagasaki area, ca. 1600; hinoki cypress, black urushi lacquer, gold maki-e lacquer, mother-of-pearl inlay, copper mounts.


October 23, 2014
5:30 pm - 7:00 pm
Event Category:


Dorothy Verkerk