The Getty Museum’s exhibition Silk and Swan Feathers: A Luxurious Eighteenth-Century Armchair presents a focused look at a singular object. This magnificent French armchair embodies the era’s sensibilities towards style and comfort. In a time often characterized by opulence, this silk-upholstered and swan down-stuffed chair would have been a sumptuous seat. Made for a country château, rather than Versailles or a Parisian townhouse, this armchair reflects the preferred style of aristocrats away from court. A product of many craftsmen—from joiners to upholsterers to varnishers—the armchair has managed to survive nearly intact, though in a fragile state, through the centuries.
Acquired by Getty in 1988, this is the first time the chair has been featured in an exhibition in North America. However, before it could go on view, it needed to be conserved. This meant that a team of over nine people spent many hundreds of hours meticulously studying, x-raying, cleaning, and protecting the chair.
The delicate state of its silk upholstery had largely relegated the chair to storage since its arrival at Getty. In the mid-2000s, it was the subject of intense research and upholstery conservation in preparation for an exhibition in France, but its fragility and light sensitivity precluded further display for many years.
It is extremely rare for furniture from this time period to retain its original finish and upholstery. As such, this chair serves as an archaeological record of eighteenth-century craftsmanship. Rather than re-upholstering the chair in a modern substitute fabric, Getty chose to retain the original materials. Preserving the chair in its current state allows it to be presented as both a work of art and an important artifact in understanding the history of furniture making.
To get the chair ready to be seen by the public, we had to research its ownership, find the most appropriate way to clean it, and design a space that would bring attention to the piece.
A Chair Fit for a Duchess: Researching Its History
To understand the chair’s significance, it helps to know who it was made for. In researching its history, I learned that Louise Honorine Crozat du Châtel, duchesse de Choiseul, had possibly owned the chair. Getty curator Charissa Bremer-David suggests this chair may have belonged to her, where it sat in her boudoir at the Château de Chanteloup in 1785.
Acknowledging the patron, or patroness, in the exhibition is crucial to contextualizing who exactly was setting trends and dictating taste in 18th-century France. For a work of art like this, it can be difficult to discern precisely who the “artist” is. Georges Jacob carved the frame, but who chose the silk? Who decided on the white finish on the wood or the gilded nail heads? Many of these decisions could be made by the individual craftsmen working on the object, or they could have been dictated by the patron to match a specific design scheme. By focusing on the patron—maybe the duchess—we can grant some credit where credit is due for the overall appearance of the chair.
~ Alec Moore, Sculpture & Decorative Arts
Cleaning the Frame (Ever So Carefully)
When I first saw the chair in the conservation lab, my eye was drawn to the dark patches of dirt which had become ingrained in the surface of the frame. The goal for conservation treatment wasn’t to make the chair look new again, because this would involve removing or covering up the original material. The challenge was to figure out how to clean off the dirt without affecting the finish—a white distemper paint sealed with a transparent, though now yellowed, varnish.
It’s important for conservators to have a strong foundation in chemistry in order to understand how cleaning solutions may affect an artwork. I carefully prepared and tested over 25 custom blended cleaning solutions before moving forward on an overall cleaning. A lot of these tests were performed with the aid of a microscope so I could tell when changes in the cleaning solution started removing layers of finish and immediately stop. Once the appropriate mixture was found, we used hand-rolled cotton swabs (some as small as a pen tip) to remove the dirt and reveal the delicate finish. The meticulous process required focus and patience, but spending so much time in close contact with the armchair rewarded me with a sense of connection to the craftsmanship that went into making the piece over two centuries ago.
To share with the public what I learned during the cleaning process, I made a replica of a portion of the chair’s frame. I used traditional carving tools to create the walnut base, and then followed recipes from an eighteenth-century French treatise on furniture finish to make parchment glue, gesso, paint, and varnish. I learned how to make the perfect strength glue, when to apply layers of gesso, and how important it is to grind pigments to create a brilliant, smooth finish.
~ Karen Bishop, Decorative Arts & Sculpture Conservation
Designing the Display
This exhibition is unique in its focus on a singular artifact, the armchair. All aspects and details of communication, interpretation, and spatial experience have been designed to aid and enhance the understanding of this one object and its historic context. The design details range from selecting colors for promotional graphics and gallery walls to typesetting the graphic panels and labels. The gallery walls are a warm green inspired by period interiors, paired with accent colors of light pink and medium gray woven through the graphics and spatial elements.
When visitors first enter the gallery, they will see a large wall mural that shows an illustration of a furniture workshop in 18th-century Paris that provides historic context of the chair’s making. The armchair is placed in the center of the gallery, featured in a large case. Surrounding the armchair are labels that provide further details for the visitor to read while having the opportunity to see the star object up close. In addition, there are two other large-scale graphics within the gallery space. The first one shows a timeline that communicates the armchair’s history, and the other one details the material and techniques employed to craft the chair.
I worked with my fellow designers to create the gallery graphics while also resolving their placement spatially. I had to think about the amount of text and visual information provided and worked to ensure that the content on the panels was logically laid out. It took time to determine the appropriate font sizes for the titles and text, where the images should be placed, and which colors to choose. Finally, we had to ensure that the panel sizes were well juxtaposed with all other interpretive and didactic materials in the gallery while keeping the armchair the main focus.
~ Sudha Palepu, Design