You can use John Cederquist's chests of drawers and sit on his chairs, but his surrealistic imagery constantly challenges the viewer. Central to his work is the tension between two and three dimensions, disorientation and delight, and confusion and surprise-with the result that his furniture is both intellectually and aesthetically engaging.
Edward S. Cooke Jr., Yale University
John Cederquist has been called a master of deception with good reason. His furniture at once delights and "trompes" the eye, balancing reality and illusion so well that you have to step back to comprehend what you are looking at and then move up close to see how Cederquist has done it. It hasn't always been that way. When he started working in the 1970s Cederquist made "regular" pieces in the style of studio furniture introduced by Wendell Castle. But the assignment to teach a two-dimensional drawing class motivated him to rethink his direction. Challenged by questions of perspective in reconciling two- and three-dimensional forms-"why does a rectangular tabletop not look like a rectangle when you see it from a few feet away?"- he started to experiment with cardboard, combining 2-D imagery and 3-D form, and from there progressed to objects in which perception and reality collide and coalesce.
Indecision of Upholstery by Cederquist, 2010-2011. Birch plywood, pecan, maple, and Honduras mahogany; height 67, width 26, depth 27 inches. Photograph by Gary C. Zuercher.
In 1989 he was invited by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to take part in a project where artists were asked to create a piece inspired by an object in the museum's collection. The result: Le Fleuron Manquant, which plays with "crating" a John Townsend high chest of drawers. Its success led to a commission from the Smithsonian American Art Museum for another visually challenging, almost cubist, piece that likewise conceals, breaks down, and "contains" a high chest. Cederquist enjoys pointing out the links between these pieces and the plates in Thomas Chippendale's Gentleman and Cabinet-maker's Director, which offer alternative leg, chair-back, or cabinet-front designs for a given pattern-and achieve similarly disconcerting effects. His delight in perusing the 1754 copy of the Director in the Huntington's Library was palpable. The volume is among many important imprints of period pattern books the Library holds, including those of George Hepplewhite, William Morris and Company, and others.
Cederquist constructs his pieces fairly simply out of plywood, but there is nothing simple about the way he gives them "form." Every molding, every shadow, every empty space, every protruding or receding surface, every "three-dimensional" detail, is actually completely flat, created with veneer and inlay, with outlines and only the smallest details drawn with a wood-burning tool. He chooses his woods carefully, and often stains them to produce different effects: for example some of his chests of drawers have "waves" crashing through them made of stained-blue Pacific Northwest maple, which has a natural chatoyance, or shimmer, that mimics water.
If the idea of waves sounds odd, they are but one of the conceits Cederquist brings to bear in his furniture. He draws from cartoon imagery, Japanese wood-block prints (Hokusai's Great Wave at Kanagawa, for example), European marquetry, and textiles and costume. In a recent group of chairs he is working with "fabrics," creating folds of drapery out of stripes of maple and mahogany, as in the chair shown here, wryly titled Indecision of Upholstery in tribute "to decorator friends who have to deal with clients trying to choose fabrics."
Le Fleuron Manquant (The Missing Finial) by Cederquist, 1989. Birch plywood, Sitka spruce, Honduras mahogany, and koa; height 88, width 44, depth 15 inches. Photograph by Michael Sasso.
Cederquist asked to be photographed in front of Anthony van Dyck's portrait of Anne (Killigrew) Kirke, one of the grand manner portraits acquired by Henry Huntington, including five by Thomas Gainsborough, that constitute some of the richest holdings of such portraits in the world. The rendering of sumptuous fabrics, a hallmark of these works, makes them particularly relevant to Cederquist's work with drapery. "It is amazing how abstract the brushwork is when you get up close to it," he says with a grin.