E very Friday at 12:30 p.m., visitors gather in the Yale University Art Gallery lobby, only to be led back out the front door, up Chapel Street, left onto York, then down a segmented flight of stairs at address 149.
The destination at the end of this short walk? The past, now in technicolor.
It’s the “Furniture Study,” a piece of the Mabel Brady Garvan collection, which is part of the YUAG’s broader American Decorative Arts collection, and it’s a doozy. Those stairs at 149 York lead to a subterranean warehouse filled with about a thousand precious, ornate pieces of Americana: clocks, cupboards, desks, tables, chairs and other means of achieving decorous utility spanning the 17th to 21st centuries. Walking through the long rows of surprisingly well-preserved historical items is like exploring the ultimate estate sale of “the good stuff.”
The total holdings are much, much larger than what’s on display, and in fact they were larger right from the start. In 1930, Francis Garvan, a member of Yale’s class of 1897, gifted 10,000 pieces of furniture, silver, ceramics, glass work and prints in honor of his wife, Mabel Brady Garvan, thus providing the foundation for the Furniture Study. Since then, as new chapters of history have been written and older ones reexamined, the collection’s continued to grow.
The Friday tours welcome anyone, affiliated with the university or not. Many attendees are already well-versed in historic preservation or furniture design, but if you can’t tell a splat from a spindle, the tour guide can answer your questions and point you in the right direction.
Museum assistant Eric Litke led a recent tour (pictured second, above), but since he and others rotate hosting duties, it’s possible to return for another round and get a new perspective. The pieces are organized by form and period, and as you move through time, you’ll move through space, particularly the historic furniture-making hubs of Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts.
Connecticut’s history of furniture design is represented as well, and these pieces often have a distinctive look that sets them apart from furniture made in other places during eras when conformity was the rule. “People say that if something looks like it’s from the 18th century, but sort of weird and quirky, it might be from Connecticut,” Litke said to knowing chuckles from some local visitors.
Litke started the tour at an assemblage of tall case clocks. One particularly striking example features an astronomic design, and in addition to telling time by the hour, minute and second, this beauty also has the ability to track the sunrise, sunset and phases of the moon. You can imagine one of these standing in a parlor, not far from one of the Federal-style card tables, each folded neatly in half, resting nearby in the first aisle. When it came time to play cards, the players could swing the gate leg out from underneath and unfold the top, creating more elbow room.
An especially imposing 18th-century clothespress out of Pennsylvania showcases black walnut and yellow poplar. Touching isn’t permitted, but the heavy wooden doors and handmade nails carry an ineffable gravitas, inciting thoughts that the snowy forestlands of Narnia might just be concealed within.
An Eames recliner is here in all its Mad Men glory, as is a rather wide armchair custom-made to fit the legendary girth of the former United States president and then-Yale law professor William Howard Taft. Taft isn’t the only Yalie holding a place of pride at the Study; for one, there’s architect Eero Saarinen, who, in addition to designing the campus’s Morse and Stiles Colleges and Ingalls Rink, conceived the famous Knoll-manufactured “Womb” chair and ottoman housed in the collection. Looking at the chair, you can see why it’s called that: it’s curvy and lush, and envelops the sitter.
But you must resist the temptation to sit in this one. Fortunately, there’s more than enough pleasure to be found in the viewing, and in the imagining.
Furniture Study Tours
Meeting Fridays at 12:30 p.m. in the lobby of the Yale University Art Gallery.
(Also viewable by special appointment.)
1111 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
(203) 432-0632 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Lauren Langford. Photographed by Dan Mims.