It’s Christmas morning, and I’m sitting with my cousins around an overwhelmingly full dining table, though this packed corner of my grandmother’s kitchen is hardly a dining room. There are plates full of fruits and vegetables, which will barely be touched aside from the baby carrots; a platter brimming with cheese, sausage, and pickled or briny accoutrement; and the favorites: homemade cookies, brownies, and pies. Sitting on creaky oak chairs, we delight in anticipation for the rest of the day’s activities—sharing gifts, yes, but mainly eating together.
Those creaky chairs and that load-bearing table have seen more than 40 Christmases at my grandmother’s house. She bought the dining set with my grandfather at a local furniture resale store in the 1970s, though it was lovingly hand built by a stranger in the ’30s. My grandma fondly recalled sanding off the old paint to reveal beautiful warm oak and sealing it again to protect the wood surface. The table is probably due for another refinishing coat, and the chairs need new screws. But for now, it does just what it needs to do—it supports the people gathered to share a holiday meal.
My grandmother’s dining set does not have the same refined finish as Joseph van Benten’s cherry Bardwell Settee (1982), but it is just as adored for its quiet, functional beauty. Part of the MFA’s Please Be Seated collection, the bench invites visitors to take comfort in gallery spaces. It is one of many finely crafted and utilitarian objects on view in “Tender Loving Care: Contemporary Art from the Collection.”
Joseph van Benten is a local craftsman who only recently retired after 43 years of operating the Brookline showroom Joseph van Benten Furnituremakers. He learned the skills of the woodworking trade when he took a job as a woodshop teacher in 1975. I too have taken to learning these techniques, but from my family, and I deeply consider craft as ethos in my own artistic practice. Whether its craft is learned from generational knowledge or not, wood furniture has power to hold memories we share with those we keep close. That is the unique purpose of many craft objects inside and outside the Museum: to be both functional and beautiful. Though functional objects aren’t traditionally regarded with as much esteem as their fine art cousins in a museum setting—an increasingly obsolete idea that many contemporary craft artists happily refute today—I wouldn’t trade my family’s dining set for a Monet anytime soon.
This winter, I hope you take a seat in van Benten’s Bardwell Settee, or any of the other finely crafted furniture at the MFA set out for visitor use, and that your holidays are filled with as much love and joy as my grandmother’s oak table.