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Matthias Pliessnig: The Art of Sitting

Where are you reading this article? No, not what device you’re using, but what is your your actual, physical location? Odds are you’re sitting somewhere. Perhaps you’re sitting on your favorite sofa. Have you ever wondered who designed that sofa? Just like fashion, furniture needs to be designed and modeled. Certain trends dictate what fabrics are used for upholstery. But there’s also an art to furniture design. Matthias Pliessnig knows this better than anyone.

Kinetically Contemporary

Born in New Orleans, Pliessnig is an acclaimed furniture designer based out of Providence, Rhode Island. His specialty is using steam-bent wood to create what he calls “kinetically contemporary” pieces. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and University of Wisconsin, he first gained interest in woodwork after building a boat.

From just looking around his studio, you can tell Pliessnig is an artist. The New York Times wrote it “looks more akin to a boat-builder’s garage than an icy SoHo loft, which makes sense when you consider the lunular shapes of Pliessnig’s chairs.” His chairs and benches are indeed wavy and almost skeletal in appearance, with the bent wood twisting around itself like an ouroboros.

Despite their complicated design, making them is apparently quite simple. As Pliessnig describes it: “I use steam-bending techniques to construct my work. The strips of wood are put inside a tube filled with hot steam.  Ten minutes later, a strip is taken out and bent into the desired shape within 30 seconds. After eight hours, the wood is back to its original strength.”

"Spill" by Matthais Pliessnig
“Spill” by Matthias Pliessnig. Image credit: Matthias Pliessnig

Awards and Accolades

While not the only artist or designer to work with wood, Pliessnig had earned himself fame and plenty of accolades. In 2008, he received the award for Best of the Year lounge seating by Interior Design Magazine and hosted his first solo exhibition. (A work of his from 2003, “Shells,” was previously featured in various exhibits.) One year later his art was purchased to be featured permanently in the Museum of Art and Design. He’s been awarded grants from both the Joan Mitchell Foundation and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation. He was named a Fellow by United States Artists in 2010.

His signature piece is called “Amada,” a 27-foot long bench made from white oak. The name comes from a Spanish term of endearment and suggests the two are lovers, intimately familiar with one another. The intertwined nature of the relationship also describes the bench, both from a design standpoint and the labor that went into creating it. It, alongside seven other pieces, were featured in an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery of American Art in 2011.

Since then, Pliessnig has busied himself both with further exhibitions and with mentoring other artists. He’s worked as a workshop instructor at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts and Anderson Ranch Art Center. Just last year, he was featured in the book American Furniture, 1650 to the Present by Oscar P. Fitzgerald. He’s also tried his hand at making sculptures, using the same steam-bending techniques that define his furniture.

"Insum Itineris" by Matthias Pliessnig.
“Insum Itineris” by Matthias Pliessnig. Image credit: Matthias Pliessnig

Even something practical needs to be designed. While Pliessnig’s chairs and benches are more likely to end up in a museum than a home, they still serve a purpose and function perfectly well as a seat. It can be difficult to find beauty in something mundane, let alone find a way to make something mundane modern and memorable. But through his unique designs and usage of steam-bending, Matthias Pliessnig has managed to craft himself a prime seat in the hierarchy of modern artists.

Follow our World of Creation where “what if” becomes “what is.”