Opening of interview: Garry knows best. A Conversation with the Artist Conducted by Stefano Catalani in exhibition cat.: "Garry Knox Bennett. Call Me Chairmaker". Bellevue, WA: Bellevue Arts Museum, 2006
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Garry knows best. A Conversation with the Artist

I met with Garry Knox Bennett in his studio in Oakland, California. There -surrounded by his chairs; a selection of paintings by Ambrose Pillphister; a large erotic painting of Japonisme-revival flavor; cabinets; tables; bibelots; and chairs by furnituremaker-friends- we spoke of his attitude toward his recent and past work.

-by Stefano Catalani

GKB: Ask your questions in Italian. Questione ! Is that right?

SC: Domanda .

GKB: Questione !

SC: Questione means problem. Domanda means question.

GKB: Domanda , huh? Domanda !

SC: In the interview conducted by Glenn Adamson for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, on February 1 and 2, 2002, here in Oakland, you mentioned you wanted to do a whole chair series...since you had "some cat's-ass ideas for chairs" --

GKB: Yeah! Cat's ass!

SC: Four years later, the exhibition Garry Knox Bennett: Call Me Chairmaker , featuring fifty-two new chairs from a series of more than eighty will open at Bellevue Arts Museum in July 2006. You have always been devoted to pursuing your ideas using the series format. When did you start working on this series?

GKB: I don't know. I started on chairs right after the house burned down, right Sylvia? May 13, 2003. Well, I wanted to get right to work because my head was occupied, and everything was smoked up and wet. I think it was just a way to get busy.

SC: You started with the Zigzag chairs. You made sixteen chairs drawing inspiration from the design of Gerrit Rietveld's 1934 Zig-Zag Chair . It's a quite spartan chair in its original concept. What captured your interest about this model?

GKB: I've always looked at that chair as kind of a joke. I thought, "What a dumb chair this is!" And when I made the first, the ladder-back chair, which started out as kind of tongue-in-cheek, I sat in it, and it was a surprisingly comfortable little chair! I mean it works really well. You can get your feet behind it, when you tuck your feet under yourself; there's no stretcher that gets in the way. It's a good height: 18 inches, pretty standard. And it's got some spring to it; it's got a little limber to it. So then I have to admit, I actually fell in love with the model. From then on, I was fairly serious. Obviously I'm using puns in a lot of the titles, or a lot of visuals, but I got pretty serious about it.

SC: Did you build all the Zigzag chairs? Or are some of them Garry Knox Bennett's "readymades"?

GKB: I think any original Rietveld chair would be a pretty expensive proposition. I don't even know anybody who's manufacturing them. But it's a very easy chair to construct. It's unbelievably simple.

SC: A lot of dovetail joints...

GKB: Yeah, but I modified it. I think in most cases, my engineering is better... I mean, they put dovetails in that real hard angle; I don't even know who could make that dovetail. But they did, and they support it with gussets. I never saw a real Rietveld, but in all the pictures I saw, they had nuts and bolts in them, or they had these gussets stuck in them or battens. Instead of dovetails I used a spline joint: I set up a jig for the table saw, and sawed through the wood. I think there's anywhere from twelve to maybe fifteen splines across. Then I milled down a piece of wood that fits in that slot, glued it in there really good, then sanded it all down even.

SC: What kind of wood did you use for your Zigzag chairs?

GKB: Any wood that was available. The wood wasn't important.

SC: Rietveld's Zig-Zag chair design is a stark and minimal assertion of function and form: four planes in space, four straight lines in profile. Did you fall in love with its lines?

GKB: It's such a simple form that it allows itself a lot of manipulation. It's an easy form to build off visually and physically: color, or what you can stick on it, like the wings or the ladder, or the Mackintosh high back. If you want, make it into an armchair!

SC: The first two Zigzag chairs you made are Old Ladderback and New Ladderback --

GKB: Right, the Shaker Ladderback.

SC: You started off with the classic Shaker craftsman style, one of the earliest and most popular American designs --

GKB: I just didn't want to make a Rietveld chair. I was going to do something with it.

And everything just happened from that.

SC: After the Shaker-inspired Old Ladderback and New Ladderback, you made the Duncan Rietveld, which is inspired by Duncan Phyfe.

GKB: And that's an easy shape to do. There's no carving in it, you know. I tried to find somebody who could carve me the back splat, the cherubs. I wanted something really gaudy. I found one guy who would do it, but then he asked, " What are you going to do with it?" I explained to him and he didn't want his work messed with. So, I could do it, if I could learn how to sharpen a chisel.

SC: You say that very often.

GKB: Yeah, I know, but they're hard to sharpen. Some people can sharpen ‘em real quick. Wendell Castle can sharpen a chisel in about five minutes. I could carve something, but it would take forever , and the whole idea here as in most of my work, is not to lavish a lot of time on this stuff. We're just talking ideas here.

SC: Chas Rietveld #5 is one of my favorite pieces. There is such an integration and compatibility. The quintessential elements of Mackintosh design are so well integrated with the Zig-Zag Chair . The two designs come together in the simplest way, almost obvious!

GKB: Yeah, that is pretty clever, isn't it? The white bar goes all the way to the base, and that makes a real strong chair. You could sit a 500-lb. guy in that chair.

SC: You gave a technical and psychological solution to the only concern one has when one sits in the original Zig-Zag Chair --

GKB: Oh, of course, that it's going to hold.

SC: What do you think of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's designs for furniture?

GKB: Another architect making furniture for Christ's sake. It's elegant, beautiful stuff, and is probably uncomfortable as hell. You know, there isn't an architect in the world who can make chairs. They don't understand chairs. You know? I haven't seen an architect chair yet that's worth a shit...well other than Le Corbusier and Charles Eames...

SC: And yet you had already paid homage to Mackintosh in the past.

GKB: Yeah. The Mackintosh Bench .

SC: It's interesting, the first thing one would look for when looking at the bench would be any obvious reference to the austere elements of Mackintosh design: the high back, the grid, or the semicircular forms--

GKB: The colors! Mackintosh loved mauve. The bench had mauve. And mauve is the color I painted inside the square holes of the white bar on the back of Chas Rietveld .

SC: As you said with the Zigzag chairs, you mainly play on two different levels: the literal pun and the visual joke. Granny Rietveld , Great Granny Rietveld , and GR #15: Thong are hilarious, but there are some Zigzag chairs in which you just relish the possibilities offered by the chair's original simplicity and intrinsic graphic quality --

GKB: XYZ , right there!

SC: Right: the XYZ Chair .

GKB: The y lends itself awfully good to a backrest, the x is just kind of hidden, but that chair is really strong.

SC: And what about the colors? You like to use color.

GKB: I try. I work at it very hard when I decide to color something. I really spend a lot of thought. It's not like "Oh I'll just put a little red." And that's the problem with a lot of furniture I see, that young people do. "Oh, red, blue, yellow, green." You know there's value to the color: warm, cool, and how they relate to each other. But when I take the paint to cover the wood, see it's kind of goofy because I say, "Yeah, I don't care about the wood; I paint it." But I spend so much intellectual energy on what color the paint is. It's still not free yet. I'm just so conservative in a way, you know.

SC: Conservative?

GKB: Yeah, insofar as when I make something, there's still a preciousness about it in my own mind. "God, I put all this labor... don't do something crazy." But the paint, if I have any fucking cajones at all, I may take that chair and pour a bucket of paint on it. But I'm sitting here and I want to do it because I want to see it, but, you know what that does? That's so premeditated. Good art is not really premeditated. It would be better if one day I was just down there and said "Aw, geez, I just made another of these cute chairs; where's that bucket of paint?" Now that would be a statement. That would be Rauschenberg's goat [in his Monogram of 1959]. In the Nail Cabinet, in one of the drawers I wrote on the bottom: if the tire fucked up Rauschenberg's goat, so the nail fucks the cabinet up. But you and I will know, and this tape, which you'll save, we'll both know that then it was really premeditated. But it's still a good idea, and I'll save it .

Anyway, for the XYZ Chair , I dyed the wood black first, then I started playing. You look at that maroon against that grey and the yellow ...those are really good colors. I mean they work really well.

SC: With Wing Chair you perfectly replicated Rietveld's Zig-Zag Chair , and then you mounted the two aluminum wings, which is one of Garry Knox Bennett's signature designs.

GKB: A lot of times people make really complicated things and they end up sticking embellishment on the object. I try to incorporate it, whether it be structural or decorative. You know, the wings are in! I milled out the slots with a router. So, you know I didn't just screw them on the back. That would look cheesy (American term there).

SC: The free form of the wings makes such a graphic contrast with the rigid linearity of the chair.

GKB: I'm very careful. If I'm doing something that has curves in it, I'm very careful not to make it all curved. I want to throw some hard lines in there, or if I'm making something very rectilinear, I want to throw curves in it, as in the handle on the top of the Deck Chair . You know, just some curve. Because there are no curves in that piece, and you just want to, I always need to do that.

SC: The Zigzag chairs were just the overture to the whole series. You had worked in series in the past: lamps --


The above text was only the beginning text of an interview with Garry by Stefano Catalani. For the full interview please refer to catalog Garry Knox Bennett: Call Me Chairmaker.

Stefano Catalani, Curator at Bellevue Arts Museum

Oakland, California, April 4, 2006