Carla Atwood Hartman has a deep-seated interest in chairs.
She's the granddaughter of legendary husband-and-wife furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames. They became famous the world over for their creations, particularly what's known as the Eames Lounge Chair, called “the chair of the century” by architectural critic Esther McCoy.
Hartman creates chairs, too, but much smaller ones. At Chairs Lady, a 500-square-foot workshop in a converted row house at 321 West 11th Avenue in the Golden Triangle, she instructs everyone from kids to museum staffers in how to make chairs. Tiny chairs, usually between three and five inches tall.
“For me, tiny chairs are much like a study — a quick sketch of an idea," she explains. "They can be made in about an hour or two. Chairs are intriguing: They are sculptural and anthropomorphic. Because I had a mother who was a designer and a sculptor stepfather, I grew up looking at things from all angles, like you would a piece of sculpture. Chairs are also anthropomorphic, meaning that they have our same body parts — backs, arms, seats, legs, knees, ears, etc. Many can also have a gender or personality. ”
And they certainly have a personality when they're created in her studio, since Hartman equips the place with material she's picked up from around the globe, often in places where she's taught chair-making classes. She also stocks items that fit a theme: Winterfest in December, for example. “I especially gravitate to color and texture, whether in art papers, pressed flowers [or] sparkles," she says. "Students in the classes love my stickers from Japan, this month’s sparkly stars from New York, and the buttons, threads and fabrics I gather in San Francisco.”
Although she has models that her students can follow — even blueprints for a tiny Eames Lounge Chair — they're encouraged to experiment. “My goal is to expand people’s awareness of our man-made environment, where everything is the product of someone else’s design choices," she explains. "By encouraging kids and adults to closely and carefully look at chair designs, I am hoping that they then become empowered to make good design choices — both by surrounding themselves with it and ultimately altering their environment.”
Once the tiny chair is completed, it's ready for its close-up in the photography studio. “It’s a photo booth," Hartman admits. "It harks back to my grandparents, who used to photograph objects to really see their designs. Oftentimes when they got the film developed, they would see it in a new light.”
The photo booth offers a variety of background choices so that the chair can be monumentalized. “It becomes an extraordinary expression of their creativity,” Hartman notes.
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Hartman’s commitment to both creativity and her family's legacy is strong. For the past fourteen years (after a dozen years working with the Denver Art Museum), she's been actively involved with the California-based Eames Foundation and also serves as director of education for the Eames Office. In that role, she's offered classes around the world: in Japan, Australia, Germany and many locations in the United States, including ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
But on most weekends, you'll find her in Denver, offering instruction at Chairs Lady. The studio holds drop-in hours from 11 to 3 p.m. on Saturdays, when anyone can build a chair. It usually takes an hour, and the fee is $10 for those under eighteen, $20 for those eighteen and over. But you don't have to become a furniture-maker to enjoy the place; you can also shop for original Eames toys, as well as cards, games, chair kits and other licensed Eames products.
If you're looking for adult-sized Eames furniture, there are two authorized manufacturers: Vitra (in Europe and the Middle East) and Herman Miller. You can see some Eames designs at Design Within Reach in Cherry Creek, as well as Workplace Resource in Colorado Springs and Denver.
And if you're ready to take a more intensive look at the Eames oeuvre, Hartman offers specialized talks in her loft adjacent to the studio. Go to chairslady.com or call 720-338-9696 to arrange a customized chair activity, and snag your own ringside seat at design history.