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Chairs Everywhere, and Not a Place to Sit

GEORGE NAKASHIMA presents a special challenge for museums. He has little patience with the ``beaux arts'' aesthetic of the sophisticated art world. To him, construction is no less important than design. His work is sturdy and made for use. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan solved this problem by presenting Nakashima's work in a natural setting in its Japanese wing. The American Craft Museum, by contrast, displays the work as sculpture.

Certainly Nakashima deserves a place in the annals of 20th-century design, which is what the show tries to give him. Still, it doesn't quite work.

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For one thing, the language is an intellectualized fine arts jargon that is at odds with Nakashima's plain-spoken manner. The catalog - otherwise impressive - uses phrases like ``architectonic bases,'' ``aesthetic leitmotifs,'' and others that he himself would never use.

``His use of revealed joinery was prompted in part by a strong philosophical need to reiterate structure,'' the caption on one piece reads. What this means is that Nakashima likes the joints to show. He regards shoddy joinery as a symptom of spiritual decay. Proper joining, he writes, is a form of ``unseen morality.''

At a craft museum, one might expect some attention to how the work is made. The approach, however, is entirely aesthetic.

A bigger problem is the display. At the Metropolitan Museum, kids tried out the chairs, ran their fingers across the grain. The Craft Museum show, on the other hand, is for eyes only. Don't even think about sitting.

Museums inspire nothing so much as a desire to sit down. Not least when the exhibit features inviting chairs. ``I don't like that idea,'' Nakashima says. When looking at furniture, ``you might as well sit in it.''

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