In celebration of Women’s History Month, March Object of the Day posts highlight women designers in the collection.
The Oka chair, by Michele Oka Doner, is both a utilitarian furnishing and a highly detailed sculptural piece. The chair’s seat is a flat textured disk which rests on straight, unadorned legs. The back, where all the detail lies, is composed of a cast bronze artist’s palette decorated with swirls and spirals of “paint” and a figure. Doner further embellished the back with “a collage of cast bronze elements from the artist’s studio including: small cast heads, c. 1978, a twisted torso, ca. 1987”, and a cast bronze stick, similar to the type used for proportioning. The chair is a paean to art itself, with all the tools of the artist rendered in great, yet whimsical, detail. One could say that the chair is representative of the artist herself.
Doner, born in 1945, is an American artist and author. Her talents have been expressed in sculptures, public art, furniture, jewelry and decorative arts. Born into a family of artists in Miami Beach, Doner became fascinated with the natural world around her, drawn to the fullness of experience it provided. Expressed in her uniquely stylized manner this abiding interest is evident in much of her work. Much of her furniture is dedicated to themes from nature; tables resembling trees, lamps in the form of various types of leaves and windblown tumbleweeds, as well as ocean flora and fauna.
Doner is also taken with the human form and some of her large scale works are her interpretations of humanity. This chair has elements that are evocative of this, with the inclusion of headless torsos and bodyless heads. These features not only represent the rudimentary tools of a painter, they add character and narrative to this wonderfully tactile piece. Sculpture or furniture, in the case of this chair it is difficult to decide.
Susan Teichman is a design historian specializing in jewelry design and synagogue architecture.
 Hand-written card from Michele Oka Doner, received from donors of chair, April, 1991. (Curatorial object file, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum)