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Luce Visible Storage/Study Center: Metamorphic Furniture: Folding Chair

DATES On View Since April 23, 2008
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  • Augustus Eliaers in Boston
    Eliaers was born in Paris and became a fully trained cabinetmaker before immigrating to Boston. He is first recorded there in 1849, in partnership with Augustus Gassiot in a drawing school. By the next year he is recorded as an independent cabinetmaker. The Boston retailer James G. Blake, of Kittredge & Blake, became his agent and helped establish him in his new city. Eliaers showed his patented library step-chair, patented lounge chair, and patented port-folio at various mechanical fairs, or trade shows, in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and received medals for his innovative designs.

    In 1853 he exhibited at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York, the first international world’s fair held in America. Eliaers returned to Paris for a year in 1854 and showed four pieces of furniture there at the 1855 Exposition Universelle.

    In 1863 Eliaers formed a partnership with Felix Gendrot and then a two-year partnership with J. Philip Rinn. After fourteen successful years in Boston, he returned to Paris in 1866. He worked as a cabinetmaker there with his son for more than thirty years. The firm patented metamorphic furniture and showed at international expositions in Paris (1867), Vienna (1873), and Philadelphia (1876).
  • United States Patents
    In addition to his library step-chair, Eliaers patented four other pieces of furniture and a suspended staircase.

    The United States Patent Office issues two types of patents: utility (technical) patents and design patents. The latter type is for two-dimensional inventions such as carpet and textile designs. The former, more common type is for all other inventions, both mechanical and scientific, including Eliaers’s patent for his library step-chair.

    The patent process in Eliaers’s time required three elements: a scaled, fully functional model not more than one foot square; detailed line drawings; and a letter describing the innovation. Professional model makers and draftsmen usually rendered the detailed models and drawings. Once approved, the patent was in effect for up to seventeen years. The government then placed the patent models on display in the United States Patent Office Building in Washington, D.C.

    Late in the 1880s, the requirement for the model was abandoned, and in the early twentieth century, the government sold off the vast majority of the models. By great luck the patent model for Eliaers’s chair, only seven inches high, survives at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
  • Earlier Library Furniture
    Interest in furniture with concealed library steps dates to the late eighteenth century, as private libraries grew in size, especially in England. Built-in shelving became more common, and steps were needed to reach the upper shelves. Robert Campbell’s 1774 English patent drawing was perhaps the first chair design to incorporate steps, which were revealed when the seat was flipped up. It is not known if Campbell’s design was put into production. Benjamin Franklin claims to have invented the form at about the same moment, however. The prototype of his chair closely resembles Campbell’s patent, which Franklin may well have seen in London at the time.

    Two decades later, in 1793, Thomas Sheraton designed a conventional table that conceals an elaborate library ladder. The scheme was realized by Francis Hervé about the same time. Sheraton returned to the idea in his library stool of 1803, which hides steps below the top of an upholstered ottoman.