Paul Tuttle may not be a household name, but many people at Tuesday’s opening at the University Art Museum felt he should be.
The retrospective show, which runs until Jan. 13, gives a remarkable overview of the 50-year career of Tuttle, Santa Barbara furniture designer and architect. Mainly influenced by modernism, Tuttle’s work is engaging in its simplicity of form. His designs are strong and assertive, although the resulting works remain accessible to those with even the most limited knowledge of art.
In spite of being so appealing, or perhaps because of it, Tuttle’s furniture is both functional and ergonomic – two aspects of design that many contemporary artists have chosen to ignore. In many ways this makes the furniture easier to digest because the art isn’t entirely abstracted from its function, even as Tuttle’s work evolves through the years.
The impeccable layout of the exhibit illuminates how the artist utilizes and explores recurring forms throughout his career. The organization skillfully connects his earlier pieces to later ones and exhibits how the artist has both evolved and also come full circle in his career – the first piece is a “z” shaped chair, while the final work deconstructs this same form into simpler components.
Since each type of furniture requires its own solutions to technical problems, both in construction and utility, Tuttle obviously possesses incredible versatility as a designer. The breadth of his repertoire is impressive.
“It’s a good picture of the scope of [Tuttle’s] designs,” said Joan Marks, a member of the museum affiliates. “I didn’t realize he did floor lamps, easels and chairs as well as tables.”
The exhibition includes everything from rocking chairs to chaise lounges, stackable seats to coffee tables, and was designed to lead the viewer through a chronology of Tuttle’s work, divided into significant stages of development in the artist’s canon. The viewer is invited to see how Tuttle incorporates new materials as they become available, breaking the traditions of the often conservative art of furniture making.
His furniture designs reflect a concern with physical variables, including motion- particularly apparent in his rocking chairs. Despite excelling in the genre, Tuttle does not restrict himself to furniture design; he has also recently begun designing residences after a 20-year hiatus.
Rita Ferri, the assistant director of the Contemporary Arts Forum in Santa Barbara lauded the unsung virtues of Tuttle as a truly exceptional artist and a very popular local resident.
“He’s an unrecognized genius. I think he’s an artist who’s always followed his heart,” she said. “It’s an outstanding collection.”
Evident in this retrospective is Tuttle’s playful heart, with many whimsical, colorful works included. One of the wildest pieces is from the series Tuttle’s Follies called Tractor Seat Jazz, a piece designed around its namesake, with various jutting lines and metal rods, painted neon pink and blue. While many of the other works in the show could be rebuilt from design specifications, Tuttle’s Follies utilizes unique materials, resulting in one-of-a-kind works. Especially with this series, it is abundantly clear that Tuttle is highly skilled at blurring the line between design and sculpture.
As for the artist himself, Paul Tuttle is far more modest when asked to explain what prompted his 50-year design career.
“It just happened,” he said. “At one room I was in, the landlord was a woodworker. … He said he would show me how to use the tools.
“I’ve been fooling around ever since.”
Judging from the opening of the exhibit, the art world hopes he keeps fooling around.