Furniture Maker Never Took Tradition Sitting Down

Annie Evelyn does extravagant things with the world’s most common piece of furniture — but she chooses chairs because, despite brilliant embellishments, anyone can recognize them. Photo by Karin Strickland

During one extraordinarily difficult period in her life, Annie Evelyn lost her stepfather, her father, and got divorced in the span of two years. But she came away with an unexpected gift. “I realized that I am allowed to make furniture about joy, and that’s what got me through it all.”

Evelyn, who was a 2018 finalist for the esteemed Burke Prize for contemporary craft (awarded by the Museum of Arts and Design in New York), describes her work as conceptual furniture. “I am trying to make people happy. But to do that, I first have to bring them in, and furniture is something familiar. People can relate with it, and then they can have a surprising experience that gives them joy.”

Evelyn’s Oshibana chair was fabulously upholstered with colorful handmade paper flowers. “After a bunch of people sat on it and the flowers got smushed, it was basically disposable,” she acknowledges. But it was fun while it lasted, and that’s vitally important to her. Part of her thesis work in college was, in fact, focused on the intersection of functional furniture and humor.

Cathedral Train chair

“I made whoopee-cushion chairs and all kinds of funny, wacky furniture. I made a magic vibrating table. When it comes on it shakes, and breaks all the dishes on top of it. As a kid, I thought I’d be a fashion designer.” But Evelyn has always favored the rural life. “I couldn’t live out in the country and design haute couture, so it’s also a lifestyle choice. But with furniture I can, and chairs go back to the fashion of designing for the human form. Lately, my fashion side has been coming into my work a lot more.”

She’s made chairs that work just fine for sitting. But rather than focusing on decorating the chair, she wonders how the chair can aesthetically serve the person who rests on it. Her Nest piece is a beanbag-style chair decked out in white leather and “vintage jewelry findings,” and another chair has a wide skirt of fabric fanning out from it. “There is a bustle behind it,” explains Evelyn, “and there are jewels on the chair. So the chair dresses up the sitter who uses it.”

Bucher benches, a collaboration with Shae Bishop.

Evelyn has taught at prestigious institutions including Parsons/The New School and California College of the Arts, and earned a BFA and an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where she also led classes. Lately she’s been expanding learning opportunities for others. Together with Penland friends, she started an organization called Crafting the Future, which addresses the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in craft, art, and design.

Before COVID, the org had less than 100 members. “Now we have almost 1,000,” reports Evelyn.

She credits her grandparents, who owned a furniture company in New Hampshire, for much her own early encouragement.

“I grew up with pieces of furniture being the most valued objects in our house. When I visited my grandmother as a child, furniture became woven into my imaginary world of playtime.” She was also close to her supportive stepfather, who died before she entered grad school. “He was the greatest person, and a prankster,” she recalls. “So I made a memorial fountain that had a hidden pump inside. That way, you could squirt people in the face while they were mourning.”

Annie Evelyn, Bakersville. Find her work at Treats! Studio, 10 Crystal St. in Spruce Pine. The artist’s chairs will also be on view in the group show Tools of the Trade: Reinterpreting Traditional Women’s Work, at Blue Spiral 1 (38 Biltmore Ave., Asheville, bluespiral1.com) through Friday, Aug. 28. Evelyn is one of three featured artists in the 35th annual auction to benefit Penland School of Craft, happening online this year from Saturday, Aug. 1 through Saturday, Aug. 8 (penland.org). For more information about the artist, check out annieevelyn.com and on Instagram: @annie_evelyn_furniture.

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