Zabel donates chairs to Libraries that serve as more than a place to sit

October 22, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Art history faculty member Craig Zabel is known for his courses on the history of modern architecture, and now he has made it easier for his students to inspect firsthand some of the designs that they study. Zabel used the grant he was awarded after receiving the Penn State Teaching Fellow Award in 2016 to purchase a collection of “Iconic Modern Chairs” for the Architecture and Landscape Architecture Library in the Stuckeman Family Building.

The Penn State Teaching Fellow Award was established jointly in 1986 by the Penn State Alumni Association, in consultation with the Undergraduate Student Government and Graduate Student Association. Its purpose is to honor distinguished teaching and provide encouragement and incentive for teaching excellence at Penn State, and includes a grant for the honoree to spend “for the improvement of undergraduate teaching and learning.”

“I thought a long time about how to spend the money,” said Zabel, who served as head of the Department of Art History from 1998 to 2017. When he learned from his wife, Diane Zabel, Benzak Business Librarian and head of the Schreyer Business Library at Penn State, that the University Libraries were seeking a donation of a designer chair collection, he knew he had found his “match.” 

“For 34 years I have taught the history of modern architecture at Penn State. This often includes the discussion of interior design, including chairs,” he explained. “By purchasing a collection of ‘Iconic Modern Chairs’ that I lecture about in my classes, students can now visit the Architecture and Landscape Architecture Library on their own time and experience the chairs firsthand by literally sitting in them.”

Zabel chose seven chairs and two stools from the 1890s to the 1970s, in consultation with his colleague and former student, Denise Costanzo, assistant professor of architecture and art history at Penn State. Designed by an international who’s-who of modern architects and furniture designers, the chairs are made from a variety of materials ranging from wood and metal to cloth and even cardboard. The designers include Charles Rennie Mackintosh (Scottish), Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles and Ray Eames (American), Gerrit Rietveld (Dutch), Marcel Breuer (Hungarian and a student at the noted Bauhaus), Alvar Aalto (Finnish), Harry Bertoia (Italian-American) and Frank Gehry (Canadian-American).

“What I especially like about putting this collection in the library in Stuckeman is that it can immediately become a resource for other teachers and classes that engage issues of design, beyond my own courses,” said Zabel. “Also, it is a collection that can grow over time, with chairs from other donors.”

According to Henry Pisciotta, arts and architecture librarian, collecting chairs as design examples is another way the Libraries can serve teaching with shared resources. “As soon as they arrived, they found educational uses,” he said. “A student borrowed the Eames chair to take to class for a presentation. Architecture Professor Marcus Shaffer required all of his first-year students to sit in the Frank Gehry chair before they designed their own chair from cardboard. Soon we'll need to decide whether or not to catalog and barcode the chairs to facilitate loans!”

A public event celebrating the arrival of the chair collection will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 29 in the Jury Space on the first floor of the Stuckeman Family Building. Zabel will present an illustrated lecture on the history and significance of these chairs. The event will then move down the hall to the Architecture and Landscape Architecture Library for a reception and a chance for everyone to inspect and test the chairs firsthand.

Last Updated October 25, 2019