Furniture Extraordinaire

Furniture Extraordinaire

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Richard Scott Newman, Child Chairs.

Pritam & Eames
29 Race Lane
East Hampton, New York 11937 631-324-7111
pritameames.com

On May 21, 1981, Bebe Pritam Johnson and Warren Eames Johnson opened their studio furniture gallery, Pritam & Eames, in a converted 19th-century steam laundry building in East Hampton, New York. Exhibiting a mix of renowned and up-and-coming furniture makers, such as Richard Scott Newman, whose recent work includes Child Chairs, the show marked the beginning of the couple’s long and exciting professional journey into the world of studio furniture.

Prior to opening the gallery, Bebe worked at the Council on International Educational Exchange and Warren worked in documentary films. What sparked this career change?
Bebe Pritam Johnson: It seemed to us that we could be working for others for the rest of our lives. Or, we could take a chance and work for ourselves.
Warren Eames Johnson: We had already worked together on some projects, including a documentary film about the Fondation Maeght in southern France in 1966. It was quite an adventure and it gave us a background in confronting difficult situations and coming through.

Your opening exhibition featured prominent furniture makers such as George Nakashima and Wendell Castle. How did such a young gallery come to represent these makers?
BPJ: The most important reason is that we went to meet these artists. We knew George Nakashima’s work through the Japan Society, and colleagues there arranged a visit with him in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He didn’t work with galleries—he didn’t need to, actually—but we spent a pleasant afternoon with him and he kindly gave us
a chair for our opening.

WEJ: I was doubtful that we could offer Wendell Castle the kind of showcase that would interest him, but Bebe was focused in her pursuit, as she rightly felt that his presence would be important in validating the gallery. So there it was: focus and pursuit.

The show also featured some less known makers at the time, such as John Dunnigan, Hank Gilpin and Michael Hurwitz, who’ve now made their own mark on the furniture world. How did you go about looking for these up-and-comers?
BPJ: In the late 1970s, we wrote about 50 letters to furniture makers. Only one person answered and that response has endeared Tim Philbrick to me forever. I asked him why the other 49 didn’t answer; he said that furniture makers don’t write letters. He said, “If you want to talk to them, you have to go to their shops.” And we did. We spent a year and a half visiting all of the makers in our opening show. Beginning acquaintances on a personal basis has laid the foundation for enduring relationships in this field.

How would you describe the evolution of studio furniture? Did Pritam & Eames follow the same path? WEJ: When we opened, some makers already referred to their work as sculpture. Over the years, the drive for acceptance, prestige and art prices has certainly influenced more makers to bend in this direction.
BPJ: We have never excluded furniture that is sculpturally strong. Still, we continue to champion functional design. We’ve always loved the idea of this furniture being part of someone’s daily life. We never felt furniture becomes more important when labels like art or design are pinned on it. However we cannot sell just good furniture. There has to be an extraordinary aspect to it.