Deconstructing Furniture

PROFILE Duane Paluska

The art of putting things together by taking them apart

Tacked above a door that connects artist Duane Paluska’s woodworking shop to his gallery, ICON Contemporary Art, there is a small, yellowed placard with the phrase “Sit on a Chair” emblazoned in bold black letters. Those four words are a fine example of Paluska’s smart, wry sense of humor—he is, after all, a man who has spent the last half-decade building meticulously crafted “chairs” that are neither capable of being sat upon, nor meant to be.


Paluska’s sculptures include chairs that are intentionally devoid of crucial functional elements, such as a seat, and furniture-like pieces that appear to have been deconstructed and reassembled in a fashion that has rendered them unusable. It is a challenging but fascinating body of work by a lanky and gently sardonic 70-year-old who spent much of his life more concerned with words than with wood.
Born and raised in Naperville, Illinois, Paluska attended Knox College and earned a degree in English. After school, Paluska  accepted a teaching job at Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. Though painting consumed a great deal of his non-teaching time, it was at the Academy that Paluska began honing the carpentry skills he had picked up working summer construction jobs as a teenager. In a small maintenance shed, Paluska began restoring antique furniture. Looking back today, he says those slow, tedious restorations—wherein he would often take a chair entirely apart, then put it back together—taught him the core principles of furniture making.

For the next decade, Paluska was both a teacher and a student. After dabbling in graduate studies at Yale, he eventually earned a master’s degree in English and American literature from Middlebury College. He then taught at Wheelock College in Boston before moving to Maine in 1967 to teach at Bowdoin College—all while working on his PhD in English from Brandeis University. Yet by 1973, Paluska’s interest in woodworking had grown so much that he left the academic world to become a self-employed artist, designer, and builder of fine furniture and homes. By the late 1970s, Paluska weaned himself from the massive undertaking of building homes and focused on his furniture making. In 1989, he opened ICON Contemporary Art on Mason Street in Brunswick to show the work of other artists, and set up a wood shop for himself in the back of the old Colonial house the gallery calls home.

As Paluska has built custom furniture over the years, he’s also continued to paint and make art. It was while working on a piece of “found object” scultpure that Paluska accidentally realized the inner artistic potential of furniture. “I had a couple hunks of scrap metal that I’d combined,” he remembers, “and I needed something to bolt them to.” Paluska built a small table for the piece, but he wanted to emphasize that it was part of the sculpture and not simply a pedestal, so he made a tabletop that was partially level and partially slanted downward at a sharp angle. It was the act of intentionally turning a piece of functional furniture into sculpture that made him approach and appreciate furniture in a new way. To this day, Paluska continues to experiment with the endless possibilities of the furniture form as art.

In recent years, Paluska has built a table that appears to have been sawn in half, turned, and rejoined at an odd angle; a chair with three legs, no seat, and a thin, glass back; and a chair that looks as though it was “opened up” and stretched out into a single long line of wooden components.

While Paluska says that some people chuckle when they first see his work and think it’s merely an ironic joke, he is more pleased when his work provokes an uneasy laugh. “Sometimes there’s almost a sense of regret in people,” he says, ‘when they see something that’s been so carefully made, but still can’t be used.” Seeing such fine craftsmanship, exacting detail, and precision joinery in a piece of nonfunctional art is an uncomfortable experience for some people. But Paluska is not making art that masquerades as functional furniture–he is commenting on our society’s ambivalence toward the artistic potential inherent in the practial objects that fill our lives. “At the simplest level,” Paluska says, “I suppose I’m trying to call attention to the art of furniture, which people so often disregard because furniture is seen as just a utilitarian object.”

And if it’s true that we have come to take our furniture for granted, Paluska’s sculptures inspire and chide us to appreciate the creativity, craftsmanship, and labor involved in producing them. A gorgeous mahogany table with only two legs may not be a table in the strictest definition, but the artistry and effort that created it becomes all the more pronounced.

Although visually striking, there is a quiet, rueful quality to many of Paluska’s sculptures that mirrors the unassuming nature of its subject–and its creator. If the success of art is measured by its ability to elicit a reaction from the viewer–whether it be joy or sorrow, serenity of uneasieness, curiosity or anger–then Duane Paluska may just have found his true calling as an artist.

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