Review by Nicole Belola
We Sit Together: Utopian Benches from the Shakers to the ­Separatists of Zoar

Jonathan Cape. We Sit Together: Utopian Benches from the Shakers to the Separatists of Zoar. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2013. 112 pp.; color and bw illus., line drawings, bibliography, research sources. $24.95 pb.

Once a month, I treat myself to a homemade glazed doughnut at a local farmers’ market. After plucking a napkin from the counter, I walk a few feet away and sit down on one of several benches to savor my indulgence. I always choose a bench that is completely unoccupied, if possible, to make ushering the fattening confection into my tummy a seemingly private act of gluttony. I prefer vacant benches so that I can stay out of other people’s business and diminish the chance of accidentally brushing up against a stranger. Whether it’s in a park or a train station, I try to experience benches—which are designed to seat several people—alone. I want my space.

What can we learn from this mundane object so many of us spurn and what Richard Torchia, the author of this book’s foreword and the director of the Arcadia University Art Gallery, calls “an increasingly outmoded category of furniture” (p. 9)? In part as a reaction against the larger societal values reflected in individualistic bench usage like mine, artist Jonathan Cape set out to start a conversation “about communalism as both a historic and a contemporary alternative to individualism” (p. 13) through reconstructing and installing together in a gallery setting reproductions of twenty benches used at twelve American communal societies. We Sit Together encapsulates what he learned from this project. The book lacks any extended reflections on the bench form over time and in different spaces. Yet it makes up for that with the refreshing perspective of a contemporary artist/furniture maker who has a strong sense of the power objects have to inspire change.

The bulk of Cape’s book contains profiles of each community from which the artist harvested bench designs, photographs of many of the original benches in situ, measured drawings of the original benches, and photos of Cape’s reproductions. The book concludes with several full-page color photos of the reproduction benches in galleries, which Cape exhibited as “Utopian Benches” at several institutions including, for example, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art, Portland; the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York; and the San Francisco Art Institute. This “sculpture,” as Cape describes the gallery installation of the benches, came together as a result of site visits to communal societies with a “craft tradition” (pp. 13–14). Cape gives us insights into how each bench functioned historically within the communities. His inspiration to re-create them, though, derives from his contemporary viewpoint as someone who appreciates the objects as art and as a tool for contemporary societal change.

Each chapter in Cape’s book is a case study of a different community that emphasized or continues to emphasize what Cape calls “the community of goods” (p. 13). The profiles include a thumbnail history of the community, moving chronologically by the year in which each group established itself. He begins with the benches Protestant reformers used at Ephrata Cloister in southeastern Pennsylvania. He concludes with a much lesser-known (but no less interesting) community called Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, about thirty miles northwest of Philadelphia. Camphill, established in 1972 and still going strong, provides a place for people with developmental disabilities to live productive and happy lives through farming, handcraft, and other work. In choosing his communities, Cape selected societies that shared labor and goods. The bench furniture form, which requires “sharing the same material support” and “sitting at the same level” (p. 13), Cape believes, echoes this philosophy.

There is, in fact, much to be learned from objects—or “goods”—about how people lived historically in these varied communities. For each settlement, Cape shows us, benches served or continue to serve practically as seating furniture and metaphorically as embodiments of groups’ philosophies. Benches, Cape reminds us, are practical for spaces (dining halls, worship spaces, schoolrooms) used by multiple people who valued communal bonds and interdependency (assuming people actually sat close to each other, unlike the way I use benches today). In some cases, benches no longer meet some communities’ needs. At the Shaker settlement Sabbathday Lake, Maine, for instance, a contemporary brother explained that they do not use benches in the dining hall because using chairs instead “allows those who finish eating first to rise and get on with their day’s work without disturbing others” (p. 30).

In many ways, work and its material and psychological power to sustain us are at the heart of this book. Cape reproduced these benches using his own local wood (poplar) in homage to the original makers who probably chose their own local wood (which varied depending on locale). This book visually privileges Cape’s reproductions over the historic objects by showing larger images of the reproduced than of the old. This makes sense, as Cape’s project involved a kind of experimental archaeology, or learning by doing, in which he applied his skills as a furniture maker. I hoped for some insights along the lines of what we get in Robert Tarule’s Artisan of Ipswich: Craftsmanship and Community in Colonial New England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004). In one of the few scholarly works on what we can learn from reproducing the material culture of the past, Tarule writes into his narrative his reflections on re-creating a seventeenth-century oak chest. We do get glimmers of what Cape learned from reproducing these benches, but Cape never fully fleshes out the implications of his observations. For example, in reference to a kitchen bench used at the Community of True Inspiration in Amana, Iowa, Cape describes the bench as “simple” and notes that a “single asymmetrical brace on the center leg demonstrates the attention to practicality over aesthetics” (p. 57). Cape also labels the Snow Hill Nunnery (Pennsylvania) dining bench “simple” (p. 37). In both cases, we see photographs of the original and reproduction benches, but Cape doesn’t go into detail about what in the production of the benches makes them particularly “simple” compared with other benches he reproduced for this project. Are these observations based solely on aesthetics, on how he constructed them, or both? I would have been interested to read more developed ruminations along these lines based on Cape’s unique practical experience as a maker.

There is little here about the work behind the material life of communal or cooperative living we don’t already know from reading Dolores Hayden’s authoritative The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981). Indeed, Cape cited Hayden liberally throughout his book. But to look for new insights into the historical experience of communal living in We Sit Together would be a mistake. Nor should we look for extensive comparisons of contemporaneous noncommunal uses of benches. That wouldn’t help Cape achieve his goal. What Cape’s catalogue does—and what his gallery shows probably did even more effectively (this reader did not have a chance to see one)—is spur us to think about our lives and the things on which “we sit” (or don’t sit) “together,” today and historically. For instance, what can we learn about personal space and privacy by considering how we have used benches and similar seating furniture forms (such as sofas) over time in private and public spaces? Why do so many of us today prefer not to sit next to or near a stranger if we don’t have to?[1] What does this reflect about our culture and us? Does it inspire us to change or stay the same? Why is the bench an “increasingly outmoded category of furniture” (p. 9)? To answer some of these questions, we might apply what Edward T. Hall called the study of “proxemics” in The Hidden Dimension (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1966). Many material culture scholars such as Beverly Gordon have applied this theory to study the cultural construction of the relationship between spaces, bodies, the senses, and objects.[2]

But until then, the next time I tuck into my doughnut on a farmers’ market bench, instead of sitting alone, I’ll see what happens when I “sit together.”

Nicole Belolan
University of Delaware

American Furniture 2014

  • [1]

    In a recent study on proxemics in public urban space, researchers confirmed the notion that contemporary individuals prefer to maintain “personal space” so they avoid hearing, smelling, or touching other people in libraries, train cars, and so forth. Stephanie Rosenbloom, “In Certain Circles, Two Is a Crowd,” New York Times, November 16, 2006, (accessed June 15, 2014).

  • [2]

    Beverly Gordon, The Saturated World: Aesthetic Meaning, Intimate Objects, Women’s Lives, 1890–1940 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006), p. 19.