Beauty in Furnishings : Folding Screens: Practical Works of Art

Associated Press

Once, you bought your furniture in a retail store and your art in a gallery. Nowadays, the departments of art and decoration seem to be moving closer together.

Just how close may be seen with the opening of an art gallery that sells home furnishings. What is believed to be one of the first examples of this type of marketing approach is the Gallery of Applied Arts, which opened recently in New York City.

According to Frances Nelson, director, the gallery’s primary stock consists of one-of-a-kind and limited-edition pieces of furniture, rugs, lamps and lighting fixtures, and ceramic and glass objects. Many have been designed by architects or made by artists and craftsmen.

Artists’ Folding Screens


The gallery also recently had its first exhibition of folding screens made by artists. The screens were an appropriate choice, according to Virginia Fabbri Butera, the show’s curator, since they can have both artistic meaning and practical utility.

Regardless of its “message,” a screen is a decorative home furnishings accessory that can block drafts, create temporary privacy, hide an unsightly area for a while and divide a large space so it is cozier, summarized Butera, although noting that some examples in the show do none of these things.

Some readers may associate folding screens with overstuffed Victorian parlors and with actresses’ dressing rooms in old films. However, the invention of the screen actually dates back to ancient China, according to Butera.

Her discovery that screens have been used at various times by artists as a means of self-expression occurred fortuitously, she said. While at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a curatorial position, she learned that the photographer Ansel Adams made 13 screens. Shortly after this, she saw a screen made by artist Thomas Hart Benton.


“That’s odd,” she recalls saying. Now on the lookout for screens executed by artists, she has turned up examples by painters, including Whistler, Bonnard, Vuillard and Picasso as well as by Spanish architect Gaudi and the Philadelphia artist Man Ray, among others.

Invented in China

Her suggestion for an exhibition of screens by artists was taken up by the National Gallery of Art and Yale University Art Gallery, and an exhibition at these institutions of American and European screens created between 1870 and 1970 was held in 1984. The current show at the Gallery of Applied Art covers screens made recently by American artists.

Screens have appeared in many guises and materials since their invention. The early Chinese screens were cumbersome and bulky structures that were employed for the same basic reasons that screens are used today, she noted.


She traced the folding screen next to Japan in the 7th Century, where it had changed considerably. It became a lightweight structure made of seven layers of paper. The Japanese developed a new use for screens in the sliding Shoji panels which are still a feature of Japanese homes. These sliding screens form movable walls and doors behind which possessions are stored on shelves.

Periodical Revival

In most cultures, including our own, the three-panel screen is most common, but the Japanese never use an odd number of panels, she discovered.

In the Western world, the heyday for the folding screen was during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After that they appeared to fade from the scene, although they were periodically revived by home furnishings manufacturers.


Today, however, she discerns a revival among artists who are reinterpreting and reinventing the screen as both a convenience and functional art object.

“Today’s screens are as different from one another as they are from the past,” she said. Among the materials employed in the screens on view at the gallery are handmade paper, carved wood, painted canvas, cut aluminum and lacquered screens. She has found as many as 200 artists making screens currently.

Their interest in this medium is part of the trend toward the merging of art and craft. “Screens, whose decorative appeal lies in their surface treatment, plainly fit in today’s renewed interest in surface pattern in art,” she added.

Prices for most of the screens on view at the gallery range from about $2,000 to $5,000, according to Joe Duke, one of the gallery’s owners.


Duke says screens are a perfect example of the marriage between art and home furnishings. The gallery itself “grew out of the resurgence of a broken tradition in home furnishings and decorative arts of the fine craftsman making objects that delight the senses in addition to being useful.”