Completed in 1984, the new UTEP Library building on Wiggins Street soon became an important source of campus pride. One of the Library’s unique features was its diverse collection of chairs, which included reproductions and designs by some of the most important chair designers of the early to mid-twentieth century. Indeed, the October 1984 issue of Tracings (the Library’s newsletter) included “Chairs: A Sitting Tour of the New Library” by Dee Birch Cameron as its lead article.
Cameron states that many of the chairs in the Library were reproductions of designs by the famed Scottish architect Charles Rennie Macintosh (1869-1928). These chairs had “elongated grid-like frames in ebonized wood.” Macintosh often designed furniture for Scottish tearooms and his designs allowed “ample room for changes of position.” The UTEP Library contained several examples of Macintosh chairs including several mother of pearl inlaid chairs based on one he designed in 1905. Other examples of Macintosh’s work were chairs located on the first floor of the Library that featured his trademark “tall” and “airy” gridwork as well as “a secret compartment for storage.” Another similar chair located on the first floor of the UTEP Library was actually a reproduction of a chair by Joseph Hoffman (1870-1956). This chair included ebonized wood, a grid pattern, and distinctive “spoon-shaped” arms.
According to Cameron, the library originally contained contemporary-looking stools, which were reproductions of designs made in 1902 by Hungarian Marcel Lajos Breuer. She further notes that “the Spanish sling chairs of wood and leather,” located on the Library’s second floor, “are similar in design” to Breuer’s “metal-based Wassily chair, a piece of furniture so revolutionary in its time that indignant onlookers tried unsuccessfully to trample it to bits.” During the mid-1980s UTEP Library employees used aluminum chairs designed by Charles Eames, while tables were surrounded by “Yale” chairs covered “in a variety of Knoll fabrics” by Bill Stephens (who had originally designed them for Yale University). The Library still has some Yale chairs, though many have been damaged over the years. In addition to these chairs, the staff lounge contained “bent” wood chairs based on a design that “Hans Wegner of Denmark made in 1943 and revised in 1979.” Moreover, the staff lounge included “a massive wooden bench by the old British firm, Lister” that was similar to the one “the Sheriff of Gloucester presented as a wedding gift to Charles and Di.” The new UTEP Library also housed arm chairs by Warren Platner, which were located in the atrium and on the balcony, and Jorgen Rasmussen’s Kevi chairs. Some of the Library’s most unusual and distinctive chairs, however, were the Mario Bellini chairs made of “heavy gauge tubular steel” completely covered by “one piece of black Russian leather.” These chairs were ordered for the Library’s Special Collections department and still surround its long wood tables in the main reading room.
Although the UTEP Library currently has some of its original chairs, unfortunately, after almost thirty years of use many of these pieces need repair or restoration work. Saving these chairs is necessary to preserve the Library’s aesthetic heritage as well as to continue to provide functional furniture that is artistically significant.
[Sources: Dee Birch Cameron, “Chairs: A Sitting Tour of the New Library,” Tracings, Vol. 12, no. 2, October 1984; Special thanks to Juan Sandoval for his “chair tour” and to Yvette Delgado for her photographs of the UTEP Library chairs]
Abbie Weiser is the processing archivist at the C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department of the UTEP Library. She earned a BA in history from George Washington University, a MSIS from the University of Texas at Austin, and a MA in history from UTEP. She is certified by the Academy of Certified Archivists.