The New Hampshire Furniture Masters are featuring the work of three female furniture makers through April 9, in Concord. This story features one of the artists, at her workshop in Manchester.
Vivian Beer builds sexy furniture in a warehouse in Manchester. At the moment – she’s cutting and welding a giant sheet of steel into a bench. Later, Beer will cover the steel structure in a bright shade of autobody paint, and bolt it to a block. The bench is part of a series of benches – each which are oddly suggestive of a woman’s high heel shoe. “I want people to see them, and see them as very sexy objects,” Beer says.
Seduction is a recurring theme in Beer’s artistic work. She says it’s “that come hither feeling” that makes all good design somehow seductive.
But how does she make an inanimate object – a piece of furniture, no less – look… sexy?
It has to do with curves.
When you encounter a curve, in a piece of furniture, you tend to want to touch it. And you can watch somebody, they always do.
We’re attracted to curves, Beer says, because they’re anthropomorphic. Her work turns inanimate objects -- furnature -- into something somewhat human. She uses forms taken from fashion, like “shoes, clothing, they have waistlines, they kind of have booties.”
Curves aren’t just sexy, Beer says, pointing to a picture of a steel lounge chair inspired by the shape of ruffles. They are valuable for their structure.
"The ruffling of this, say, the curves in this, they're actually what gives it its strength, too. So this one has a little give, it has cushion, but having this whiplash bend in the front, is what makes the steel strong enough to hold someone up."
Beer doesn’t work only in steel. She recently finished a 600 pound cement bench, which was purchased by a private collector, then donated to a school.
She is making it work as a full time artist. She says the hardest part is reconciling her creativity with the need to be an entrepreneur.
"So for me, a continual challenge is to find a way to be a good business woman and still be a good artist, and not let one of those cut the knees out."
Even Beer’s analogies are structural.
For the most part, Beer sells her work to private collectors, through galleries in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. She also sells to museums, and towns and cities, where her work is placed in public spaces.
The pieces sell for anywhere from $2400 to $28,000 dollars. The prices include three things. The cost of the materials, the time she spent working, and then the… mystery element. The value of her artistic vision and execution.
How do you put a price on that? Beer says for her, “it's mostly instinct actually.”
The crazy thing about selling art is how subjective the pricing process seems. Beer points out pictures of two different sculptures. To an outsider, they look equal in aesthetic and technical achievement. But one, she says, she priced higher, because she liked how it turned out. “There’ll be one a year that I’m like yeah, that is really good,” Beer says. “Like it came out even better than I thought it would.”
Of course, Beer prices her work collaboratively with the galleries that represent her, so she has some input from them, too. Lewis Wexler owns one such gallery, in Philadelphia.
He calls selling artwork an “unholy alliance” between commerce and art. But, he says, there are practical ways to price things like the sexy furniture Beer builds – which is really more outdoor sculpture than furniture.
So for example. Maybe we had a group of work in here and we sold everything. Then for the next body of work we bumped the prices up and sold everything. Then we bump it up a little bit more, sold almost everything. So we bump it up a little less.
Eventually, Wexler says, artists simply price work based on their previous work, and increase the value as their resume and notoriety grows.
But , Beer says, “garnering the kind of attention you need to be successful is really hard work.” However, Beer adds, she loves her job because it’s interesting and really, really fun.