On my way back from a business trip to Colorado recently, I took the opportunity to visit an old friend from my Japan-dwelling days who lives in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area of Minnesota. While there, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a place where urban and suburban design did not revolve around strip malls, and where a city had clearly been making investments in its people. The light rapid rail train from the airport to downtown was gleaming, quiet, and pleasant to ride. There were bike paths everywhere and heaps of cyclists of all ages using them. There were beautiful housing developments around a chain of lakes just outside the city, developments where the houses were truly diverse from one another and extremely well kept up. Modernist pieces from the 60’s and newer sat cheek to jowl with Queen Anne Victorians, storybook style villas, single story 70’s-era ranchers, and Federalist mansions – it was quite refreshing to come across such a scene. More refreshing than anything else though were the people I came across, who have to be among the friendliest I’ve ever met anywhere.

Having lived on the west coast for many years of my life, where people are often friendly yet a bit flaky, and having lived out on the east coast for some 6 years now, where people, if I might generalize, are decidedly less friendly if not abrasive, it was startling to come across so many genuinely friendly and kind people in the MSP area. I guess it is that midwesterner charm I had heard about before. I knew that when a perfect stranger walking down the street in Minneapolis cheerily said ‘hello!’ to me as he walked by, that I had entered some sort of parallel universe. That’s never happened to me before in any city, unless the stranger in question was wanting to panhandle or was mentally ill, and I have grown accustomed to not having such interactions on city streets. Out in the countryside it is different of course.

In an east coast city, if you asked a stranger on the street for directions, as often as not, while they will likely answer you minimally/tersely, they are as likely as anything to take a step back as they do it and a look of mild apprehension will cross their face, as if you might be about to attack them or hassle them. It’s a bit disconcerting I find. In a train station in Minneapolis I asked a younger woman on the platform for directions and not only was she friendly but helpful, going out of her way to make sure I clearly understood which course to take. It was almost unworldly to spend time in such a place. Jeez, imagine that, people can be friendly and cordial to one another! I would consider living in the MSP area if not for the endless and very cold winters.

Anyway, I digress. While in Minneapolis I took the opportunity to visit the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, ‘MIA’ for short. I had long wanted to visit the Institute as I knew they had one of the country’s better collections of Ming/Qing classical Chinese furniture. There’s a fine hardback publication available describing the collection of furniture. What I saw there however really knocked my socks off. I would say that the MIA collection and use of actual Ming/Qing-era architectural spaces to set context was at least on a par with the display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I was really impressed!

There’s a grainy 1990’s news documentary on the installation of the Qing Scholar’s library and attached garden in the MIA, which can be found here. Be sure to click the ‘Full Screen’ button to watch the short video.

The room is part of a house originally built in 1797, though the library is thought to be of later construction:

When I visited the hanging lamps were not illuminated so the room was a lot darker. It is quite a richly detailed space. We see a yokeback chair, and a larger painting table dominating the space, with a storage cabinet, also of huang-huali, to the left of the view. In the background there is a zither atop a slender table, quite similar in form to the painting table. The ceiling and chuandou beam work in this small room was awesome – I could have spent hours in there just laying down an looking up at the view, however there was no access actually into the space. You peer through the lattice doors at either end of the space instead. It was still pretty cool. There is some calligraphy on one of the beams indicating the name for this space: “The Studio of Gratifying Discourse”. I can imagine that it would have been a great place to while away the hours while broadening the mind in study and practice. Private libraries and gardens were essential to the production of some of the most original and important literati art of the Ming and early Qing dynasties. While the formal reception hall of a Ming/Qing house was a marker of status and class structure, the library was altogether different, a reflection of the house owner’s personal taste and aesthetic judgement.

The ideal at the time in which this home was originally built, was that the furnishings of the home reflect concepts of antiquity, simplicity, and elegance, and that the home itself should in some way join the inhabitants with nature. Hence the attached garden to this scholar’s studio.

Another view of the ‘library’:

On the right above you can see part of a bookcase with a pair of drawers. I thought it was pretty sweet, constructed of rosewood and ebony. Here’s a full view of that piece:

Clean lines, handsome, dignified. And it was made in the mid 1600’s. It is 71″ (180.4cm) tall. The use of wumu (ebony) is unusual, and I think it goes very well with the rosewood framing. Note that Chinese books were typically stored in shelves like there in horizontal stacks, not vertically as we commonly do today. That’s the reason the shelf spacing is greater than what one might expect. Though none survive today, bookcases of similar form, up to 7′ tall and 14 feet in length were once made.

Also from the same room, here’s a better view of the zither table:

Also a product of the 17th century, and made of huang-hauli (rosewood) and nan-mu (cedar). An elegant design, superbly balancing simplicity and sophistication, and embodying great fluidity. Not visible in the above picture is the additional board, the cedar element, set below the tabletop, creating an air space between panels. The two panels are further connected to one another internally by bronze springs, so that vibrations from the top panel are transmitted to the lower. In essence, the table itself is a bit like a musical instrument case. The piece’s clean lines with flush miter joint corner construction (simianpang) give it a timeless aesthetic.

The ‘Studio of Gratifying discourse’ is but one of two Chinese rooms at the MIA. The other is the Wu Family Reception Hall, of early 17th century construction:

I was struck by how large many of the chairs are. A portly 300 lb individual would not be squeezed when taking a seat. They convey grandeur and status. To quote from the Institute’s page describing this space, “This formal, ceremonial space symbolized the unity and continuity of a Confucian family. It was where elder males carried out religious rituals, honored their ancestors, received guests and entertained friends. Such rooms also served for various family activities including seasonal festivals, weddings and coming-of-age ceremonies. As the most important room in the house, the main hall expresses the social status and economic power of the family as well as its degree of cultural refinement and artistic tastes. Although certain conventions governed the placement of furniture within main halls, the style of furniture, quality of calligraphy, paintings and objects selected for use and display were clear indications of a family’s budget, taste and intellectual refinement.”

To the right in the above picture one can make out a large cabinet with lattice-panelled upper section. Here’s a better view of the piece:

Completely made of rosewood, save for the tops of the interior drawer units which employ a softwood of some sort (likely nan-mu). It’s a fairly rare form of furniture. To give a sense of the size, the dimensions are 79.5″ (202cm) tall, 40.75″ (103cm) wide and nearly 20″ deep. Consider the single rosewood panels used for the doors and sides in light of those dimensions….

The upper section with the latticework, probably meant for display of precious objects, is a tradition connected strongly with classical Chinese architecture. The above latticework is not made as a pierced fretwork but rather by joining short pieces together with mortise and tenon joints. Such an approach makes for a lattice that is resistant to splitting and warping, as the parts can more easily accommodate seasonal movement. The form shown in the lattice of this piece is of four  cloud forms (ruyi) set back-to-back and connected to one another with flower blossoms, likely persimmon. A modest carving of opposed dragons graces the lower front apron.

Clouds, ruyi-un (如意雲), grace many pieces of Ming/Qing classical furniture as a decorative embellishment. They are meant to symbolize the granting of all wishes.

Another view of the Wu formal room shows the roofwork to better advantage:

Elsewhere in the Institute one can find other fine pieces of Chinese classical furniture. One of the most outstanding is this extremely long rosewood side table:

It’s a magnificent piece of furniture, a full 149.5″ (380cm) long. The table top is a solid rosewood plank nearly 3″ thick. Constructed sometime between 1600 and 1675. Still very straight and flat. That’s how to do a slab table!

There are many other fine pieces on display, and if you are in the area and have the interest, I strongly recommend a visit to the MIA. Entry charge is by voluntary donation. They also have one of the nicest Japanese tea rooms I have seen outside of Japan, and a large Sho-in room as well. Clearly more than can be covered by a single blog post. I hope I have at least whetted your appetite.

As always, thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.

4 Replies to “MIA”

  1. CHRIS;
    Looks like a great place to visit!Tried to watch video,computer quit working.Couldn't find the book on MIA eather.Will try lator.Does the book show the joinery of the furniture?Until next post,thanx!

  2. Thanks for posting these photos. That museum might be the best reason I can think of to visit a city that is so far off my travel horizons. I've always loved the elements in Chinese furniture, like the back posts and rail in the chairs, that are fully round and also oval in section.

  3. JT,

    the book is called “Classical Chinese Furniture in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts”. It's not out of print so it will be easy to find on Amazon or Ebay, etc. The book does not devote many pages to joinery.

    Appreciate your comment.


  4. Tico,

    good to hear from you – it's been a while. Glad you liked the photos. I've been long thinking of doing a version of a Chinese chair, with some adjustments that might make them more comfortable for sitting. I also like their sinuous lines and clever joinery – not sure which is more my favorite though, the yoke-back or the horseshoe pattern….


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