A New Benchmark

November 6, 2014
Made by local craftsmen and based on a design specified by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the new benches in the Harvard Art Museums blend beautifully with the galleries’ hardwood floor.

Even the most eager museum visitor needs to take a break every once in a while. Sturdy benches are the perfect place to rest while soaking in masterpieces (or consulting a map).

All 24 benches at the new Harvard Art Museums are also works of art. Based on a design specified by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the benches were handmade by local craftsmen.

The idea to hire local artisans to build the benches came from the museums’ leaders, including Thomas W. Lentz, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director, and Peter Atkinson, director of facilities planning and management. “We wanted to give work to up-and-coming craftspeople,” Atkinson said. And to that end, he contacted Boston’s North Bennet Street School, renowned for its hands-on training in traditional trades, to find out whether any alumni would be interested in the project.

Among those who responded was Jeff Pizzi, of Gulezian / Pizzi Woodworking in Providence, Rhode Island. Pizzi, together with business partner Joseph Gulezian, was ultimately commissioned to build 20 of the new benches. (The remaining four benches were prototypes made by other North Bennet Street alumni and deemed worthy of use as well.)

Renzo Piano’s design called for rift-sawn white oak, meaning the lumber was milled in a way that produced a stable board with straight grain, rather than the more erratic grain of plain sawn lumber. Native to the Northeast, white oak is one of the most valued hardwood species wherever it grows. However, it was difficult for Pizzi and Gulezian to find rift-sawn boards wide enough to meet the design specifications.

“I must have called every single lumberyard between Maine and New York City,” Pizzi said. “With a simple and elegant design like this, the wood stands out. We were looking for a premium cut, and run-of-the-mill lumber wasn’t going to be close to the kind of quality we needed.” Eventually, he and Gulezian were able to source supplies from a Rhode Island company selling New York–grown white oak.  

The two injected their own perspective into the benches in subtle ways. “Each piece of wood is truly unique, so there’s this grain-matching that goes on with every single bench,” Gulezian said. “We tried to find boards that looked good next to each other. We used only four boards throughout each bench, so the tops and legs come from the same piece of wood. That gives the benches an aesthetic unifying force.”

After construction, Gulezian and Pizzi stained the benches a deep chestnut hue to complement the museums’ hardwood floor. They then applied a catalyzed varnish to highlight the wood’s natural features and provide a protective finish. The 20 benches (10 measuring about five and a half feet long, and 10 measuring four feet long) were delivered to the museums in early October.

Pizzi, 23, said he considers the project a “landmark” accomplishment early in his career. Added Gulezian, 31: “We were really proud to deliver the benches, and we look forward to having them be out in the world.” The two believe the benches will last for generations. “It’s always satisfying to build something that will likely outlast oneself,” Gulezian said.

Meanwhile, Gulezian and Pizzi have been busy with a second project for their new client. They’re building 70 easels for the museums’ Art Study Center, to be delivered just before the museums’ November opening.