By Maya Bell
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (April 22, 2016) — As a master furniture maker, Austin Matheson has crafted dozens of handmade chairs, most of them for dining room sets destined to become family heirlooms. He’s sawed, chiseled, and sculpted them from prized wood in numerous styles—from Shaker to Colonial West Indian to Arts and Crafts—but they all have one thing is common: “As soon as they leave my shop I never lay eyes on them again,’’ Matheson says.
That will not be the case with the one-of-kind University of Miami Presidential Chair that Matheson, an adjunct professor of architecture, created at the request of President Julio Frenk. Known as a cathedra, the chair is a traditional symbol of the seat of learning and will take its place on the commencement stage as a new symbol of the Office of the President.
Matheson, a fifth-generation Floridian whose own rich family history in South Florida predates the University’s 1925 founding, carved and joined what appear to be the seamless pieces of the simple but elegant chair emblazoned with the University seal and the more subtle detail of the ibis from a single slab of highly prized Cuban mahogany wood.
The cathedra, which took Matheson 120 hours of painstaking labor to complete at his Fine Handmade Furniture shop in Miami, will be on exhibit on Thursday, April 28, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the School of Architecture’s Korach Gallery, with a reception at 5 p.m. The exhibit, Building Tradition: The Making of the University of Miami Presidential Chair, will also feature the drawings, models, and patterns chronicling the process of creating the chair from tree to finished object.
Originally weighing 200 pounds and measuring 7 feet long, 33 inches wide, and 4.5 inches thick, the slab of once-abundant Cuban mahogany was salvaged from a tree in nearby Coconut Grove that, fittingly for a University that opened amid the ruins of the 1926 hurricane, was felled decades later by another hurricane.
The fluidity of Matheson’s seemingly seamless design represents the idea that “We Are One U,” while his inventive incorporation of both a contemporary style and traditional flourishes represent the University’s rich past and promising future. “The chair is unique, it has no precedent. It stands alone,” Matheson said.
In what Matheson called “a tricky maneuver,” the Great Seal of the University of Miami was carefully etched by a computerized laser into a place of prominence, on the splat, or back of the chair. Matheson’s teaching assistant, Zach Anderson, performed that honor. “He practiced it about six or seven times,” Matheson recalls.
More subtle are the twin silhouettes of the ibis head, with its graceful beak, that adorn each side of the crest rail. Known for its invincible spirit when hurricanes approach, the marsh bird has been the school mascot since the University opened its doors, just a month after the hurricane of 1926 devastated Miami. And just like the ibis, Matheson and President Frenk hope the University of Miami Presidential Chair will continue to serve as a symbol of the University’s resilience and renewal through its new century, and long after.
“The University of Miami Presidential Chair brings together the intellectual and artistic resources of our faculty, the natural resources of our city, and the rich traditions of our University,” President Frenk said.
“It was a great project and I have to say I like it a lot,’’ added Matheson, who teaches furniture design and fabrication, one of the few non-theoretical, hands-on courses at the School of Architecture. “It was a long process, but since I was only making one, it was an honor to devote that kind of time to it. After all, it is something that will last a long, long time.”