Architectural answers to: When is a chair a chair?

CHAIRS: They rock, roll, swivel, recline for us. Their ultimate duty is to keep gravity from getting the best of our derri`eres. And when they're not struggling to keep us in comfort, they're entertaining the cat's claws, last week's clothes, or some dirty pair of shoes. Surely chairs have been given a raw deal as far as jobs go.

But all this aside, the chair's purpose in life can be both aesthetic and functional, as shown in 397 Chairs (Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, $24.95, 96 pp.).

Based on a 1986 exhibition by the Architectural League of New York, ``397 Chairs'' features contemporary creations from designers, architects, and furnituremakers from around the world who attempt to answer the question What is a chair?

Richard Artschwager, artist and league board member, answers it this way: ``If it looks like a chair, it might be one. If you can sit in it, it is.''

The pleasure in this book is in the sheer study of its photos, taken by Jennifer L'evy.

The only text is a preface by Frances Halsband, president of the league, and an essay, ``The Seat of the Soul,'' by Arthur C. Danto, a Columbia University professor and art critic of The Nation.

Organized by number, the photos - some in black and white, some in color - feature the 397 chairs. They're accompanied by corresponding information: the individual or organization that submitted the chair, year it was made, dimensions, and materials used.

The chairs range from the simple and functional to the outrageous and uncomfortable-looking; handmade and mass-produced.

Throughout you'll find yourself imagining what it would be like to own this or that chair, sit in it, and see it in your home.

Consequently, you'll appreciate chairs as art, as tools, as novelty - and as topics of conversation.

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