Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Eric Thelander, of Albuquerque, N.M., created and installed the Sugar House district's six new concrete benches that look like couches.

New couches, tables, dressers and other home essentials used to be hauled in and out of Sugar House's business district all the time.

But most of the stores that made Sugar House the valley's go-to center for furniture are gone now, giving way to big-box retailers and other new development.

Given the area's history, the new furniture that arrived in Sugar House on Saturday turned several heads and had many others nodding in approval.

Six benches with concrete "cushions" were installed in the Sugar House business district over the weekend by Eric Thelander, the artist who created them.

Thelander, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., was commissioned by the Salt Lake City Arts Council to construct and install the benches as public art. The $40,000 project was funded by Salt Lake City's Redevelopment Agency.

"They have a different look than any other concrete I've seen," Thelander said of his work. "It's an odd form to see concrete in. It looks like it would be plush. I hope people aren't too disappointed when they sit on them."

Public art projects like the new benches in Sugar House can be found throughout the city, creating "a sense of place" for an area and its residents, said Nancy Boskoff, executive director of the Salt Lake City Arts Council.

"It is the intersection of civic life and artists' work," Boskoff said.

Sometimes it's commemorative, sometimes it's humorous and sometimes it's a source of community pride, she said. But because each commission is original work, it's always different.

"Public art enhances our culture," said Bruce Miya, a Salt Lake City architect and member of the arts council. "It can be kind of a sign of the times, reflective of the times and the culture of an area."

In January, Steenblik Park in the Rose Park neighborhood saw the area's history revisited with the addition of "Dairy Cats," created by Utah artist Day Christensen. The four 4-foot cast-bronze cats are a nod to the Steenblik family, who for many years operated a dairy in the area.

"They make you smile," Boskoff said of the "Dairy Cats." "The idea is they're the cats you'd find hanging around the barn either waiting for milk or mice."

Another recent addition to the city are the "Flying Objects," 12 sculptures grouped at three sites downtown. Each sculpture is attached to a pole and will remain on display for three years — while much of downtown undergoes extensive construction as part of the LDS Church's $1.5 billion City Creek Center development.

"We wanted a lighthearted visual addition to downtown during this period of heavy construction and transition," Boskoff said.

The arts council has teamed up with the Utah Transit Authority to add art to all of the TRAX stations in the city, as well as Salt Lake City's commuter rail station and intermodal hub.

"People will look at them, and it gives them something else to think about," she said. "It enriches lives in that way."

The city's public art program operates on an annual budget that most years ranges between $100,000 and $200,000 but has been as high as $450,000 because of the number of projects. The program is funded through the city's Capital Improvement Program and its RDA.

Members of the Salt Lake City Council, who also make up the city's RDA board of directors, have shown a strong commitment in recent years to public art.

"As a council, we believe it enhances our quality of life," said Jill Remington Love, City Council chairwoman. "It makes the city more interesting and vibrant."

The City Council annually puts a percentage of its budget toward public art, Love said.

"It's a cumulative effect," she said. "We now have a number of interesting pieces throughout the city."

The newest public art addition to the city was chosen from "a myriad of submittals" for bench-like structures proposed for the Sugar House Business District, Miya said.

"We fell in love with the concept of the couch because of the romance of Sugar House," he said. "(The area) had Southeast Furniture, Granite Furniture, Sterling Furniture and other new and used furniture stores."

"It captures the community," Boskoff added. "We liked that (Thelander's proposal) related to the intertwining of the history of furniture."

The benches feature curved steel frames, with concrete seat and back cushions that were cast in plastic-lined molds. Gathering points in the plastic, such as the buttons in the back cushions, created what looks like wrinkling fabric in the concrete.

"Each of them has its own fingerprint," Thelander said. "The wrinkles came out a little different on each one."

The artist said he believes the benches will be a great fit in Sugar House, though he confesses he didn't know about Sugar House's furniture history when he designed them.

"No wonder I got the job," Thelander said. "That's just a happy coincidence right there."

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