Sitting Pretty

updated 06/02/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/02/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT SOUNDS LIKE THE GUEST LIST FOR the perfect dinner party: Albert Einstein is at one end of the table, flanked by Marilyn Monroe and Groucho Marx. Opposite that power triad are contemporary headliners Tom Cruise, Prince Charles and Bette Midler.

With all this talent, where can mere mortals sit? On the laps of the famous, of course, since we're talking about the celebrity-lookalike chairs of Toronto artist Elaine Barrett.

As it happens, Barrett's chairs have moved a little closer to the head table. In April loyal husband Larry Labovitch, a cab-company owner, made a 16-hour drive to New York City, where he talked NBC staffers into presenting his wife's Cruise model to Rosie O'Donnell. Charmed, the chat show host added the gift to her set. "I adore it," she confided to the audience, "and I will sit on it frequently."

The daughter of a pharmacist father and a social worker, Barrett, 47, was a high school math teacher and amateur artist when she started experimenting in the late 1980s—bolting hand-painted profiles to ready-made chairs, mainly as a way to display her mother's costume jewelry. When she donated a Marilyn Monroe to a charity auction in 1992, it sold for $350 and an art form was born. Since then, Barrett has turned out more than 100 one-of-a-kind chairs, selling for up to $1,000 each. "My techniques are bizarre and of my own making," says the self-taught craftswoman, who sometimes puts in features with her fingers instead of a paintbrush.

Sold from her studio, Barrett's catchy chairs move so quickly that she only has two left in her suburban home—a Queen Elizabeth II and a Bette Davis that may, in fact, be spoken for. "My cat," she confides, "likes to sit on Bette."

From Our Partners