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How Should Furniture Respond to the World Around It?

By Nikil Saval

A Speaker on Which to Rest the Perfect Gin and Tonic at Sunset by Michael Verheyden.
 
Photograph by Anthony Cotsifas/ Set design by Jill Nicholls
A Speaker on Which to Rest the Perfect Gin and Tonic at Sunset by Michael Verheyden.

Artists have long been interested in the domestic space, but as the distinction between art and design becomes ever more blurred, more artists are making objects that function, and more designers are making sculpture. Plus: Five designers create original furniture, exclusively for T.

When we talk about artists making furniture, an old debate over whether design counts as art (and vice versa) rises once again to the surface, like a shark baited with chum. Furniture designers aren’t, by the logic of the category, really artists, and artists, by that same logic, must normally be engaged in a higher pursuit than furniture. Only on occasion — thanks to a creative block, a desire to make (more) money, or a temporary absence of mind — do artists descend from the empyrean to sanctify the grimy world of designer-makers. Furniture, lovely though it sometimes may be, is functional and commercial; art is timeless and to be contemplated.

That few artists or designers today would accept the terms of this debate is in part because of the 1970s and ’80s rise of postmodernism in both art and design. Postmodernists made an infamous show of confusing distinctions, and the idea that an artist’s work could also include chairs and tables became commonplace. But this doesn’t imply that the essence of both art and design has been entirely subverted. In 1994, the Austrian sculptor Franz West placed couches on the roof of the Dia Center for the Arts. The institution presented this act as an installation, and West also felt the need to justify this type of work in art-theoretical discourse, generating a Latinate category for his practice — “active reception” — that instantly made problematic the thing he was supposedly trying to bring about: the unity of art and design. Donald Judd, the most famous artist-turned-furniture designer, first tried to make furniture in the mid-60s by attempting to turn one of his rectangular volumes into a coffee table. It was a bad table, he concluded, and he threw it away, as he recalled in his 1993 essay "It’s Hard to Find a Good Lamp,” in which he writes, “If a chair or a building is not functional, if it appears to be only art, it is ridiculous.”

Photograph by Anthony Cotsifas/ Set design by Jill NichollsA Chair for Twins to Intertwine by Faye Toogood.
A Chair for Twins to Intertwine by Faye Toogood.
Photograph by Anthony Cotsifas/ Set design by Jill NichollsA Chair to Freeze Time by Andrea Tognon.
A Chair to Freeze Time by Andrea Tognon.

And yet, these generic boundaries have been collapsing for decades. We now seem to have reached the inevitable conclusion that form and function are increasingly indistinguishable. More and more artists produce functional commercial objects — whether it’s Sterling Ruby making working stoves (even if the ones cast in bronze look like imposing sculptures) or Robert Gober making wallpaper (even if that wallpaper was on view in the artist’s 2014 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art) — and more and more designers are creating furniture that merely skirts the border of function. Rick Owens, a fashion designer who first ventured into home goods in 2007, makes plenty of usable chairs and tables, but he also makes the occasional plywood daybed that one wouldn’t dare recline on; his work is sometimes more of an aesthetic exercise, and it can look more like a geometric study by minimalist sculptor Robert Morris than a domestic object. (Tellingly, Owens shows his designs with Salon 94, a New York gallery that formally opened a design program last year.) Everyone now is an artist, and anything is possible.

There are cynical reasons for this, of course — art generally sells for more than furniture, so to blur the lines between a piece of furniture and a work of art means that a person can sell furniture for more money. But artists have long had a fascination with functional objects. The origins of the modern attempt to unite the decorative and the fine arts may lie with William Morris: English poet; maker of furniture, books and wallpaper; and revolutionary socialist. Working over the course of the late 19th century, he was inspired by a romanticised idea of the Middle Ages. Back then, before our fallen age, the figure of the craftsman and the fine artist were indissolubly united. Painting and sculpture had ritual functions, and the decoration of rooms was not reserved for specialists in interiors; the names of artists, untethered from notions of auteurism and genius, were considered obscure and unremarkable. It was, in Morris’s view, a freer time, with a more consistently beautiful standard of art.

What had separated the artist and the craftsman, and relegated the designer to the category of the “lesser arts”? For Morris, the answer was capitalism. It divided labor into infinitesimally smaller functions and thrived on creating inequality between forms of art. Even within the practice of decorative arts, it made access to fine goods a luxury. If art is “ever to be strong enough to help mankind once more,” Morris wrote in 1880, “she must gather strength in simple places.” Accordingly, one of Morris & Co.’s most successful objects was the most functional of all: the Sussex rush-seated armchair, designed in the 1860s by Philip Speakman Webb. With the nostalgia embodied in its fine wood-turning, it was both profoundly simple and rustically handcrafted, syncretically calling to mind rural chair-making of ages past.

Photograph by Anthony Cotsifas/ Set design by Jill NichollsA Shelf at Last for the Great Books That Have Come With Me Around the World by Wonmin Park .
A Shelf at Last for the Great Books That Have Come With Me Around the World by Wonmin Park .
Photograph by Anthony Cotsifas/ Set design by Jill NichollsA Chair to Practice Ascetic Discipline and Reach Transcendence by Pedro Paulo Venzon.
A Chair to Practice Ascetic Discipline and Reach Transcendence by Pedro Paulo Venzon.

The market subverted Morris’s ideals several times over, and now the rush chair sells for upward of $1,500 on 1stdibs.com. But his ideal persisted through the 20th century, which was full of rearguard efforts on the part of the socially minded to return furniture to the world of the arts. Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany, called the synthesis of arts and crafts “total architecture.” Artists entered the school and were trained to make flatware and lounges. From the world of industrial design, the spirit of the all-encompassing nature of design is captured in Charles Eames’s phrase “Everything is architecture.” The phrase seems to suggest that there are no boundaries to the scope of design. The lissome, moulded plywood shells of his and his wife Ray Eames’s lounges, partly rooted in Ray’s studies of abstraction in painting, evoke the visual space where design gives way to sculpture.

These convergences between art and design through furniture reached their apex, as well as their dissolution, with the products of the Ettore Sottsass-led Memphis group in the early 1980s, at the onset of the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. These were lurid, insanely colourful objects that were nonetheless functional. Sottsass, trying to explain the wacky sensuality of the work, dubbed it a “cauldron of boiling mutations.” The iconic Carlton bookcase’s geometric elements called up Art Nouveau; its base, resembling concrete, quoted Modernism; its laminate shelf-ends echoed the tackiest of kitchen products. As with the American art world of the ’80s, a commercial madness and media frenzy seized the group. More than 2,000 people swarmed the opening of Memphis’s first show, in Milan in 1981. Sottsass, a utopian like Morris, Gropius and the Eameses, recognised a cynicism in the project he had started, and he soon abandoned it. “We did not expect such a response and I decided to leave Memphis in 1985,” he later explained, “when everything had become too exposed and had lost its meaning.”

Photograph by Anthony Cotsifas/ Set design by Jill NichollsA Speaker on Which to Rest the Perfect Gin and Tonic at Sunset by Michael Verheyden.
A Speaker on Which to Rest the Perfect Gin and Tonic at Sunset by Michael Verheyden.

His statement could characterise the postmodernism of the 1980s and ’90s, at once delighting in exposure and oppressed by the spiritual and political void it revealed. The inverse of Memphis’s playful world was the spirit of aggression infusing works like the artist Tom Sachs’s “Bitch Lounge” (1999). It has the leather finish of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chairs, but in place of their rakish tilt, it is uncomfortably low to the ground and too short to lounge on. Somewhere between the desire to celebrate and the enduring desire to épater lies the artist Rachel Whiteread’s Daybed, designed in 1999 for the British furniture company SCP. Drawing on her earlier installations that explored the space underneath beds and tables, Whiteread extended the basic achievements of American minimalism — such as defining physical space around simultaneously mute and expressive objects — to create something functional. She wanted, she later said, to create a form that would “entice you to lay on it but it is not really that comfortable.” Austerity, hilarity, anger: Each is another mark of distinction, of the ever-growing refinement of an art market that, searching for new forms of exclusivity, at last colonises the place where you sit.

 

Credits
Retouching: Anonymous Retouch.
Photo assistants: Karl Leitz, Caleb Andriella, Weichia Huang and Jess Kirkham.
Set assistant: Todd Knopke