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How Should Furniture Respond to the World Around It?

March 19,2018 16:17

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 ...


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.”
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A Chair for Twins to Intertwine by Faye Toogood
When the London-based designer Faye Toogood was pregnant with her twin daughters last year, she found herself dwelling on the image of a double-yolked egg, which conveyed the squishy comfort of snuggling in a warm space. Living part of the year with her family in their country house in Hampshire, she would occasionally come across double yolks in the fresh, organic eggs there, reminding her of the serendipity that can happen when you embrace nature. “I really wanted to keep that feeling,” she says of this cotton love seat. Using canvas isn’t unusual for Toogood, though generally she has reserved it for her unisex garments; her furniture tends to be minimal and sculptural, rendered from materials like resin and fiberglass. But since she finished the twin seat she’s come to see it as a new prototype for furniture that brings a relaxed edge to her clean and rigorous aesthetic.CreditPhotograph by Anthony Cotsifas. Set design by Jill Nicholls

A Chair to Freeze Time by Andrea Tognon
The architect and designer Andrea Tognon works and lives in an industrial site at the edge of Milan that he has transformed into a verdant garden of Zen minimalism. He is dreamy and cerebral by nature, which animates his work for Céline’s retail stores, with their veiny pastel marble and contrasting corrugated metal. Little wonder one of his favorite books is Italo Calvino’s physics-rich short story collection “t zero,” especially the title tale, which takes place in the mind of a lion hunter coolly estimating if the arrow he has just shot at a pouncing beast will kill it before the lion can reach him. “It’s about extending mentally the value of a single instant of time infinitely,” he says. To make a chair that might convey that paradox, he cast a square concrete seat, a round base made from concrete with bits of exotic marble swirled in, brass hardware and a rounded back covered in fox fur. “To experience all these sensations simultaneously is a way to feel more alive in the moment.”CreditPhotograph by Anthony Cotsifas. Set design by Jill Nicholls
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 romanticized 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.

A Shelf at Last for the Great Books That Have Come With Me Around the World by Wonmin Park
Furniture designer Wonmin Park has never placed a premium on the easy comforts of home. He left his native Seoul at 24 after a few years in architecture school and, after a year in London, enrolled in the notoriously rigorous design program in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Although both his Dutch and English were shaky, he stayed in the isolated town for nine years, eventually developing his Haze series, geometric tables and chairs made from colored resin. Lately Park, who is now based in Paris, has begun to work with aluminum, and for this project, mixed it for the first time with resin. “The perfect chance to find out how the two materials might interact was to make a place for these books that have inspired me through a very long road: Matisse, Brancusi, Serra, Carl Andre,” he says. “They are at the heart of my work.”CreditPhotograph by Anthony Cotsifas. Set design by Jill Nicholls

A Chair to Practice Ascetic Discipline and Reach Transcendence by Pedro Paulo Venzon
Pedro Paulo Venzon drew on the history of his native Brazil while it was under Portuguese rule to create this chair. The designer says he is interested in “objects of damnation” and their relation to colonial history and punishment. The chair recalls Venzon’s signature sleek and minimal designs, and its purpose is to take whoever sits in it into another dimension of contemplation. Though given Venzon’s preoccupation with damnation, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is not meant to be comfortable. Occasionally one must suffer in order to transcend.CreditPhotograph by Anthony Cotsifas. Set design by Jill Nicholls
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, molded 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 colorful 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, recognized 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.”

A Speaker on Which to Rest the Perfect Gin and Tonic at Sunset by Michael Verheyden
Michael Verheyden and his wife, Saartje Vereecke — who run their design practice from the industrial Belgian town of Genk with only two assistants because they want their own elaborate handiwork to remain at the forefront of their products — are, understandably, exhausted at day’s end. Although their work, which includes suede stools and delicately shaped marble vases, seems effortlessly pared down (a former model, Verheyden was mentored by Raf Simons, a master of the small, inflected gesture), it is, in fact, all-involving, physically and emotionally. So after cleaning off his hands and walking across the street to their house, Verheyden, who plays guitar and sings in a band called In Trees, wants nothing more than to reconnect to a time when audio components were stunning pieces of furniture on their own, with a place of glory at the center of the house.CreditPhotograph by Anthony Cotsifas. Set design by Jill Nicholls
His statement could characterize 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 colonizes the place where you sit.
Retouching: Anonymous Retouch. Photo assistants: Karl Leitz, Caleb Andriella, Weichia Huang and Jess Kirkham. Set assistant: Todd Knopke

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