While "design" and "art" are categorically separated by their ability to "function" or not, furniture can exist as both. In the '60s, American painter and sculptor Richard Artschwager exploited the traditional functions and expectations of furniture in space; Yayoi Kusama, an early pioneer of soft sculpture, used chairs as substrates for her accumulations; and Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs (1965) is arguably the most cited piece of Conceptual Art. Today, a young generation of up-and-coming artists are also using furniture, blurring the boundaries between sculpture and functional design, or breaking them down all together. Here, we look at eight contemporary artworks that are also, furniture.
"May Flower" exhibition view at David Lewis
Mostly known for her paintings, Lucy Dodd drips, spatters, and smudges pigments from unlikely sources (cuttlefish ink, berries, lichen, tea, etc.) onto raw canvas. She’s described her works as characters in conversation with one another, and they’re often arranged in a circle, each painting facing towards the middle. For her 2018 exhibition “May Flower” at David Lewis, the New York gallery that represents her, she adapted this arrangement to accommodate a series of chairs. Arranged in a circle, the chairs are each made by knotting and tying dyed cotton around metal frames. And yet, each has a unique personality: Two club chairs, entitled Grams and Gramps, share the same ‘70s-plaid-like weave. B Bzzzzz is entirely black and yellow. And Tipsy Turtle is green and oval shaped—like a turtle’s shell. All together, this cast of characters could be the rag tag offspring of Jim Henson and Marcel Breuer, wacky yet sophisticated. Instead, they’re by Lucy Dodd, an artist who knows how to harness, if not control, the organizational possibilities of chance and chaos.
Chairs (after Brigid Mason), 2014
Bunny Rogers, who virtually has a cult-like following of young women who share Rogers’ pre-teen fondness for early web 2.0 culture (Rogers was born in 1990), makes art and poetry mined from her own experiences as an adult who came of age online. Her works “explore a universal experiences of loss, alienation, and a search for belonging,” says the press release for her first solo museum show in the United States: “Brig Und Ladder” at the Whitney in the summer of 2017. A handful of thematic objects recur throughout Rogers’ work: ladders, ribbons, mops, and—chairs. Rogers has an uncanny ability to imbue chairs with personality; with subtle interventions, her chairs become anthropomorphized, and you can’t help but feel sorry for them. There's the Sad Chairs that she showed at Art Basel in 2015; with backs drooping forward, as if in poor posture, the cartoonish chairs seem to sulk, depressed. Then there’s Reject Chair Set (2016), a reproduction of two chairs that the artist saw in police photographs of the cafeteria at Columbine, the Colorado high school where a 1999 school shooting took the lives of 13 people. Rogers’ chairs are burnt in melted; violent and sad, they are hard to not also perceive as cute and cartoonish—a combination of traits that Rogers has poetically perfected. Also in reference to the Columbine massacre is a set of three computer chairs Rogers exhibited at the aforementioned Whitney exhibition. Chunks of foam are missing from the chairs' backs, replicating some of the bullet-ridden chairs found inside the school following the shooting. Last but not least are the sweet Chairs (after Brigid Mason) (2014) consisting of two small, chunky chairs woven together. While chairs are designed to hold the weight of our bodies, supporting our rest, Rogers’ chairs project the weight of our emotions and relationships.
and i'm telling you i'm not going, 2018
An art fair is an unlikely place to find viewers willing to get intimate with a work, to spend time experiencing a durational piece, and... to get their nice clothes covered in Vaseline. Still, adventurous visitors found themselves doing all three at NADA Miami 2018 and Material Art Fair 2017 inside Good Weather gallery’s booths. The work was by Sondra Perry, and it consisted of an audio piece that could only be consumed if the audience was willing to wear a pair of headphones—covered in Vaseline—while sitting on top of a slip-covered couch—again, covered in Vaseline. Perry finds innovative ways of asking viewers to put in some work. Working mostly in video and computer-based media, she makes installations that can only be viewed while, say, working out on a rowing machine (Wet and Wavy Looks—Typhon coming on for a Three Monitor Workstation, 2016), for instance. But while you could think that experiencing her work is “hard,” in many ways, she goes out of her way to make it easy. A huge supporter of net neutrality and open source software, Perry makes all of her videos available for free online, and also shares her software with schools and institutions. Why? Perry’s work is largely about Blackness and how identity is portrayed in the media, so by encouraging people—especially people inaccurately or stereotypically portrayed in media—to become producers of their own content, she fosters a culture of collective, yet diverse, production. The particular piece pictured above was first exhibited at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center, then later included in her solo exhibition at The Kitchen, and ultimately ended up in the MoMA’s collection.
Strawberry Fountain, 2019
Unlike some of the objects on this list, the furniture of Zach Martin is meant to be sat on—“by land animals from rodent size to human size,” says the artist in the press release for his current show with Fisher Parish gallery at NADA House on Govenor’s Island. Concurrently on view is a pair of sculptural bird houses by the young artist, installed within the freestanding gallery space of Hotel Art Pavilion in an overgrown Brooklyn backyard (full disclosure: the gallery is co-run by this author.) In proposing objects for non-human users, Martin asks his human audience to consider the relationships between their own spatial needs and the needs of other species occupying familiar territory. More generally, Martin’s practice involves using found materials—often already furniture—in addition to traditional artist's materials like resin and epoxy to create objects that are equally convincing as sculpture or design. The piece pictured above was fashioned using a reclaimed boat seat (inverted) along with saw dust, resin, and wood. With a muted pallet, subtle variations in texture, and a nostalgic reverence for the ‘80s, Martin’s work comes as a breath of fresh air amidst a sculptural trend that for the past several years seems to dominate emerging art: sloppy craft, messy materiality, gloopy ceramics… you know the look. Martin’s work is handmade and refined, and any rodent would be lucky to sit on it.
Redemption Island Standing Table, 2019
Remember plopping down to rest your feet wall wandering the galleries of 2017 Whitney Biennial? Beneath your derrière was the work of Jessi Reaves, a RISD-educated, New York-based artist who’s made a career out of making furniture as art. Her sculptures are often Frankensteined together, composites of found and vintage furniture that she cuts up, deconstructs, and then puts back together in endlessly imaginative and unexpected ways. Her objects are not always functional, sometimes willfully so. Take, for example, Island Standing Table (2019), recently exhibited at Bridget Donahue gallery, who represents her. A mid-century lounger—an object deeply embedded in the cannon of Modernist design—is rendered useless, encased in a glass box. Is it functional? Sure, as a table. But the chair’s original use is denied and replaced with the role of ornamentation. “Reaves decorates and dislocates the once austere, practical forms with what translates to expressionistic action,” writes Eliza Barry of the work for The Brooklyn Rail. The 33-year-old artist has exhibited her work at the aforementioned Whitney Biennial, and has held solo shows at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut, Herald St. In London, and SculptureCenter in Queens—and she shows no signs of slowing down.
And the Other is Gold, 2017
Compared to the rest of the artists on this list, Katie Stout is probably the closest to a designer—though she’s certainly keeps one foot in the art world. She’s currently a designer-in-residence at Schloss Hollenegg, a castle in Austria that hosts emerging designers, and she’s represented by design dealer R & Company in New York. Oh, and she’s a winner on HGTV reality show Ellen’s Design Challenge. But she’s also represented by Nina Johnson gallery in Miami, and she’s exhibited her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara. “Stout’s furniture is haunted by the period pieces she took as inspiration,” writes her gallery, and we might also think of her work as haunted by the patriarchal history of art and design, which for so long had objectified women, using their bodies as models, props, décor. Stout literally objectifies women’s bodies too, using paper maché and other crude sculpting methods to turn the female figure into objects, objects to be used. In doing so, Stout prioritizes other, intrinsic “functions” of the female body, like breastfeeding and menstruation, for instance.
New York-based artist Hannah Levy works primarily with silicone—a soft, maleable, semi-translucent, skin-like material—and nickel-plated steel—cold, rigid, exact, refined. The combination of the two, at least in the case of Levy's paired-down, minimal sculpture, is an object that's equally seductive and austere. The lounger pictured above is based on a drawing by Charlotte Perriand, a French Modernist, but is actualized at only three-quarters in scale. Too small and delicate to actually sit on, these objects look like functional design without acting like it, giving Levy the opportunity to use the very idea of Modernist and Minimal design as a material. A grouping of pearls, inlayed on the surface of the silicone seat, speak to both opulence/luxury, and the organic/fleshy. This work was debuted at a solo exhibition at Brooklyn's CLEARING gallery where, alongside other curvaceous furniture-like forms in nickel-plated steel, marble, and silicone, the artist also presented a graphic video involving fingering oysters in search of pearls (watching this video and not thinking of sex is probably impossible). Levy was picked up by Casey Kaplan in March and will have her first solo with the New York gallery in 2020—so keep on the look out.