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Design ≠ Art: Functional Objects from Donald Judd to Rachel Whiteread

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Tom Sachs, “Bitch Lounge” (1999), welded chrome-plated steel base with tufted leather upholstery. Tom Sachs. Photo courtesy nest magazine.

The art of design often takes a back seat to explorations of art and architecture, fashion, or music. Design ≠ Art: Functional Objects from Donald Judd to Rachel Whiteread addresses this neglect, examining utilitarian objects conceived and constructed by Minimal and post-minimal artists. Chronologically, the exhibition begins at the end of modernism—the late 1960s—when divisions between disciplines of fine and applied art finally collapsed, terminating a five-hundred-year reign that exalted the artist over the artisan. Artists may have always produced furniture, set designs, and domestic objects, but rarely do we see design raised to the same level as art. The mathematical symbol in the exhibition’s title reveals a shift in emphasis—design is not equal to art, but neither is it greater or less than art—that opens a Pandora’s box of new critical inquiry.

To answer the question “Is there a difference between design and art?” the curators Barbara Bloemink and Joseph Cunningham present an array of functional objects that are bare of ornament, expressive of their structure and materials, and well suited to their purpose. Three case studies form the thesis of the exhibition: Donald Judd saw a significant distinction between his art and design work; Scott Burton believed no difference existed; and Richard Tuttle saw value in both points of view. Works from this triumvirate fill the exhibition’s largest hall as well as a former bedroom in the Carnegie Mansion (which houses the Cooper-Hewitt), where the ornate, Victorian-era furniture that once cluttered the room, as seen in a documentary photograph, is replaced piece by piece with the geometric forms, sharp angles, and solid forms of Judd, Burton, and Tuttle.

Judd’s no-nonsense designs do not stray from his Minimalist aesthetic. What his furniture may lack in human comfort is made up in practicality: his construction is laid bare, displaying directly each object’s precise function. His “Bed #87” provides a stability and rightness of design that no Ikea knockoff could ever match.

Whereas Judd’s singular vision is his greatest strength, Burton succeeds with the experimentation of material and form demonstrated by the Formica and wood “Lawn Chairs (A Pair),” the rolled steel “Two Curve Chair,” and “Low Piece,” a polished granite bench. His diminutive “Child’s Table and Chair,” painted white with pastel pink, yellow, and blue accents, is scaled to its intended user, and the polished stainless steel tabletop acts as a mirror, offering the child-user an unusual opportunity for self-reflection.

Tuttle puts the fun back in functional: his work is playful, quizzical, and occasionally difficult. “Turbulence Chair,” two scarlet cubes connected at one corner, may be placed in six different positions or laid on its side to be used as a headrest. In “Mei-Mei’s Lamp,” a glass shade and light bulb are suspended from a cord that snakes around a small structure of pine sticks—its delicate look belies its careful construction. His chandeliers, which hang from the ceiling in several rooms, are made of not only tubes of blown milk glass but also ordinary, store-bought PVC pipes.

Other artists favor elegant design and conceptual clarity to polemical stances. Sol LeWitt applies his simple aesthetic to his functional objects. “Coffee Table” strongly resembles his white open-cube structures, only turned upside down and topped with a square pane of glass. His steel coffee table, folding screens, and walnut bookshelf employ the artist’s signature permutations of horizontal, vertical, slanted, and curved lines. His editioned “Untitled (Set of Four Crystal Glasses),” with their machine-incised lines, complement nicely Robert Wilson’s “Angel Glassware,” a set of three blown glasses, each a unique object.

Some works, such as Bryan Hunt’s food-prep table, serve their intended purpose so well they eclipse the artist-designer. Others, such as Dan Flavin’s porcelain plate and bowl sets (whose painted undersides produces colored shadows from the overhead light) and James Turrell’s “Lapsed Quaker Ware,” emit the aura of art.

Richard Artschwager provides aesthetic, if not comic, relief: the cowhide of “Chair/Chair” actually looks comfortable to sit on, and the wing-like mantle of “Klock” invites the visual pun “time flies.” A wall label describes Tom Sach’s “Bitch Lounge” as “singularly uncomfortable and difficult to use,” a critique of modernist design intended to strain the sitter; seen differently, Sach’s seeming negation actually offers a well-grounded alternatives to ordinary ways of sitting. The exhibition’s subtitle includes Rachel Whiteread, an artist who bases much of her sculpture on furniture. But as only one work by her appears in the show, tucked away in a room housing an interactive work by Franz West, her importance here is diminished.

What is examined in the accompanying catalogue, but missing from the exhibition, is context. The installation at the Cooper-Hewitt appears ahistorical: modernist predecessors—the Russian Constructivists and the Bauhaus school, for example—are rarely invoked (though a separate exhibition on Josef and Anni Albers in the first-floor galleries does provide some background). There are other inconsistencies as well. The omission of Andrea Zittel, a contemporary artist whose entire oeuvre involves art and design in everyday life, is almost unforgivable. Works by Jorge Pardo and Isamu Noguchi represent a biomorphic tendency in twentieth-century design that is at odds with the exhibition’s focus on Minimalism; an emphasis on fantastic, curved forms in artists’ design may be the subject of another exhibition.

Is there a difference between art and design? Artschwager seems most prescient in his observation, “If you sit on it, it’s a chair. If you walk around it and look at it, it is a sculpture.” Notwithstanding, the selections in Design ≠ Art, many of which have never been shown in a museum setting, make the divide between fine and applied art much more difficult to maintain.


Chris Howard


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2004

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