In September last year, some unusual items of furniture appeared in the windows of the flagship headquarters of The Conran Shop in London. Severely rectilinear, beautifully tooled and made in a variety of exotic woods, these unarguably functional desks (from £21,000), stools and chairs (both from £2,200) carried not just the allure of their own rigour, but also the association with their designer, the renowned American sculptor Donald Judd. Since Judd created the first prototypes in the 1970s and 1980s, these pieces have continued to be manufactured on a one-off basis, through the Judd Foundation, in collaboration with selected craftsmen. This was the first time, however, that the furniture has been publicly sold in Britain, with all 20 of Judd’s original designs available to order through the store. The initiative, a joint venture between the foundation and The Conran Shop, reflects a growing interest in furniture made by artists – and an awareness, in our design-conscious age, that classics in the genre are likely to prove a valuable asset.
The business is not, however, a straightforward one. There is suspicion on both sides – from design galleries concerned that artists will have no respect for practicalities, and from artists, who worry that the constraints of creating objects for use will dilute their vision. For Judd, however, his philosophy was very clear. In 1993, the year before he died, he wrote an essay entitled It’s Hard to Find a Good Lamp, exploring his occasional forays into this line of work from the 1960s onwards – driven, as he was, mostly by necessity. There he wrote, “The configuration and the scale of art cannot be transposed into furniture and architecture. The intent of art is different from that of the latter, which must be functional. If a chair or a building is not functional, if it appears to be only art, it is ridiculous… The art in art is partly the assertion of someone’s interest, regardless of other considerations.” At the same time, there was no denying that his functional creations were the product of the same sensibility as his iconic, machine-tooled stacks and boxes. For Jasper Conran, chairman of The Conran Shop, it was this distinctive character that he felt his customers would respond to, even at prices that range from £2,200 for a chair to £25,000 for a single bed. “This particular aesthetic is very pertinent to the here and now,” he says. “There is a purity.”
Conran is not the only purveyor of contemporary design to be drawn to artists’ work, nor Judd the first artist to make furniture. Gian Lorenzo Bernini created whole chapels, after all; William Morris drew the Pre-Raphaelite painters Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rossetti into his circle of “Fine Art Workmen”; and the French artists Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne have always freely crossed boundaries between sculpture and furniture. For the past few years, however, besides galleries working with designers to make what has been called “design art”, there has been a resurgence of interest in working directly with fine artists to make functional pieces. One of the first was Gallery Fumi, opened in Shoreditch by Valerio Capo and Sam Pratt in 2008. They specialise in generating one-of-a-kind or limited-edition items of furniture and decorative art that exist somewhere between design and art. As Capo comments, “The artists use functionality to serve aesthetics, where designers use aesthetics to serve design. Collectors are looking for one-off items of showpiece furniture to have in a room.” From Rowan Mersh, for example, a textile artist, who makes wildly imaginative, unique wall works from shells (£19,000), wool or offcuts of leather, they commissioned a table from Fendi leather strips (price on request). Thomas Lemut, meanwhile, had his first exhibition with Fumi in 2010, displaying his exquisitely made, superbly refined tables (£15,000), chairs (steel and leather armchair, £12,000) and bookcase (£30,000) in traditional materials such as leather, wood, slate and assorted metals. Lemut had come to making furniture by a back route. A sculptor, he had been producing miniature collages, using feathers, butterflies and other materials on paper, and was looking for a way to frame them, to make them figure larger in space. “I either had to put the work on a pedestal or add an element of functionality – so I started inserting the miniatures into specially constructed tables.” Finally, he decided to cut them out, “to liberate the furniture”.
Lemut suggests that he approaches his designs as a sculptor. “Everything starts with drawing. My furniture is about line and space, and how the object cuts into space.” On the other hand, he works closely with the craftsmen who make his pieces (“I am always on their back”) to ensure that the items work. “I am doing real furniture – it has to be properly functional. Otherwise, I might as well do pure, abstract sculpture.” Lemut argues that these kinds of creations require a consideration not just of shape and space, but also of their connection to the person. “In the 1990s, fine art became more and more conceptual or grew into installations that could only be accommodated in museums, hence breaking the relationship between the artist and the collector. With furniture, you recreate a direct link. I like this.”
Sam Orlando Miller, the son of a silversmith, trained as a sculptor. As he puts it, “I come from a crafts background, but it is a kind of burden, making things and learning skills. I tried to ignore it, deny it.” For some years he made abstract works in steel. Then, about four or five years ago, while helping his photographer wife to take images of the interior of their home in the Marche in Italy, he picked up some pieces of mirror he had kept and, using both his silversmithing skills and knowledge of steelwork, made an elliptical, faceted mirror. Suddenly, the charcoal drawings of diamonds and ovals he had been doing began to make sense. As he says, “Curiously, household objects are a way into an abstract world.” His dealer from Hedge Gallery in San Francisco came to visit and asked for more. “It was like a floodgate opening. I had so many ideas banked up. I thought, ‘Well, I might as well be who I am’.” Since then, he’s made lights and tables (from $30,000) as well as different-coloured mirrors ($50,000 for a large one) for both Hedge and Fumi. The latter carries his beautiful patinated-silver designs with their mysterious numbers around the edges (£18,000). Two specially commissioned examples were recently on show at Chatsworth House as part of Sotheby’s exhibition, Modern Makers.
Another artist tempted by the opportunity that Modern Makers presented for her to make functional objects was Junko Mori. Mori trained as a blacksmith in Japan and as a silversmith and metalworker in the UK, but has always used these artisanal skills to make purely sculptural items, inspired by the organic life of marine creatures, or the trees and plants among which she now lives in North Wales. In 2007, however, she was invited to display her work at The Harley Gallery on the Welbeck Estate, and was so inspired by one of its candelabra, that she decided to make one. The Welbeck (about £35,000) was cast directly from plant matter to resemble a tree (“I wanted all the elements to be real”), before being cast in silver. At Chatsworth, it was the dual inspirations of the books of botanical prints in the library and an enormous chandelier made from deer antlers that spurred her to create Plants Exotica (£21,700), the first in a series of dark, wax-coated-steel chandeliers that are based on plants. This one has sold but Mori intends to make more in the future; she also works on commission (about £30,000). As she says, “Artistic practice is an abstract concept, like personality. It is expressed equally in the design work and in the craft sphere, and in both functional and non-functional objects.”
For gallerist Diane de Polignac, based in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, her engagement with this territory began four years ago. She had been dealing in vintage Scandinavian furniture and postwar art. Then, in 2010, in pursuit of a certificate of authentication for a sculpture by the distinguished French artist Guy de Rougemont, de Polignac stumbled upon a quite different line of work. “I went to his studio expecting to see a lot of paintings and sculptures, but I also saw lots of paper models and sketches for other objects, including a beautiful one for a table.” De Polignac asked if he would create the piece, named Archipelago, for the gallery (“It was a crazy design to start with – over 3m long!”) and he agreed (€65,000). Since then, de Polignac has brought into existence many more of the ideas littering de Rougemont’s studio, an entire world of joyful, sinuous, colourful furniture based on the serpentine line and the ellipse, that blends pop art with minimalism, wit with glamour (from €7,000). This was not de Rougemont’s first foray into household objects – in the 1970s he created his iconic Nuage table for the interior designer Henri Samuel, among many other pieces of furniture and sculptures, examples of which are in museum collections throughout the world. One illuminated table from 1970, made from Plexiglas, brushed steel and palissander, fetched €157,500 at Sotheby’s in Paris, in May 2013. But de Polignac is introducing his work to a new audience and “the response from the public was immediate”.
De Polignac has since begun to work with other leading contemporary artists. Nathaniel Rackowe, born in Cambridge in 1975 and a graduate of the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, creates large-scale sculptural works, combining light and industrial materials, often with a kinetic element, that interact with their architectural environment. Originally inspired by the seminal work of Judd and Dan Flavin in America in the 1960s and 1970s – or, as Rackowe puts it, the notion of making “real, 3D objects that exist in the same space we move through” – today his approach takes root in his more personal experiences of living in a metropolis. He takes photographs on his phone of those moments of juncture between architecture and illumination, noticing “how the hard can be softened and transformed by light”, and then trying in his work “to make permanent those fleeting moments that make city living more bearable”. But he was also always fascinated, he tells me, “that Donald Judd had certain forms he would allow himself to use in furniture, but not in his art”. So when de Polignac, who had begun collecting his sculptures, first broached the idea of Rackowe making functional pieces, the challenge appealed. “At that moment, the art I was making was still looking at architecture and urban space, but also at domestic space and furniture.” A year and four prototypes later, he sees the two disciplines as running in parallel, with both currently employing light and glass, as well as paint (he’s produced two tables, €12,000 and €18,000). While he still enjoys making huge installation-scale work, he says, “There is something very interesting about making objects that will go into the intimate domestic sphere of the collector.”
Jedd Novatt, American-born but Paris-based, is a leading sculptor of international standing. In December 2013, he unveiled two sculptures at the new Pérez Art Museum Miami. Amusingly, Novatt came to furniture precisely because his wife had found it hard to find a good lamp, so he made one – and a couple of side tables – out of plaster, which his then Paris gallery, Hopkins-Custot, cast in bronze (€25,000 each). Some years later, while living in the same neighbourhood as Diane de Polignac’s gallery, Novatt had the idea of making pieces that “riffed off” his seminal Chaos series. Made from dancing, dazzling assemblages of the skeletons of metal cubes, they are an attempt “to define how we experience space… they are imploding, collapsing, exploding”, inspired as much by particle physics as by the history of art. For Novatt these are entirely abstract, whereas the furniture, such as a table consisting of a glass top on an assemblage that riffs on his sculpture, is by nature representational (take Staklite, €35,000, and Midtown, €38,000). “When I create an object, by virtue of its function it already contains a ‘subject’: table, lamp.” The difference is absolute for him. “In making art, there is something unknown – a mysterious, mystical element that’s hard to define but recognisable.” With the furniture, as with the art, “you’re still after something powerful, beautiful, intelligent”, but for Novatt it is sculptural rather than sculpture itself.
Los Angeles-based artist Ry Rocklen, by contrast, is just coming to the conclusion that his new line of limited-edition, rectangular functional sculpture made from sports trophies – which he has dubbed Trophy Modern(from $3,500 for a bar stool to $100,000 for a whole bar) – may be the seed of an entirely new art project. Inspired by a piece he made from second-hand trophies he had accumulated, Rocklen first expanded his view to craft functional chairs and tables, built from the athletic prizes that mean so much to American children. Then, at Art Basel Miami Beach 2013, he was commissioned by Absolut to create an entire bar installation, including ping-pong and chess tables. Excited by his collection, he now has dreams of further lines – Trophy Modern Wood and Trophy Modern Noir, which are both in various stages of production. As he points out, “It’s a funny territory. We are still selling to art collectors. We are not at Design Miami.” At the same time, the pieces are entirely practical. For him, the final conceptual realisation of the project would be to open a furniture store in LA. Despite the bling, and the padding, in their strict rectilinearity and blurring of the borders between art and function, these pieces still owe a great deal to their minimalist forefather, Donald Judd. They are just, Rocklen claims, “more comfortable”.