During his lifetime American artist Donald Judd worked in a variety of media, from sculpture to printmaking to furniture. Much like the art he produced, Judd’s furniture is best known for its celebration of clean lines and a pared-down aesthetic. His work in furniture-making, however, was originally sparked not out of exploration or curiosity, but rather out of necessity and utility. He first constructed a wooden bed and metal sinks for his home in New York’s SoHo neighborhood in the early 1970s, then dusted off his skills at furniture-making again in 1977, building an array of pieces for use throughout his home in Marfa, Texas. By 1984, he had added a variety of key pieces to his repertoire, including desks, chairs, benches, beds, and a table.
In recent years, major institutions have shed new light on Judd’s body of work, including a 2018 exhibition at SFMoMA titled “Donald Judd: Specific Furniture,” which included a selection of 31 Judd chairs, shelves, daybeds, and other popular designs. Additionally, a highly anticipated retrospective of Judd’s artwork is scheduled to open at New York’s MoMA in March of 2020, which is the first of its kind in over thirty years.
Although Judd passed away in 1994, his artistic legacy lives on through the work of Judd Foundation, which operates through and maintains both former residences on Spring Street in New York and in Marfa, Texas. It is led by his adult children Flavin and Rainer Judd, and is staffed by a team of individuals dedicated to the preservation of the artist’s vision.
Today, Judd furniture resonates with contemporary art collectors and design enthusiasts alike, with examples of Judd furniture commonly found in both post-war and contemporary art sales as well as design sales at major auction houses worldwide. Our editors recently sat down with Christopher Longfellow, Director of Operations, New York & Donald Judd Furniture to discuss the artist’s approach, philosophy, and what collectors should consider when acquiring a piece.
Donald Judd’s Artistic Approach
Judd himself once wrote, “If a person is at once making art and building furniture and architecture, there will be similarities. The various interests in form will be consistent. If you like simple forms in art, you will not make complicated ones in architecture.” True to this philosophy, many parallels exist between the composition of Judd’s visual works and his furniture designs, but one fundamental difference exists: Judd’s furniture had to be functional, which he did not see as a necessity of art. Longfellow echoes this sentiment, noting, “For Judd, furniture must be both useful and beautiful.” But function, above all, was undoubtedly the guiding principle of Judd’s furniture design.
Influence and Inspiration
Judd was not only an artist and designer himself, but a collector, too. He was known for having extensively collected 20th century art and design during the course of his lifetime, and installed his collection throughout his living and working spaces in both New York and Texas. Among the designs he acquired were examples by Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto, along with many other prominent designers including Mies van der Rohe, Gierrit Rietveld, Rudolph Schindler, and Gustav Stickley. A new exhibition at the Judd Foundation’s New York location takes a closer look at two such artists and designers that Judd himself looked to for inspiration. Titled “Aalto + Chamberlain,” the exhibition pairs several of Aalto’s designs with paintings by artist John Chamberlain, and illuminates stylistic parallels between their bodies of work.
Although Judd’s work is often associated with Minimalism today, the artist himself did not actually consider himself a minimalist, believing it to be reductive or a simplification of his approach. Longfellow explains, “Certainly, Judd’s work in art or furniture is not the ‘minimalism’ which is so broadly referenced today. The qualities of the furniture are not about the removal of any extraneous or superfluous aspect of a design; Judd’s furniture is focused entirely on the function, scale, proportion, and material – which can be very rich and varied with grain and color.” Although the artist rejected the idea of categorization of his work, Judd furniture undoubtedly resonates with collectors today looking for a minimalist aesthetic; beloved for its essential elements and uncomplicated design.
So what materials did Judd turn to in his work, and why? Judd elected his materials based on availability, Longfellow explains. “They were materials he used in his art as well—wood, plywood, painted and anodized aluminum.” Judd’s use of industrial materials in his artwork was innovative, leveraging stainless steel, concrete, plywood, brass, copper, Plexiglas, and galvanized iron in ways previously unconsidered by artists of his time.
Today, Judd furniture can be found in a variety of colors. “Judd was always interested in color, for art as well as furniture, which was informed by availability with the furniture colors for both plywood and painted aluminum,” Longfellow explains. “The colors of the painted aluminum are from the RAL color system, used primarily in Europe.” RAL (short for Reichs-Ausschuss für Lieferbedingungen, or “National Commission for Delivery Terms and Quality Assurance”) is a German organization founded in 1925 that uses a color matching system to define colors for paint, coatings and plastics.
Collecting Judd Furniture
Collectors of Judd furniture, Longfellow says, seek the simplicity, quality and craftsmanship for which Judd furniture is known. Those seeking Judd furniture today have a few options, including acquiring rarer, pre-1994 examples found at auction.
An additional option for collectors is acquiring post-1994 productions that are sanctioned by the Judd Foundation and produced based on the artist’s original specifications. They include select designs (in metal, plywood, and wood) that are immediately available to order, with all other designs and finishes available for custom order. In fact, there are over 70 original designs available through Donald Judd Furniture. (A detailed list of available designs can be found here.) Donald Judd Furniture also researches designs that may have existed solely as a prototype, or were only made only once for one specific place. “We are always looking at pieces in the collection or archives,” Longfellow adds. “For example, there are metal pieces that have not produced in many years in certain finishes and also frame metal designs.”
When asked what the primary difference between those examples found at auction and those produced by Donald Judd Furniture, Longfellow explains that they do not differ in fabrication and that the materials and process remain true to the artist’s original methodology. In his lifetime, Judd himself once addressed the pricing of his furniture, explaining that most of the furniture remains fairly expensive because of its method of construction, and the fact that it is not easily available. He added, “We have made a serious effort to lower the prices but the furniture is handmade. I am often asked if the furniture is art, since almost ten years ago some artists made art that was also furniture. The furniture is furniture and is only art in that architecture, ceramics, textiles, and many things are art. We try to keep the furniture out of art galleries to avoid this confusion, which is far from my thinking. And also to avoid the consequent inflation of the price.”
Some of the most sought-after designs among collectors today include designs that are featured in Judd spaces, which naturally make them iconic and familiar to collectors, Longfellow explains. Three of the most in-demand designs include:
- Single Daybed 32
- Chair 84
- Frame Chairs
So what hallmarks should collectors look for when ensuring they’re acquiring an authentic design by Donald Judd? “Each piece is individually stamped with trademark, production number, and year which is unique to each piece,” Longfellow explains. “The production number is a continuation of the studio records and maintained by Donald Judd Furniture.” Contemporary productions are stamped and numbered sequentially.
As the first chair design Judd created in 1982, the ‘Chair 84’ is a notable example of the artist’s work, enduring in popularity among collectors. But there are two pieces, however, that were most meaningful for Judd himself: some of the earliest examples he created, which were for his children Rainer and Flavin, undoubtedly a labor of love for the artist. Flavin’s desk is now part of the permanent collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and other many other examples by the artist are on public view at both the Judd Foundation’s New York and Marfa locations.