The Surprising Role of Furniture Design in Donald Judd’s Creative Practice

How designing objects like Chair 84, released in stock in black plywood this spring, allowed the artist to synthesize his sculptural and theoretical approach.

A 2017 Donald Judd Furniture installation in New York. (Photo: Sol Hashemi, © Judd Foundation)

Donald Judd’s first furniture designs were products of necessity. He made his children, Rainer and Flavin, a daybed—two twin mattresses separated by a half-height wall in the middle for privacy—that was soon followed by a desk and, logically, a chair to go with it. Though he owned some Modernist designs, including a formidable collection of Alvar Aalto pieces, he continued producing furniture simply because he couldn’t find what he was looking for; in the process of creating it, design became a vital part of his diverse creative practice—and a way to synthesize his sculptural and theoretical approach.

That first chair, originally designed in 1982, would become known as Chair 84. (A mahogany-and-plywood version of it will feature in SFMoMA’s July exhibition “Donald Judd: Specific Furniture.”) It’s currently available via Donald Judd Furniture, a branch of the Judd Foundation, a nonprofit that maintains the artist’s living and working spaces, libraries, and archives in New York and Marfa, Texas. Though it has remained a relatively well-kept secret in creative circles, Donald Judd Furniture has more than 70 original designs on offer and usually adds a new in stock object to its line each spring (the chair has long been available for custom order). In May, Chair 84 was released in black plywood, a material he began using during the final years of his life.

Judd's preliminary sketches for chairs, June 27, 1988. (Photo: © Judd Foundation) The Forward Slant Plywood Chair 84. (Photo: Charlie Rubin, © Judd Foundation)

From his earliest attempts, Judd’s furniture maintained a remarkably cohesive aesthetic, guided by a rigorous focus on materiality, proportion, and scale. He wrote about his philosophy often, notably in the 1993 essay “It’s Hard to Find a Good Lamp,” in which he emphasized that good design is not the same thing as art: “The art of a chair is not its resemblance to art, but is partly its reasonableness, usefulness, and scale as a chair.”

For Judd, furniture was related to art insofar as it should do its job in a beautiful way. But above all, he aspired to a certain sense of clarity. “The chair has a basic function, and the design does not contradict that function or add any unnecessary embellishments,” says Judd’s son, Flavin, who refers to his father by his first name. “Don’s thoughts and feelings about design all came from a basic framework that was based on Midwestern practicality and empirical philosophy. The chair does what it needs to do with the littlest fuss possible.”

Judd's drawings for wood furniture, chairs, and benches on November 20, 1986. (Photo: © Judd Foundation)

Working iteratively was important to Judd, as it allowed him to continuously interrogate spatial relations. “He liked seeing what things would look like. Once he started sketching variations, there were many he wanted to see,” Flavin says. “Usually financing or other factors would limit the variation, not his imagination.” The first furniture pieces were made from 1×12-inch planks from a local lumberyard; not owning a saw, Judd had the yard cut the wood to his specifications and hammered them together himself. Judd conceived Chair 84 with 10 different base configurations, which he made first out of pine and refined further in hardwood. Later, he worked with area carpenters in both New York and Marfa—a practice that is maintained by the Judd Foundation—to produce his designs.

In the 1990s, Judd started working with plywood, a material that appealed to him for its straightforward proportions, availability, and ease of use. With plywood, color became an increasingly important factor. “‘Color is like material,” Judd wrote. “It is one way or another, but it obdurately exists.” The material’s layered structure made it possible for him to explore a condition in which the color and material were one and the same.

The unassuming nature of Donald Judd Furniture reflects the artist’s own approach to distribution. During his lifetime he sold mostly to friends, family, and select collectors, and wrote extensively against mass production while advocating for good design to be “fairly available.”  The furniture line maintains Judd’s legacy without regard to the passage of time, allowing anyone to purchase items in the exact materials and specifications in which they were originally created. As Judd himself knew all too well, it’s not about whether something is new or old, but whether or not it is good. And everyone should have access to a good chair.

Judd at Eichholteren, 1990. (Photo: Franziska & Bruno Mancia, © FBM Studio)
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