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Design Intentions 

Minimalism goes domestic at the Museum of Design

The central question posed by Design ± Art: Functional Objects from Donald Judd to Rachel Whiteread seems to find its answer in the exhibition itself.

"Is design art?" wonder curators Barbara Bloemink and Joseph Cunningham about the various pieces of furniture and functional objects made by famed minimalists and post-minimalists such as Judd, Scott Burton, James Turrell and Joel Shapiro.

Judging by the gallery attendants, whose job is to keep gallery-goers from sitting on the furniture, it appears that the answer is yes.

Though the sensuous curves and genuine oddity of these pieces beckon, the rules of the gallery wrist-slap a firm "no-no." You'll have to answer to no less than Kiki Smith if your hindquarters besmirch the massive "The Nature of the Gun" suite of twin couches, chairs and a coffee table designed by Richard Tuttle and on loan from Smith.

The artists themselves disagree on how to view their design work, with Judd taking pains to draw a line in the sand between his sculpture and his furniture, and Tuttle tending to reject such distinctions.

Even before they ponder the question "what constitutes art?" many viewers may be flummoxed by the notion that artists as rigorous and cerebral as Judd actually designed a prototype for a child's desk or a living-room couch.

Some of the most canonical minimalists in art history's stable are on display. These include Dan Flavin, whose porcelain dinner plates have the subtle pastel glow of his fluorescent light works, and Richard Artschwager, whose hybrid pop/minimalist works have always pondered issues of form and function and therefore make perfect sense in Design ==== Art.

In some ways, it's only natural that sculptors, so obsessed with making objects, and especially minimalist sculptors, would be intrigued by the idea of making furniture. Minimalists like objects.

An ample display of Judd's furniture, founded on a pleasing formal simplicity, is especially intriguing for the formal and conceptual echoes of his sculptural work. Minimalist sculpture has an intimidating quality, sitting in a gallery like some extraterrestrial communication or crop circle, but a chair is unambiguous. Design turns out to have a democratizing effect on the minimalist goal of getting an audience to simply reflect on the "objectness" of the thing. People who aren't big fans of minimalism, who find it cold or too cerebral, may find themselves warming to the accommodating gesture behind these artists' simple act of making something useful. Design ==== Art can't help but change your perception of the artists.

Or not. In the case of Tom Sachs, one finds that behind the smart-aleck conceptual artist, there is a smart-aleck furniture maker. The artist who gave us Chanel guillotines and a Bart Simpson nativity scene offers "Bitch Lounge," a sexy white-leather chaise longue. We will just have to take the wall text's word for it, that the low-slung "Bitch" is "singularly uncomfortable and difficult to use."

Both Sachs and Whiteread seem to bring prickly conceptual attitude to bear on their designs. Whiteread's resin casts of "negative" space - the underside of a chair, the volume of a building - have often flirted with design. Whiteread concedes that her utilitarian/retro day bed that looks like a nubby brown lozenge is "not really that comfortable," suggesting the artist's intention of evoking the negative space of comfort: discomfort.

Several works are genuinely poetic, like a simple table and chairs by Judd in which the chairs are identical but inverted, a kind of metaphor for the sublime differences between people resolved at the social détente of the dinner table. The chairs are so slight it looks like you could toss them with just one hand. And yet, like the conversely fragile/solid human form, one must assume they are strong enough to support a body.

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