Should We Be Uncomfortable With Furniture in Art Galleries?

Most contemporary art galleries have little in common with our homes. The artworks on display might deal with quotidian subjects, but exhibitions tend not to look like domestic settings. Their white walls, harsh overhead lights, and quiet atmosphere all point toward their apparent purpose: to encourage the viewer to give their full attention to the art on show, to let it dominate their perception completely. In the white-walled, “non-domestic” gallery, it is just you and the artwork. Such a communion between the exhibition and the viewer seems to require total abstraction from the detritus of everyday life. But what happens when the gulf between home and gallery is crossed? At first, seeing exhibitions incorporating home furnishings worried me; they seemed to dilute the distilled experience I describe above, placing artworks alongside products and turning galleries into shops for luxury goods. But this worry is misguided. Furniture is a false flag that does not reliably signal commercialism. In fact, a space that feels like home can facilitate an embodied kind of engagement with art that the barren art galleries we are used to do not offer.

Orlando is the name of one of Virginia Woolf’s characters, a never-aging writer and aesthete. Last year, Pi Artworks in London staged a group exhibition titled An Ode to Orlando which imagined what their home might look like if they were alive today. Orlando is also the name of a loveseat made by Ada Interiors, a luxury interior design brand whose furniture was on show as part of the exhibition. Being used to sparsely furnished non-domestic galleries, seeing the trappings of a bourgeois home life invading this exhibition felt jarring. It reminded me that the paintings and sculptures on show were not just there for me to enjoy as a viewer; they were also products for sale. Like the chairs and tables that they shared the space with, they were objects part of the way through a journey that would end in a transaction.

Installation view of An Ode To Orlando at Pi Artworks in London (photo by Alperen Ergin, courtesy Ada Interiors)

Galleries do not just show furniture alongside art; sometimes furniture is the art. For example, David Zwirner’s website advertises divans, coat racks, and plastic chairs made by Franz West for sale with prices starting at $12,000. The museums are at it too: A while ago, I overheard the Barbican’s blockbuster Noguchi retrospective referred to as “the IKEA exhibition” — presumably because of the many paper lampshades, now mass-produced by the Swedish furniture giant, on show. As in An Ode to Orlando, blurring the line between art and furniture seems equivalent to blurring the line between a gallery and a shop. It turns a space for delighting in art into one for shopping for art. It seems that the non-domestic gallery’s purpose is for viewers to engage with the work on show whilst the gallery-cum-furniture-showroom is for customers to make purchases.

But furniture in the gallery is a false target. Although it might make me think of a cynical and commercial approach to exhibition programming, it does not constitute it. The gallery that looks more like a home is not necessarily more guilty of commodifying the art that it shows. The dealer who turns their nose up at including furniture in an exhibition is just as likely to think of artworks — or more worryingly, artists — as products. Furthermore, I’m sure that if the right collector offered the right sum of money for one of the works they show, then they would be ushered into a back-room to sit at a mid-century mahogany table on a design-classic chair to write a cheque.

I believe that we should resist artworks being treated and transacted like products, but understand that furniture in the gallery is largely value-neutral. In fact, it may even be a good thing. People have been making the case against galleries that attempt to transcend real life for as long as they have existed. In his book Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (2000), Brian O’Doherty describes the non-domestic gallery as a place where “that odd piece of furniture, your own body, seems superfluous, an intrusion.” He makes a good point: To achieve the kind of communion I described earlier, one is expected to somehow leave behind one’s own existence as a physical body, an expectation that seems unrealistic and deeply problematic.  

At HOME, an aptly named multifunctional space in North London, this expectation is dropped completely. In addition to running a program of exhibitions, it offers a communal desk to work at, a small library of books and magazines to read, and armchairs to sit and read them on. There is often music playing and there is a kitchen in the corner where anyone is welcome to make themselves a cup of tea or use the microwave. Here, I feel welcome to lounge, read, listen, eat, drink and enjoy the art on display. Here, the body is not a superfluous intruder but a central part of my experience of the exhibition. Spaces like this confirm to me that we shouldn’t be worried about the presence of home furnishings in galleries. We have seen that it is not a reliable marker of a commercial attitude towards showing art. When we understand the transcendent, abstracted experience that non-domestic galleries appear to offer as an unrealistic ideal, the home finding its way into the gallery becomes an opportunity to embrace a more concrete and embodied way of experiencing art.

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