Home Business Quiz: Is This Real Donald Judd Furniture or a Knockoff?

Quiz: Is This Real Donald Judd Furniture or a Knockoff?

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“If you guys are furniture people, because I’ve really gotten into furniture lately,” Kim Kardashian said in a YouTube video, gesturing toward a large wooden table and set of chairs, “these Donald Judd tables are really amazing and totally blend in with the seats.”

When the video — a tour of the Los Angeles offices of Ms. Kardashian’s skin-care company, Skkn by Kim — was released in 2022, few so-called “furniture people” raised an eyebrow. Most viewers likely assumed that the reality-star-turned-businesswoman-turned-actress-turned-criminal-justice-advocate had real Donald Judd tables, which cost $90,000, and chairs, which go for $9,000 each. The artist’s furniture is tasteful, aspirational and so expensive that it may seem ostentatious to anyone who recognizes it — all in line with Ms. Kardashian’s brand image.

There was one problem: The tables and chairs weren’t Judds. Last month, the Judd Foundation sued Ms. Kardashian and Clements Design, which manufactured the furniture. “Clements Design’s and Ms. Kardashian’s actions harm Judd Foundation’s reputation by undermining its ability to control the quality of pieces sold under its trademarks, as well as its ability to control Mr. Judd’s name and identity,” the foundation stated in its complaint.

The tables in the video are “lower quality than Donald Judd’s furniture,” a lawyer representing the foundation told The New York Times last month. “We don’t want to be mixed up with Kim Kardashian. We respect what she does, but we don’t want to be involved with this.”

Clements Design and Ms. Kardashian did not respond to requests for comment, but in a statement released last month, Clements Design said it had tried “to resolve this issue amicably,” but that the foundation “was unwilling to settle on reasonable terms,” adding: “These claims have absolutely no merit.”

Donald Judd was one of the most acclaimed artists and designers of the 20th century, a leading figure in the 1960s Minimalism movement whose legacy has endured long after his death in 1994, particularly with a 2020 Museum of Modern Art retrospective of his drawings, paintings and what he referred to as “specific objects.”

His furniture — simple forms made from unadorned metal and wood — was something different from his art, as he made clear in a 1993 essay titled “It’s Hard to Find a Good Lamp”: “Art cannot be imposed upon” furniture and architecture, he wrote. “A good chair is a good chair.”

Still, Donald Judd’s good chairs — and tables and stools — have been hugely influential. And their simplicity makes them highly susceptible to copying, especially given the popularity of his aesthetic in the Instagram era.

“While knockoffs have always been a serious issue for Donald Judd furniture,” Flavin Judd, his son and the artistic director of the Judd Foundation, wrote recently in an email, “the prevalence of social media and the hype of the image has made the problem more obvious.”

These days, it seems, almost everyone wants a piece of the Judd aesthetic, though not everyone can afford it. So it’s not surprising that people have figured out how to achieve the look for less.

For D.I.Y.-ers, there are plenty of online guides on how to make Judd-style pieces at home, using basic supplies from the hardware store. One New York City arts club, Happy Medium, offers a Build-a-Chair workshop where crafters can learn how to make Judd-like furniture. And a 2019 Architectural Digest article promised “Donald Judd-Inspired Furniture, Now at Ikea Prices” — something many Etsy sellers and independent furniture makers are also happy to supply.

But there’s a difference between being inspired by Judd’s furniture and attempting to make a replica, said Rainer Judd, the artist’s daughter and the president of the foundation. “A design crosses the line,” she said, “when it is confusingly similar to a Donald Judd design.”

Donald Judd was well known as an artist and critic in New York when he moved to Marfa, Texas, in 1971. In need of furniture for his new home, he expanded his design work. Among the pieces he created were Chair 84 and La Mansana Table 22 — the subjects of the lawsuit — which would become some his most recognizable designs. Chair 84, which comes in 10 base configurations, is the foundation’s best seller. The table is more of a rarity: In the last 15 years, only three authentic ones have been sold. And each one, of course, is handmade to order.

It isn’t hard for the foundation to spot a fake, as there are multiple authentication measures in place. “All authentic pieces of Donald Judd furniture are stamped with an identifying mark and a sequential production number,” Ms. Judd said. “As all furniture is sold directly by Judd Foundation, we also record for whom the furniture was fabricated as part of the order.”

Ms. Judd pointed out other ways to distinguish the real thing from a fake: Knockoffs don’t always use high-quality wood and metal, or adhere to the precise dimensions listed in the Donald Judd furniture catalog.

Donald Judd’s La Mansana Table 22, his son said, “has legs sitting flush to the table instead of beneath it, like an ordinary table.” And when multiple units of the Chair 84 are arranged around it, “the chairs almost dissolve into the frame of the table,” he said, “and the pieces look as though they were made for each other.”

This lawsuit, however, isn’t just about the fakes, said Amy Adler, a New York University Law professor specializing in art law: It’s about the association with the Kardashian name. “It really comes back to this idea of ‘Don’t say Donald Judd and Kim Kardashian in the same sentence,’” Ms. Adler said.

“Kim Kardashian is so much more famous than Donald Judd, plus every other minimalist artist combined, it is a sort of funny thing not to want to be associated,” she continued. “But I think that it is an attempt to draw lines between the pure, high-minded art world and pop culture.”

Nathan See, a Los Angeles-based artist and designer, had a similar encounter with the Judd Foundation last year. Mr. See, a co-founder of the studio See By Design, was contacted by the foundation after advertising his furniture online as being “inspired by” Donald Judd. “Please don’t use his name,” Mr. See said the foundation told him. His studio has continued making the furniture, but Judd is no longer mentioned in the descriptions.

“I did understand their point — they’re in existence to protect an artist’s legacy,” said Mr. See, who grew up blocks from Judd’s loft in SoHo.

“We’re moving into a world — not just with art, but with everything — of perfect reproductions,” Ms. Adler said, and this raises a question: “Why do we seek out the real thing in a world of copies?”

One reason could be a desire to connect with the “sacred quality” associated with the concept of “the great artist,” she said. “You might want that connection or to support his legacy, and that’s worth $90,000. But what do we want with originals, particularly where it’s not the hand of the master anymore?”

Jesse Kamm, a clothing designer, was introduced to Judd’s work about 20 years ago during a road trip through Marfa with her partner. “The thing that struck us most about his furniture design was how approachable it was,” she said. “His genius lies in his simplicity.”

Since then, the couple have made Judd-inspired desks, tables, benches and sofas for their homes in Panama and California. “The Judd language is spoken fluently in our home, mostly to the tune of 2-by doug-fir lumber,” Ms. Kamm said, “which is available at any local hardware store, which is what makes it so approachable.”

What would the artist think everything that’s happening today, with the lawsuit, social media and a growing dupe culture? “I am not sure how Judd would feel about everyone being influenced by his designs,” Ms. Kamm said.

A Donald Judd quote displayed at the entrance to her studio offers a hint: “You have to make new art all the time, because it has to be the individual’s own art. There’s no way to revive old forms or to rework old forms, because the artist is never going to understand them well enough to do first-rate work. So if you want to rework Matisse, you’ll just be a bad Matisse, that’s all.”

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