David Hockney’s Furniture

Furniture features heavily in the British artist’s work. But what are they saying?



There is the joltingly garish floral armchair in an otherwise modernist home; the low-slung glass coffee table; the flamboyance of a huge marshmallow-pink sofa contrasting with the simplicity of a plain wooden kitchen chair. The furniture in David Hockney’s art works is something of a personal fascination. 

 The preoccupations of Hockney’s work are well known to be space, perspective and the process of making art. The subjects depicted are never really the central interest of a painting; instead, they are the things at hand in which Hockney sees opportunity and beauty. In his pursuit of exploring space and how to represent it, Hockney’s celebrated works are full of interiors and architecture – and thus full of furniture too. He persuades us to consider how the furniture appears and why it does so, rather than inviting us to dwell on the furniture itself. Yet the peripheral objects in Hockney’s art – the furniture in a friend’s house, an improvised studio set, the corporate chairs in a hotel lobby – have meaning.

Some pieces of furniture crop up again and again, like motifs. An example is a particular glass-top table: This low-slung coffee table with chunky metal legs and a simple sheet-glass top appears in several works from 1969. The table itself is handsome and fashionable for the period; it bears all the hallmarks of an Italian design. In fact, it looks suspiciously like Marco Zanuso’s Marcuso table for Zanotta from 1965. Hockney sketched, drew and painted it in 1969, when presumably it was a new possession. In a television interview conducted in 1980 at Hockney’s London studio the same table can be seen in the background, piled with papers in front of a sofa.
Hockney seems to have enjoyed exploring the table’s qualities, employing it as an artistic device. In Glass Table with Objects (1969), everyday objects are arranged in a clinical still-life composition on the table top, their reflections clearly depicted on the glass. A very similar glass-topped table appears in one of Hockney’s famous double portraits from the same year, Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott. Here, Hockney demonstrates the near-invisibility of the table top; we can see Henry Geldzahler’s foot through the glass. At around the same time, Hockney was creating some of his most famous images of California and labouring over how to depict water (resulting in the ‘pools’ pictures). He described water as being full of representational possibilities: “You can look through it, on it, see it as volume, or as surface.” This little glass table with its transparent and reflective surface therefore provided a familiar and compelling set of challenges.

There is yet another glass-top table in a later painting from 1977, Model with Unfinished Self-Portrait. This time it is a small circular table, possibly wicker, classic in shape – something that wouldn’t be out of place in a colonial-style hotel. It, too, has a reflective glass top. Model with Unfinished Self-Portrait is a greatest hits of Hockney’s favourite furniture-as-devices objects at a time when interior scenes were dominating his work. The model, the bed and the curtain all exist in supposed (but not actual) ‘real’ space, while the artist at his desk is a painting of an earlier painting, and therefore another step removed from reality. There is the reflective glass table, the heavy curtain whose compositional purpose is to blur the line between one reality and another (see also shower curtains, for example Man in Shower in Beverly Hills, 1964) and a boldly patterned quilt. Bold textiles often seem to be a vehicle for introducing pattern in Hockney’s work. They play with perspective, penetrate the picture plane. Here the diagonal pattern flattens the picture plane. A similar textile upholsters a short club chair in Looking at Pictures on a Screen, also from 1977, where the pattern sits apart from the composition almost like a collaged element. It is interesting to look at much later landscape works, such as those of the Yorkshire Wolds, where man-made textile patterns are superseded by patterns found in nature.


“He paints the places he knows well, the people close to him – and gets to know each better in the process.”


California Art Collector (1964) has one of the most enjoyable depictions of patterned upholstery. There is a striking juxtaposition between the bold floral armchair and the minimal architecture behind it. A similar chair appears in Domestic Scene: Los Angeles(1963). The chintzy armchair would seem to be transported from Hockney’s working-class Bradford past, rather than being found in modernist America. Sure enough, there is a photograph of a young Hockney, in 1963, with his legs draped over the arm of a remarkably similar chair in his studio.



So, as much as the pieces of furniture in Hockney’s paintings are useful tools, excuses for investigating perspective, pattern and perception, there is another element to them: they are familiar to the artist, representative of Hockney himself. The modern glass table and the nostalgic armchair reflect Hockney as he was in the Sixties: the thoroughly contemporary artist, a poster-boy for swinging London and the down-to-earth Yorkshire lad, too.

Chairs feature heavily in Hockney’s work. Often they have the subject of a portrait in them, but at other times they are the sole subject. Chairs are the subjects of sketches Hockney makes on his travels (Chairs, Mamounia Hotel, Marrakesh, 1971), they feature in his photo collages (Chair, 1985), his innovative Home Made Print series (Office Chair, 1988) and recent photographic drawings (Sparer Chairs, 2014). Vincent’s Chair and Pipe (1988) is an affectionate reply to the famous Van Gogh’s Chair (1888). Hockney says: “I painted my version with reverse perspective. You see this side and then that side, so you are moving. I’ve always loved chairs. They have arms and legs, like people.”

Some of Hockney’s chairs stand out: the Cesca chair by Marcel Breuer features in several of Hockney’s works, perhaps most famously in Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71). The chair was an engineering innovation that exploited the possibilities of tubular steel. The sitter seemingly floats above the ground. I’d like to think that this playfulness and distortion of reality particularly appealed to Hockney. He employed a different, but very similar, cantilevered tubular steel chair, the MR chair by Mies van der Rohe, (Mies and Breuer were both collaborators and competitors in the 1920’s) in the Portrait of Sir David Webster (1971). Then there is the huge, flamboyant, Art Deco-style pink sofa that dominates the double portrait of Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1969). In many of Hockney’s portraits the seats are deliberately and democratically nondescript. But here the furniture is undoubtedly chosen to be suggestive of the larger-than-life personality of the seated Geldzahler, a major figure in contemporary art. Lastly, and in stark comparison, there is the simple foldable wooden studio chair that features in the wonderful My Parents (1977) and in multiple recent photographic drawings and paintings such as Studio Interior #2 (2014) and many, many, other drawings, paintings and photographs between. This humble wooden chair is the kind of thing that gets brought out when there is one extra for dinner. Habitat made a similar design in the Sixties. It is an unremarkable piece of furniture and yet Hockney has never tired of depicting it. In some cases, the chair is clearly not intended to be the focus of the viewer’s attention, and yet Hockney shows it honestly and truthfully, never tempted to replace it with something more impactful. On other occasions, the chair becomes the focus of a painting, and Hockney depicts it in a new style of work, giving it his full attention.



Of portraiture, Hockney said: “If you draw someone you don’t know, you struggle for a likeness – you don’t know how they should appear.” The same might be true of inanimate objects too. Domesticity, familiarity and intimacy run through Hockney’s work. He paints the places he knows well, the people close to him – and gets to know each better in the process. Hockney’s furniture is subjected to the same scrutiny. He paints these seemingly arbitrary objects with intimacy and purpose.

SourceKvadrat Blog