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He didn't invent Helvetica. And please don't ask that question.

A Really Bad Attempt at Explaining Donald Judd

If you haven’t heard of Donald Judd, don’t feel bad. I didn’t know who he was, either.

That table your laptop is resting on while you read this, the one you bought from that ubiquitous Swedish do-it-yourself store, the one that’s easy to put together because of its clean lines, well, you have Judd to thank for that.

Of course, no self-respecting design fan will admit to this association with minimalism — in fact, they’d be the first to point out that Judd despised that word. But, labels aside, what Judd did was introduce a layer-loving American public to space, to simplicity – to clean design.

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First one to ask if this is from IKEA gets voted off the island.

Look, I feel like a fraud even writing about this, because I know how seriously art and design can be taken. I know this for a fact, because I spent a day with the people at Judd Foundation in Marfa, TX – a city that’s famous because Judd decided to move there (and because of a weird phenomenon called the Marfa lights). I tried to ask smart questions, but received mostly quizzical looks in response:

“So, is it safe to say Judd’s the most important American architect aside from Frank Lloyd Wright?”

[Insert raised eyebrows and a kind He wasn’t an architect whisper.]

“I see his name in Helvetica font all the time – was he a pioneer of this?”

[Insert raised eyebrows and a muted Helvetica was invented in Switzerland aside.]

After a few more rounds of this, I asked if we could take a tour to save myself any more embarrassment.

Judd’s spaces — lots of light, 90-degree angles, room to breathe – were all impressive. Of course they’re impressive, right? People come from all over the world to walk these grounds and see what I’m seeing.

In his will, Judd ordered that everything to be kept just as it was when he was living (he died in 1994), so you can get inside his personality a bit.

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An aerial view of one of Judd's properties. He liked his lines.

He had a penchant for turquoise and bought books in packs of three, so that no matter where he was – home, other home, office — they’d be within reach. Stuff like that.

You can also view some of his professional work at the Chinati Foundation, a 340-acre ranch land property a few miles from downtown Marfa.

But… well… the thing is…


I’ve been staring at this screen for 10 minutes, trying to figure out why I’m finding this post so difficult to write. I mean, my friends told me about Judd, I picked up a book about his work, I drove to Marfa and met with his people, I saw his stuff…

But I still got nothin’.

I mean, how does someone who understands so little about art write about art? Half of me was tempted to riff off of a few articles I found online just to pass myself off as someone who knows what they’re talking about, but I’m sorry to say, friends, I don’t.

All I know now is this:

Donald Judd is an important artist to know – namely, because we can see his influence in our everyday life to this day.

Large rooms with one bed and a photo – that’s Judd’s influence.

Straight lines for furniture – that’s Judd.

He’s everywhere.

Clearly, he’s someone you should be educated about.

So go do that…

And then come back and teach me, please.

[Then take this quiz and see how you do.]

Follow the Good Traveler’s adventures on Twitter @GoodTraveler and on Instagram @GoodTraveler.