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Inspired by play

For contemporary furniture designer and UGA art professor Didi Dunphy, life is all about making time for recess.


It’s mid-May, and the latest trends in home design are on display at the 17th Annual International Contemporary Furniture Fair at the Javits Convention Center in New York City. In the midst of 450 exhibitors at North America’s premier event for the trendiest modern furniture, lighting, and accessories—what ICFF officials describe as a “global nexus of design”—people are congregating at Didi Dunphy’s booth. And they want to do more than just look at her stuff . . . they want to play on it.

“These two gentlemen come over. You know, just regular guys off the street,” says Dunphy, who has designed a seesaw that works as both contemporary art and a playscape. “Their faces light up when they see my setup and, like little kids, they ask if they can hop on. They’re havin’ a blast, see-sawin’ up and down with their ties flappin’! One guy says to me in a thick accent, ‘This should be in every cownsler’s awfiss in New Yawk City. It’d save a ton o’ marriages!’”

Dunphy’s narrative—her entire persona, for that matter—seems channeled from Bette Midler, which should serve this fast-talking New York City native well as she attempts to get her foot in the door of a very competitive business.

An extravagant, risk-taking kind of artist who has a long-standing love affair with fabric, bright colors, and big polka dots (she’s developed a line of polka dot window cling-ons), Dunphy was a virtual unknown before the ICFF. Boy, has that cover been blown. Within two weeks of the show’s completion, both House Beautiful and O at Home had called to research possible stories. Lord and Taylor wants some Dunphy products for a window display. Barney’s-New York has ordered a customized swing. Dunphy has taped a segment for an HGTV home design show due out this fall. And she recently landed her first major order from toy giant FAO Schwarz, which wants to put her skateboards in their fall line.

The fuss about Dunphy is that her work is just plain fun. Even experienced exhibitors like Richard Wrightman, a high-end designer from New York, couldn’t take their eyes off her designs.

“There was such a contrast between my furniture and Didi’s,” says Wrightman. “I kept looking over at her booth and wishing I had a teeter-totter. Apart from her furniture being colorful and imaginative, she looked like she was having a great time, which at trade shows is really important.”

What Dunphy had in mind when she created her Modern Convenience furniture, one line of which is called Recess, was to introduce the concept of indoor play for adults. As she puts it, “My furniture is used to build healthy social relationships, to engage in parallel play where friendships, alliances, collaborations, and good ideas can happen.”

Dunphy’s brightly colored naugahyde designs include see-saws big enough for two adults and a couple of small kids, swings embellished with sparkly tassels and clear acrylic balls, funky ottomans lined with furry undersides, and padded skateboards with striping resembling Ronald McDonald’s socks that are suitable for indoor use.

Didi Dunphy is a big city girl at heart. She got both her BFA and MFA in performance and video art at the San Francisco Art Institute, then moved to Los Angeles to teach art appreciation at the University of California-Irvine. Prior to moving to Athens, she spent three years developing an educational program for children and young adults at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, while also exhibiting her work—fabrics, furniture making, and needle art—all along the west coast. So when her husband, Jim Barsness, landed a faculty position at UGA’s School of Art in 1999, she had immediate misgivings about leaving L.A.

“I grew up in New York, was educated in San Francisco, and lived in L.A. for years,” she says. “Athens is the first small city I’ve lived in. But it’s really surprised me! I’ve been able to get so much work done, to dream up stuff and get it realized. Everything I need is within a 40-mile radius, the cost is less, and the turnaround is fast. In L.A., it took six months to get a project upholstered. Here, it only takes two weeks!

“And in L.A., you’re considered washed up at 40. In Athens, I’m still young and hip . . . you gotta love that!”

For the last three years, Dunphy has taught digital media in UGA’s Lamar Dodd School of Art. Her primary focus is on time-based art, a concept that involves building sculptures that promote interaction with viewers, creating a hybrid notion of what art is with what art does.

“After two years of teaching contemporary art at UC-Irvine, I realized I never made it to the painting portion of the class,” says Dunphy. “So I decided to stick to conceptual art because that’s what I enjoyed the most.”

Student Jason Huff recalls his first day of class with Didi as an eye-opening experience. She was unlike any instructor he’d ever had—bursting with energy and extremely positive.

“If I remember correctly,” says Huff, “she had a pink sucker in her mouth and pigtails. Over the next few days she would unleash an unwieldy amount of information on contemporary artists who create time- and performance-based media. It permanently changed my idea of what could be considered art. It was no longer something that only existed on a gallery wall. I could combine all the things I love about art—to draw, paint, or sculpt as a performance or video piece. I loved the idea of creating systems to make art and the idea that these systems could be documented.”

Dunphy treats her furniture creations much the same as her conceptual art. “Furnishings are not traditionally thought of as artwork,” she says. “My art bridges that gap, bringing functionality to something previously viewed as untouchable.”

The origins of Dunphy’s Recess line began in 2003 when she was invited to participate in an outdoor exhibit at Emory University in Atlanta to promote a new campus performing arts center. Each artist was asked to design a chair, so Dunphy—ever the innovator—created a bright pink, extra-large swing; from there, the concept of a furniture line that fosters adult communication through play was born.

Last fall, the Broad Street Gallery in Athens hosted Dunphy’s first Recess exhibition. The desk in the lobby of the gallery was replaced by Dunphy’s newly created seesaw, swings, and skateboards. The exhibit gave the illusion of a city playground in an adult-sized world. After displaying her work in San Francisco and Nashville this year, Dunphy’s Recess line will be on exhibit at the Jacksonville Museum of Modern Art ( through Sept. 15, where, according to the museum’s chief curator George Kinghorn, her installation is a huge hit.

“Visitors gravitate to Didi’s works,” says Kinghorn. “They not only redefine the gallery space and the way [people] use the museum, they redefine the way people view fine art.”

“My husband teases me because I tried to get a copyright on polka dots,” says Dunphy from her Athens studio. “The government turned me down. But, like Marcel Duchampe and his “Fountain” [an upside-down commode], I have reinvented polka dots. I’ve turned them upside down!”

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“Furnishings are not traditionally thought of as artwork. My art bridges that gap, bringing functionality to something previously viewed as untouchable.” Photo by Walker Montgomery

Dunphy made a splash at the ICFF show in New York with her brightly colored interactive furniture, including this seesaw, which is meant to be played on by adults as well as children. Photo: Special

For an innovator like Dunphy (front), even bowling can be used to teach students about time-based performance art. Photo: Special

Photo by Carl Martin

Photo by Walker Montgomery

Dunphy’s creations include this two-person swing, an upholstered skateboard and these oversized, back-lit, multi-colored peg boards (above) based on Lite Brite. The naugahyde-framed boards hold rearrangeable bulbs. When not being played with, this doubles as wall art. Photo by Walker Montgomery