Design Destination: Palm Springs

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The Palm Springs Art Museum’s New Architecture and Design Center
By ROBERT ATKINS

The Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan branch in Palm Springs, California, was designed by E. Stewart Williams. It has recently been renovated and opened as the Architecture and Design Center (A+D Center) of the Palm Springs Art Museum.

WHAT FLORENCE IS TO RENAISSANCE architecture, Palm Springs is to mid-century modern. It boasts the world’s highest concentration of the ever-hip postwar buildings and now has an innovative museum facility specializing in their study and display. Housed in a repurposed mid-century bank building, the Palm Springs Art Museum’s new Architecture and Design Center (A+D Center) offers the sort of harmony between art and exhibition space unseen since the opening a quarter century ago of Bruce Goff’s Pavilion for Japanese Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The A+D Center is located in the Edward Harris Pavilion, a thirteen thousand-square-foot, former Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan branch designed by E. Stewart Williams in 1961. With its cruciform columns, glass walls, and elevated setting on a plinth, the building tips its hat to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion of 1929.

Williams outside the bank building in a 1962 photograph by Julius Shulman.

Williams had designed the Palm Springs Art Museum’s first purpose-built venue—a ten thousand-square-foot building—in 1958 and would, in 1974, be commissioned to design the 150,000-square-foot flagship building. Given this shared history it comes as no surprise that the A+D Center dedicated its first exhibition to him. Titled An Eloquent Modernist: E. Stewart Williams, Architect, the show provided a satisfying overview of the career of this gifted and prolific architect and a key to mid-century modern architecture in Palm Springs.

In 1947, a decade after earning degrees from Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, Williams joined his father and brother in the thriving firm of Harry J. Williams. “Stu” Williams’s first, serendipitous, commission was a residence for Frank Sinatra—who walked into the Williams office intending to commission a Georgian colonial redolent of Beverly Hills, but quickly agreed to the mid-century modern design that he would live in for decades. (It is unclear what Williams thought of Sinatra’s piano-shaped pool.)

Williams became a central figure in the growth of the desert city one hundred miles east of Los Angeles. In addition to the original museum (and later additions), he designed numerous banks and hospitals, dozens of residences and schools, Palm Springs’ City Hall, Temple Isaiah, Crafton Hills College, and the mountaintop station of the Aerial Tramway. He was one of a small group of architects—John Porter Clark, William F. Cody, Albert Frey, John Lautner, Richard Neutra, and Donald Wexler among them—who helped transform Palm Springs from a provincial village into a hub of mid-century architecture. There were various reasons for this achievement: the invention of air conditioning and the postwar demand for housing, the continuing interest of Hollywood in well-publicized weekend getaways, and the glamorizing photographs of Southern California architecture taken by Julius Shulman. But it was its suitability to the desert climate and lifestyle that ensured the success of mid-century modern architecture there. Its integration of indoors and outdoors derived from Frank Lloyd Wright and its straightforward Bauhaus-derived building techniques and use of sustainable materials help explain its continuing influence.

Williams’s 1954 house for Marjorie and William Edris is now the residence of architect J. R. Roberts, the A+D Center’s managing director, who restored it with Williams’s input.

In addition to what was built, the exhibition provided fascinating glimpses of what might have been. The museum, for instance, was originally intended to have an additional story, as shown in one of the drawings on view. But the zoning variance that would have transformed its sprawling horizontality into a more welcoming, centralized composition was denied.

Ties between Williams, who died in 2005, and the Palm Springs Art Museum transcend the architectural realm: his daughter-in-law Sidney Williams is the museum’s longtime curator of architecture and one of the initial proponents of the A+D Center; architect J. R. Roberts, the A+D Center’s managing director, owns Stu Williams’s iconic Edris house (1954) and restored it with input from him—including the elimination of a crumbling exterior wall that had enclosed an area for “nude sunbathing,” as originally specified by the Edris family and seen in a deftly drawn plan that hung in the show. Roberts hired the Los Angeles firm Marmol Radziner to assist with the restoration of the house, and then they went on to direct the bank’s meticulous renovation and transformation into the museum.

Interestingly, in separate conversations about the creation of the A+D Center both Roberts and Sidney Williams cited the landmarking of the former bank as the most essential step in the process. (Williams is the former chair of the Palm Springs Historic Site Preservation Board and sat on the board of Modernism Week, while Roberts is a city planning commissioner and vice president of PS ModCom, a preservation group.) The initial task, Williams explains, was “getting Class 1 historical designation for the bank in 2009. [Developer] John Wessman owned the building and was going to wrap four-story condos around it, destroying views of it from two sides. We had to get him on board… and he ultimately became an enthusiastic supporter of the project.” (Wessman’s controversial role in the revitalization of Palm Springs’ downtown resembles that of developer Larry Silverstein’s in the halting rebuilding of the World Trade Center.)

The bottom line, Roberts notes, is that the renovation “succeeds in solving the problem of showing prints and drawings in a building with glass walls.” Upcoming exhibitions will test these limits by featuring three-dimensional, sometimes hybrid, objects in keeping with the A+D Center’s expansive vision of architecture and design in an era when the boundaries separating disciplines are melting away. They include a traveling show called Killer Heels, about high-heel shoe design, and Eye on Design: Andrea Zittel’s Aggregated Stacks, organized by the museum’s chief curator Daniell Cornell and devoted to the conceptual art/design of an artist who fashions shelves and storage from throwaway packing boxes, augmented by design objects from the museum collection.

Founded in 1938 as the Palm Springs Desert Museum, the museum initially specialized in Native American artifacts and the natural sciences of the Coachella Valley and began to exhibit art only in 1958. Seventeen years later, it changed its name to the Palm Springs Art Museum and in 2013, it celebrated its seventy- fifth anniversary.

The center’s opening also marks the culmination of a period of expansion for the museum unprecedented since the 1970s. During the leadership of Steven Nash, the former JoAnn McGrath Executive Director, attendance at the Palm Spring Art Museum rose 70 percent and endowments by 30 percent; the permanent collections increased by 25 percent, and two new campuses were added—The Galen and the Faye Sarkowsky Sculpture Garden in Palm Dessert and the Architecture and Design Center in Palm Springs.

Nash officially retired on January 1, and has been succeeded by Elizabeth Armstrong, a well-regarded curator who’s worked at major institutions in Minneapolis and Southern California.) Discussing his tenure at the museum, Nash notes the difficulty of singling out his most satisfying accomplishment there. When pressed he says, “I would have to say that I’m proudest of the overall, institution-wide leap in quality. That is, the big picture, the museum’s emergence—if you allow me a little bragging—as one of the best middle- size museums in the country.”

More than a little bragging seems entirely in order, Dr. Nash.

Design Galleries in the Middle East Capturing Attention

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By BROOK S. MASON

THE MIDDLE EAST HAS AN AGE-OLD LEGACY of ceramics, metal, glass, and carved wood, and today a host of contemporary designers is drawing on that heritage for inspiration. “With the region’s rich design traditions going back thousands of years, collectors are drawn to new renditions based on historical artistry, materials, and processes like hand-hammered bronze,” says Cyril Zammit, director of the four-year-old Design Days Dubai. Many designers are fusing ancient craft traditions with the contemporary sensibilities of the West, and with the emergence of new designers has come new galleries to show their work. In turn, a number of those new galleries take part in prestigious international design and art fairs, thus attracting the attention of both seasoned and novice collectors.

Studio mischer’traxler’s Gradient Mashrabiya sideboard, 2012, is made from more than 650 lathed oak pieces, assembled by hand. Photo courtesy Carwan Gallery.

Design Days Dubai was launched in 2012. “Our show was the first design fair in the Middle East and South Asia,” Zammit says. The first show featured a total of twenty-two design dealers. Last year thirty-four gallerists were on hand. Attendance swelled from 8,500 to 12,150. “Last year, we saw the number of dealers from the Middle East triple in number from the original five,” Zammit notes. This year the fair runs from March 16 through March 20.

Zammit says the fair is making a decided effort to reach out to designers to create work that has its origins in the area. In 2013 Design Days Dubai commissioned a table made out of shredded pa- per from the Dubai-based Harper’s Bazaar Interiors Arabia by designer Jens Praet, who is represented by Industry Gallery. “It was a live performance during the fair,” says Zammit. Design Days Dubai donated the table to the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Although Design Days Dubai offers an annual showcase, throughout the Middle East new design and art galleries are offering major historic art deco and mid-century work and cultivating indigenous design that expresses the special aesthetic sensibilities of the Middle East. Among them are dealers in Doha, Amman, and Sharjah.

But it is two cities, Beirut and Dubai, that offer a starting point to begin to explore this new frontier in design. Beirut in particular has come into the spot- light, aided by the annual Beirut Design Week held each June, and enhanced by the growing reputations of such internationally appreciated designers as Nada Debs, Karina Sukar, and the two-woman team of Bojka, all at work there. Among the pacesetting dealers in Beirut are Carwan Gallery, Smogallery, and Art Factum Gallery.

Nada Debs’s Carving Time vases in hand-carved maple and brass, 2014. Photo courtesy Carwan Gallery.

Founded in 2010 by two architects, Lebanese Pascale Wakim and Montreal-born Nicolas Bellavance-Lecompte, Carwan was the first contemporary design gallery in the region and brings a distinctive approach by not only featuring the work of local designers (from the little known to the more recognized, such as Debs) but also by recruiting designers from Europe to tap into ancient craft traditions and establish a cross-cultural dialogue. “We wanted to create a platform of exchange and discovery, like a bridge between the region and the rest of the world,” Wakim says.

Among the designers Carwan recruited is the Paris-based architect and designer India Mahdavi, who was born in Iran, reared in Germany, France, and the United States, and educated in Paris and New York. Her work runs the gamut from jewelry and furniture to such high profile projects as the Coburg Bar and He?le?ne Darroze restaurant in London’s Connaught Hotel. “Her 2013 brass and ceramic Landscape series is inspired by Ottoman Iznik tiles and created by Turkish craftsmen,” says Wakim of Mahdavi’s tables topped by tiles in shades of turquoise, orange, and yellow. “The combination of cultures appeals to a range of collectors,” she adds.

Carwan made a splash at the inaugural Design Days Dubai with the Viennese design duo of Katharina Mischer and Thomas Traxler, whom he had met the year before at Design Miami Basel. On site in Dubai, the design team assembled a work based on the Middle Eastern traditions of craftsmanship; the resulting attention-grabbing Gradient Mashrabiya sideboard was composed of more than 650 intricate pieces of oak.

Other Carwan designers include the Beirut-born, Milan-based Karen Chekerdjian, who designed a set of three chunky geometric brass side tables, and Tehran-born Taher Asad Bakhtiari, who divides his time between Tehran, Dubai, and New York. His latest efforts are wool rugs with triangular designs against striped backgrounds, which are woven in Iran. “Each Kilim takes four to five months to produce,” Wakim notes. The gallery has plans to open an outpost in Dubai and participates in Design Miami and the Collective Design Fair in New York as well as in Design Days Dubai.

Georges Mohasseb’s Marguerite des sables table, designed 2014, is comprised of 241 hand- wrought brass daisies welded together. Photo courtesy Smogallery.

Smogallery Art and Design was founded by Lebanese architect and interior designer Gregory Gatserelia and opened in 2011. On his schedule are PAD London and Paris along with the Beirut Art Fair. “My collectors are looking for design that is contemporary in spirit,” Gatserelia says. His client base includes collectors from Lebanon, Russia, France, Britain, and Brazil—even Singapore. Among the designers Gatserelia showcases (many of them Lebanese as well) is Danielle Moudaber, who turns out riffs on small Middle Eastern brass round tables. Her Spiderella Kosmica coffee table, 2014, is edged with six round disks intended to invoke the cos- mos and comes in an edition of five with one artist’s proof. Designer Georges Mohasseb also turns to the traditional round brass table. His 2014 Marguerite des sables is composed of 241 elongated daisy-like forms. Gatserelia’s own Multistrata table in white marble and brass is also part of Smogallery’s collection.

Another gallery of note in Beirut is Art Factum. Launched in 2011 by Joy Mardini, who had worked in Christie’s Paris twentieth-century decorative arts department, the gallery focuses on both art and design. Featured is Carlo Massoud, who worked with Umberto and Fernando Campana. His lighting in bronze and stainless steel draws on sculpture for inspiration. Carlo’s sister Mary-Lynn Massoud, who trained in ceramics at Se?vres, works with the Beirut-educated Rasha Nawam to create functional vessels, frequently in amorphous shapes, with some slip-glazed in brilliant hues of yellow and red. Also at the gallery is the lighting of Beirut-born, Rhode Island School of Design graduate Karim Chaya.

Karim Chaya’s Oblique lamps in marble and brass, 2013. Photo courtesy Tashkeel.

Dubai, of course, is host to the annual Design Days Dubai, but it is also home to a growing number of design galleries, among them Tashkeel and La Galerie Nationale. An artist and photographer, Lateefa bint Maktoum opened Tashkeel in 2008 and now participates in Design Days Dubai. “We support, encourage and promote the work of both artists and designers living and working in the Emirates by providing studio facilities, artists’ residencies, international fellowships, and a program of exhibitions and events as well as recreational workshops,” says Jill Hoyle, Tashkeel’s manager. One local designer represented is Latifa Saeed, whose 2014 Braided group consists of chairs, sofas, and an ottoman made up of braided cushioned cotton tubes on wooden frames. Also of note at Tashkeel are the floor and wall coverings called San’ams, comprised of joined hexagonal shapes of camel leather, by Emirati designer Zeinab Alhashemi.

Latifa Saeed’s Braided series employs cotton cushion tubes upholstered on a wooden frame, 2013. Photo courtesy Art Factum.

La Galerie Nationale is headed by Guillaume Cuiry, who was originally based in Paris, where he noted a steady stream of clients from through- out the Middle East, including collectors from Kuwait and Qatar. Cuiry specializes in both modern and contemporary design. Showcased at his gallery is work by such well-known figures as Serge Mouille, Willy Rizzo, and Joe Columbo, along with that of such contemporary designers as the Beirut-born Fadi Sarieddine. An architect based in Dubai, Sarieddine frequently works in stain- less steel; his 2012 Origami desk has a stainless steel base in a checkerboard pattern and a palisander top. Also on view at Galerie Nationale is the work of Iraqi artist and ceramist Sarmad Al-Mussawi, who creates objects that are influenced by Islamic calligraphy.

Dealers exhibiting at the 2014 Design Days Dubai were from around the globe—Europe, Africa, North and South America, and Asia. There were four from Dubai, two from Beirut, and one each from Doha and Amman. Collectors, too, came from around the world. “The fact that collectors from beyond the Middle East, from the States and Europe as well as Russia, come to our fair demonstrates that this area is now a magnet for design collectors,” Zammit says.

FROZEN MUSIC

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The powerful photography of Héléne Binet

By Beth Dunlop

Firminy – C (architecture by Le Corbusier), 2007. Silver gelatin print.

WHEN HÉLÉNE BINET TALKS about photography, she speaks reverently and a bit gently. “I often compare myself to a musician with a score,” she says. “I can do my own interpretation, but I have to respect the notes and the score, respect the music.” In Binet’s case, the music would most likely be Gustav Mahler—achingly beautiful and soaringly powerful. Her photographs can be like that, too; they are full of dimension, depth, and contrast—using light and shadow and solid and void to draw us into a space, and then somehow they delve even deeper. “In my photography,” Binet says, “I ask what is the meaning, where is the soul?”

Often she uses details or fragments to tell a larger story. Her work is multilayered and profound. “She is not just photographing architectural subjects, she is exploring three dimensional volumes through light, shadow and texture,” says the gallerist Gabrielle Ammann, who has shown Binet’s work for the past eight years.

Chappelius 01, Valls Valley 2008. Silver gelatin print.

Binet began photographing the work of some of the world’s most interesting and innovative contemporary architects a quarter of a century ago. She has shot Zaha Hadid’s buildings since the beginning, starting with the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany and most recently the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul, South Korea. Her collaboration with the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor has been commemorated in books and exhibitions. The list of living architects whose work she’s explored includes Daniel Libeskind, David Chipperfield, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Studio Mumbai, Raoul Bunschoten, and Peter Eisenman. Often she follows a project from the start of construction until completion in order to dig into the process in what she calls “an intense and powerful” investigation.

Kolumba 01 (architecture by Peter Zumthor), 2007. Silver gelatin print.

She has also documented important historic architecture, ranging from a photographic essay on the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor, who worked in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to studies of Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier, whom she terms “the great master.” Photography of historic buildings is what propelled her career at the start, and she continues with historic subjects today. “For me,” Binet says, “it is very important, that stepping back and looking at why a building is what it is. There’s a physical patina of time that allows the camera to play at many levels.”

La Tourette – skylights (architecture by Le Corbusier), 2007. Digital c-print.

In the last decade or so Binet also has begun to photograph the natural landscape, producing work that exults in the wonder of a tangle of tree branches or probes the mystery of a geological formation. Her approach to nature is much as it is to architecture. Though the images show us concrete (sometimes literally, as well as figuratively) buildings and real places, there is always a level of inscrutability to them. “I hope my photographs, which are quite abstract, allow the person who is viewing them to have his or her own thoughts,” she says.

Ammann, who both trained and practiced interior architecture early in her career, first encountered Binet’s work in 2007 while mounting an exhibition devoted to Hadid at her eponymous Cologne gallery. Looking at the photos Hadid had supplied, Ammann found herself transfixed by their power. Two years later she mounted her first Héléne Binet exhibition, showing the work of Zumthor, and she has represented Binet ever since. “She transcends representation and captures the essence of the experience of the space and the spirit of her subjects—whether it is an eighteenth century church by Hawksmoor or a museum by Hadid or a spa by Zumthor,” Ammann says.

Bruder Klaus Field Chapel (architecture by Zumthor), 2007. Silver gelatin print.

Binet’s work has been exhibited around the world, including at the 2012 Venice Biennale and most recently in Los Angeles, where in February she received the prestigious Julius Shulman Prize for photography from Woodbury University. An exhibition of her work at the university’s WUHO Gallery in Hollywood runs through March.

The daughter of musicians, Binet grew up in Rome, and when she opted to study photography, she thought her path would lead her to the great opera houses and theaters of Europe. Instead, she found herself drawn to architecture, to the opportunity to ask larger questions: What is space? How do you feel space? How do you perceive it? “I wanted to show that photography can be very emotional, not hard,” she says. “I wanted to bring dimension into something that is flat.”

Therme Vals Triptych (architecture by Zumthor), 2006. Digital c-print and silver gelatin prints.

She moved to London about thirty years ago at a time when architecture was just starting to change. She began working with Alvin Boyarsky, then director of the Architectural Association School of Architecture, to produce books, largely on historical architectural subjects. At the Architectural Association she also met such then unknown architects as Hadid and Libeskind, both in the early years of their careers. She has followed both over the years, and she says that such relationships have allowed her to “collaborate in an inspiring and beautiful way, enhanced by an intense understanding of the process.”

Hadid admires Binet’s work for its “striking balance between light and shadow, matter and void, rawness and strength” and singles out the photographs Binet shoots during the building process. “I very much like the photos Héléne takes of my buildings during construction; she is always able to capture the essence of any project, translating it into sharp, abstract, powerful images.”

Jewish Museum (architecture by Daniel Libeskind), 1998. Silver gelatin print.

A few years into her career, Binet encountered the work of Zumthor and was immediately captivated. Both Hadid and Zumthor are winners of the Pritzker Prize in Architecture.

Importantly, Binet prefers to work in black and white and often uses film rather than a digital camera. “For me,” she says, “limitation is more interesting. If you work with a digital camera, there is always the thought in the back of your mind that you can change the image. You lose that moment of frozen concentration.”

MAXXI Diptych (architecture by Hadid)
2009, silver gelatin prints.

Likewise, she still develops and prints her black-and-white photos. “I like to work with my hands,” she says. “I like the feel of film. I like to pick the paper.” The eye and the hand show: if the subjects are monumental, her photo- graphs nonetheless have an intimacy to them, an immediacy. “One can see and feel her deep understanding of the characteristics of each single building or detail she is portraying and that makes her and her works so unique and precious,” Ammann says.

Photos Courtesy of the Gabrielle Ammann Gallery

Grid Iron

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The Architectural Photographs of Vivian Maier

By FRANCES BRENT

SINCE SHE DIDN’T DRIVE A CAR, the bicycle wheel signified independence for Vivian Maier during the years she lived in the suburbs of Chicago as a nanny and got around town on her bike. It also represented structural grace. You see this in what might be considered a self-portrait, Vivian’s Shadow on Bicycle Tire, where her lens studies the design of spokes threading out from the axle and attaching onto a metal hoop. The pattern of the spokes plays above their shadow (as well as above Maier’s own shadow) like an image from the constructivists Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner. Similarly, when she came upon a barrier fence battered down by a storm at the beach, she focused her camera on the splintered wood slats radiating around a hanger-like loop. From Maier’s viewpoint, the accidental structure looked like the air-filled configuration of a miniature architectural model.

Shot from outside an unidentified building, this photograph taken on June 27, 1964, is a double self- portrait of Vivian Maier (1926– 2009), revealing her image reflected in a mirror inside and her shadow cast on the plate glass store front outside. The image demonstrates her fascination with the way new construction, also reflected on the glass, was grafted onto the old city.

The framework of things interested Maier deeply, and she seemed particularly inquisitive about the mass-less mass of modern architecture. This is evident in the many photographs of Chicago’s downtown she shot in the 1960s and early 1970s, when she would take the train into the city on her days off. The dynamic complexity must have relieved some of the restlessness she felt in the suburbs, where life was constricted and her observing eye was limited by the practical responsibilities of domestic work. Maier was new to he city; she had come from New York in 1956 when she was thirty years old. Like her mother and her grandmother before her, she did household work to earn a living. As she put it, she was sometimes a difficult person, private, closed off to strangers. When she went downtown, she suddenly merged into the powerful and constantly moving vitality of the city with its architecture in transition. The force of traffic, el trains, backhoes, jackhammers, and wrecking balls could be unbalancing, but shielded by the Rolleiflex strapped around her neck—actually looking down into its viewfinder—Maier was able to slow things down so the chaos was tolerable. She instinctively used the grid of the physical city, the angles of the streets, sidewalks, and massive buildings, old and new, to affix her compositions in space.

In this c. 1967–1968 photo Maier focused her camera on the splintered wood slats of a battered beach barrier fence radiating around a hanger-like loop of wire.

In the same way that some artists have a genius for rendering figures in the off-kilter but truthful midway of movement, Maier repeatedly documented the transitory quality of the city as she found it. The Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower, the original Stone Container Building, the Old Water Tower, the Michigan Avenue Bridge, the sidewalks between Marshall Field’s and the elaborately ornamented curved entrance to the Car- son’s Building, the Art Institute and Grant Park behind it, the movie palaces—State-Lake, Chicago, Woods, United Artists, Clark—these were her touchstones, and they delineated a province she shared with sailors on leave, women with scarves tied under their chins or wearing corsages on fur coats, men in straw hats, men in trench coats, many of them impassive faces that had survived the years of depression and war.

Maier documented the architectural transitions of Chicago, including the Wrigley Building (photographed late 1960s)

From her contact sheets, one can infer a method of working as she moved photographically through sometimes large and random blocks of space, documenting Chicagoans in their architectural domain. Shooting what she saw as she roamed, she often caught the way the design and mass of Chicago’s eclectic buildings were echoed by the shapes and configurations of the city’s inhabitants. An elderly woman’s egg- or dome- shaped hat, for instance, lines up humorously against the backdrop of the similarly shaped Tribune Tower and Wrigley’s clock tower.

A signature composition is Maier’s 1960 view of the intersection of Washington and South Wells Streets, anchored by the el station..

Some of the sites that interested her, such as the city’s dark viaducts and building canyons, presented technical challenges for her Rolleiflex, but given the right lighting, a bright morning sky or just after sunset when streetlamps add a glow of illumination, she was able to manage. In one of her signature compositions, she chose an intersection at Washington and South Wells Street anchored by the el station. From her vantage point, facing a corner parking garage—a boxy, brick, birdcage building typical of the pragmatic New Bauhaus—she structured her composition with the eye of an engineer. Zeroing in on the physics of overlap- ping architectural structures, she showed how the stairs to the el, the fretwork of the railing, and the metal bracing of the platform formed a series of vectors, while the right angle of the garage, the sidewalk, and the street lines of the crosswalk formed an alternative group of radiating lines. Maier analyzed the intricate solid geometry, the design of a city corner, and then pounced at the moment when four pedestrians reinforced the structure, lining up imperfectly in the luminescent slush on the street.

Taken in 1971, this view down State Street shows the Chicago Theater on the right and Marina City in the distance.

Over the years, Maier seemed to take a proprietary interest in the development of downtown spaces and she made it a habit to photograph the new skyscrapers, sometimes surrounded by cranes and sidewalk sheds, as they went up. Her images of the Chase Tower, the Brunswick Building, the Sears Tower, and the John Han- cock Center look something like personal souvenirs and demonstrate the difficulties of finding a vantage point and dealing with the physical limitations of her camera and its fixed lens plane and parallel plane. Unless the film plane can be kept parallel with the face of the building the sides of the building (any vertical lines) will converge as the building rises above the cam- era. The cereal-box shaped Prudential Building, forty-one stories high and representing the most modern technologies of its time, was new when Maier arrived in Chicago. In a playful photograph, several years later, she caught its limestone and glass facade low of center in her viewfinder while shooting from behind the tail of one of the the Art Institute’s lions.

During the 1960s the clean lines of new construction contrasted starkly with those of the old neoclassical and Beaux Arts buildings. After years of neglect, many of the landmark structures were covered with soot and had damaged masonry. Just as Maier documented the stoic and walled-off faces she noticed on the streets, she captured the architectural decay, destruction, and dismantling, an essential component of a modern city. Her photograph of the old Federal Building in the early stages of demolition is a study of a building’s anatomy. With Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s new Dirksen Federal Building in the background, she took a long steady look where the edifice was skinned away, exposing opened up chambers that looked like a honeycomb.

Shot on June 27, 1964, this compelling composition shows the then Stone Container (now London Guarantee) Building, Marina City, and the Sun-Times Building (demolished in 2005).

Maier took many photographs at two of Chicago’s most important 1960s building projects— the Daley Center and Marina City. The design of the Daley Center (originally the Civic Center) was intended as an architectural homage to Mies van der Rohe and his International style that had so deeply influenced his adopted city. Simultaneously, city planners hoped to configure a European-style square by creating a large and open space north of the building site. The concept caught Maier’s fancy and she shot a whole roll of film, sometime around 1970, looking at a matrix of city experience charted on coordinates of the plaza. In one corner she caught two hard-nosed attorneys exchanging views about a dispute spilling over from the courtroom; in another, pedestrians approaching a sidewalk shed in an urban parade. Maier then angled her camera back to photograph the monumental Picasso sculpture and the unfinished construction of an adjacent building. When she stepped even farther away, she caught a group of office workers and tourists playing a game with coins, rolling them across the granite tiles, bracketed by the heroic glass base of the Daley Center. Her photograph highlights the prismatic quality of the building, transparent enough to see right through to the long, low Greyhound sign on the other side.

The construction of Marina City with its two sixty-story apartment towers—corncob towers, as Chicagoans refer to them—signaled an audacious breakthrough in architectural imagination. Solid but spatially fluid, the cylindrical towers were a corporeal reminder of the laws and language of three-dimensional geometry. Like the bicycle wheel, the structure was perfect, kinetic, and complex. When you look at the photographs Maier took during different stages of construction and from various vantage points, you can sense the impatience she must have felt, navigating the multiple levels of the city with its unwieldy bridges and buildings. The towers were pure anomaly: built from concrete but organically shaped, vertically masculine but cerebral, wind resistant but serrated like leaves, mysterious as primeval standing stones while displaying brightly painted automobiles on cantilevering garage floors. One particularly compelling composition shows what was then the Stone Container Building, the Marina City towers, and the Sun-Times Building standing in a row like stepping stones. The image gets at the growing pains of proportionality, an awkwardly beautiful moment in Chicago’s metamorphosis. While there was a sense of loneliness and isolation settling on the surface of the buildings that day—something the photographer could contemplate knowingly—the photographic lens showed Marina City bathed in a kind of smoky light that enhanced its abstract qualities. On the street, pedestrians, cars, a trailer, a trashcan, and a mailbox appeared becalmed and miniature in a space that they shared with a cluster of the city’s monumental and sculptural structures.

L.A.’s Inimitable Treasure Trove of Design

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A visit to Joel Chen’s galleries is a bit like a trip to wonderland

By Patricia Lombard

Joel Chen leans on Mogens Voltelen’s 1930s Copenhagen chair in his cavernous Los Angeles gallery/showroom—a favorite haunt of prominent designers and architects.

Joel Chen’s newest space on Highland Avenue in Los Angeles doesn’t have a sign, a building number, or even a clear portal, yet there’s a steady stream of prominent designers, architects, and production designers inside, perusing the ever-changing and exquisite array of antiques and twentieth-century furniture carefully curated by Chen.

You can’t help being more than a little intimated by the sheer volume, not to mention the incredible coolness, of what’s on view. The huge space is organized into small vignettes designed by Chen to enhance your appreciation of each piece. An antique Chinese screen is placed near a stunning settee inspired by Armand Rateau intricately crafted of bronze fish and shells. An exquisite red leather and oak Frits Henningsen High Back easy chair invites you to sit and study the weirdly cool Spider table by Michael Wilson. But you can’t because there is so much more to see.

Chen’s daughter’s Chihuahuas Cashew and Chestnut share one of a set of Poul Kjaerholm PK 27 chairs around Kjaerholm’s PK 66 table.

Ever patient, Chen lets you ogle your way around his shrine to modernism and beyond; and, in my case, ask questions that you know he’s answered a thousand times over the span of his thirty-eight-year career. Chen has an encyclopedic visual vocabulary that, he explains, has been acquired by traveling, reading, and meeting hundreds of artists and designers all over the world. His background in cultural anthropology accounts for his intense interest in people and the objects they create for artistic expression as well as function.

When Chen was in his twenties, a Melrose Avenue antiques dealer refused to let him into the store (perhaps, he speculates, because the owner didn’t think a young Asian man could afford anything), so he decided he would open his own shop to show how business should be done. Now he is regarded as one of the most important tastemakers in the city and is actively engaged in the global design community. In all, he has 34,000 square feet— there are actually two showrooms along Highland, just where the Hancock Park neighborhood meets West Hollywood, and a warehouse in Culver City.

Last year Chen presented White in White: Angles and Curvatures, an exhibition of exquisitely intricate contemporary ceramics by ten Korean artists.

Chen chooses things that interest him, though he admits that he’s always finding things that interest him, even though he really ought to stop acquiring. “The next thing to do is not to do,” he says. Chen credits his pragmatic wife for keeping him from going bankrupt over the years. These days it takes a bit more to get him excited, but he continues to embrace new materials and new designs. Each item is chosen for its quality, fine craftsmanship, and, most importantly, great design.

Fortunately, designers representing Holly­­wood’s A-list happily purchase huge containers full of furnishings on a regular basis, allowing Chen space to edit and continually rearrange the showroom vignettes to provide interest and context for all the pieces on view. Chen doesn’t like to name-drop, but every now and then he’ll share an anecdote (but we won’t, since we promised to honor his discretion.

Chen also periodically assembles individual and group shows for the artists he represents. In 2013 he presented Rapt, featuring the work of Clare Graham, a Los Angeles artist who creates art from recycled items and who now has a solo exhibition that has attracted national attention at the city’s Craft and Folk Art Museum (through January 2015). Chen had first hired Graham, an art director at Disney for twenty-five years, and his partner, former television art director Bob Breen, to create the installation for Collecting Eames, Chen’s 450-piece show of Eames furniture for Pacific Standard Time, the series of thematically linked exhibitions examining Southern California’s pivotal role in the history of art and architecture that opened in 2011. More recently, Chen presented White in White: Angles and Curvatures, featuring exquisitely intricate contemporary ceramics by ten Korean artists, graduates of the Visual Art Institute at the College of Fine Arts, Seoul National University.

Chen met Wimberley, Texas, furniture maker Michael Wilson while visiting in Austin. He’s shown here with Wilson’s weirdly cool Spider table.

Pointing to one piece with perfect thin lines of color, Chen explains, “the color is not applied, it is created by painstakingly layering in.” Employing the technique of sanggam, which means “inlay work,” the artist Jung Hong Park inserts the color using a diamond blade coated with thick layers of pigment.

When he hosts dinners for the contemporary art and design crowd, both in his showrooms and in his nearby Hancock Park house, which is itself a compendium of his wide-ranging interests in art and design, Chen arranges and coordinates people as he does art. Recently he hosted a dinner for DA2, the acquisitions committee for the Los Angeles County Art Museum’s prestigious Decorative Arts Council and another for Jeffrey Deitch shortly after he announced his departure from LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Chen has hosted the past three DubLab fundraisers (he sits on the board of this nonprofit web radio collective devoted to positive music, arts, and culture).  He even curates the music at his events. 

At the moment Chen is developing an exhibition of Michael Boyd’s Plane and Plank furniture for March 2015.  A landscape, furniture, and architectural designer based in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Boyd is also a noted preservationist of modern architecture and lives in the late Oscar Niemeyer’s 1964 Strick House in Santa Monica. Boyd’s designs appeal to Chen’s aesthetic, like so much of what one sees in a tour of his showrooms. It is all elegant, functional, and a bit unexpected.

Photos by Nancy Baron

[From the archives] A house in Havana: A moment captured

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As the opportunities to visit Cuba mount, MODERN returned to its archives to explore the island’s architectural treasures in this this story by Hermes Mallea from the Summer 2012 issue.

The glass wall of the stairwell providesa sense of merging inside and outside at the Pérez Farfante house in Havana.

The Pérez Farfante house speaks volumes about the sophisticated lifestyle in Havana on the eve of the 1959 Revolution, when the Cuban city was known as the Paris of the Americas in no small measure because of the excellence of its architecture. In the century between 1860 and 1960 Havana followed world architecture trends step-by-step to produce a prodigious body of beautiful residential buildings, including any number of unknown modernist gems, among them this house built for two sisters in the city’s Nuevo Vedado neighborhood. Such houses represent the culmination of the Cuban quest not just to emulate European and American architectural styles but to create highly original interpretations of mid-century modernism that would express Cuba’s national identity.

A marble-top table and Scandinavian armchair anchor an intimate sitting space in the second floor living room. On the table are 1950s ceramics by Cuban artist Amelia Peláez.

Sixty years after its construction, the house remains a clear articulation of the personal style of the sisters who commissioned it— Olga and Isabel Pérez Farfante—members of Havana’s mid-century intelligentsia, a golden generation for whom building a contemporary house was an expression of progressive values. The daughters of a small-town grocer and his schoolteacher wife who emphasized the importance of education on their children, both sisters balanced academic careers with family lives at a time when doing so was unusual for a woman— Olga as a dentist and teacher, Isabel as a Havana University biology professor who had graduated summa cum laude from Harvard. They chose a site with dramatic views in Nuevo Vedado just as the neighborhood was being developed—joining other young professionals building houses that reflect- ed a mid-1950s climate of optimism fueled by America’s postwar prosperity that had reached Havana’s upper and middle classes. Although the house is unmistakably modern—and the exterior appearance is marred today by a chain-link fence at the street level—the front has the elegance of a classical temple. Columns support the roof, and at the roofline a projecting thin concrete slab protects the house from sun and rain. Asymmetries of massing, windows, and corner treatments dispel the idea that its design is traditional, however. Concrete floor slabs are expressed as continuous horizontal planes on the facades. The walls are infilled from slab to slab with concrete block, glass, or wood louvers, allowing the function of an interior space to be read on the exterior. The rear facade, too, reflects the interior, including strip windows at the bathrooms, and perforations in the block wall to ventilate the service areas.

The wooden louvers can be adjusted to maximize the breezes and views of the landscape.

Architect Frank Martinez designed the house to address the traditional Cuban concept of extended family living, creating a duplex where two households had complete privacy under the same roof, yet could live communally when desired. In it he aimed for an international modernism with a Cuban flavor, recognizing the value of time-tested elements like adjustable wood louvers and the spatial ambiguity of outdoor spaces that function as living rooms and open-air galleries that are more than circulation spaces. The house is raised on slim concrete columns (or pilotis) above an open ground floor with space for cars, service areas, the entry stair, and a shaded seating area. Breezes circulating the air through this level help cool the living spaces above.

As in traditional Havana houses, balconies connect the residents to the life of the street. The louver walls can be slid away to incorporate this outdoor space into the core of the house.

The house reveals itself as one moves around and through it, but nothing prepares the visitor for the dramatic views that are framed by the architecture, the focal points that keep the eye moving inside, or the sense of delight when a wall slides away to turn an interior space into an open air one. Public rooms and bedrooms are placed at opposite ends of the structure, separated by a vertical recess containing what family members have called their “pre-living rooms,” which form the core of the house. Sliding open the louvered doors to the front balcony doubles the width of this core. When the corresponding louvers on the rear elevation are then slid open the core seems to dematerialize altogether, as the whole center of the house opens to views of the Havana woods and the ocean beyond.

The tubular steel and wood staircase, continually changing in the light, is visible from the front door of each apartment. Set toward the center of the rear facade, the stair acts as a vertical accent rising in its glass box. Thanks to the dramatic site and the light-weight design of the stairs, the user has a sense of drifting high above the landscape.

A 1950s still life by Cuban painter Angel Acosta Leon hangs against the stained-wood paneling on one wall of the second floor living room.

In a nod to the modern American lifestyle that Cubans were always emulating, the kitchen connects directly to the public areas. But middle-class Cubans of the 1950s had cooks and housekeepers long after the same income group in the United States had given up their servants, and the kitchen forms part of a clever series of service spaces, including laundry and maid’s bath, that are provided with their own set of spiral stairs, allowing servants to move around the house with-out going through the family rooms.

The stained wood paneling of the living rooms (shown is the third floor) flows into the dining room, where one section cleverly drops down to form a bar and a pass-through into the kitchen. The barstools are original—Cuban-made interpretations of mid- century designs.

Construction materials used on the exterior were carried indoors: the weathered concrete-block walls that meet the white concrete floor slabs, the glass and wood louvers, the concrete columns that rise three stories. This continuity of materials blurs the distinction between interior and exterior—an achievement of the best of Havana’s mid-century modernist houses.

The sisters furnished the house with advice from the architect, and remarkably much remains—Scandinavian classics by Hans Wegner and Knoll’s iconic Harry Bertoia chair as well as Cuban-made pieces that perfectly complement the 1950s architecture. The sisters also shared a love of contemporary Cuban painting, and works by Victor Manuel, Mirta Serra, and Hipólito Hidalgo de Caviedes are likewise still found throughout the house.

At the entry to the second floor apartment are a pair of Hans Wegner Sawbuck armchairs and a Scandinavian table and dining chairs.

Along with other “Tropical Modernist” houses in Havana, the Pérez Farfante house reflects a climate of architectural experimentation in the 1950s that was energized by the construction of hotel towers designed by important New York architects, university lectures by visitors like Walter Gropius, the flow of international design publications, and the training in American colleges received by many of the island’s architects. In successfully synthesizing Cuba’s past and present the Pérez Farfante house demonstrated that it was possible for the island’s architects to be true to progressive ideals while being inspired by the core values of Cuba’s traditional architecture. In other words, it was possible to be of the modern world while remaining essentially Cuban—a concern that has been central to the island nation since its inception.

By Hermes Mallea
Photos by Adrian Fernandez
Hermes Mallea, a Cuban-American architect is the author of The Great Houses of Havana: A Century of Cuban Style, published earlier this year by Monacelli Press.

Honoring Vitra and its Decades of Good Design

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By Beth Dunlop

© Vitra/Marc Eggimann photos

Rolf Fehlbaum was just sixteen years old and already a fan of American jazz and the works of Mark Twain when he accompanied his father on a trip to America in 1957. There he met George Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames because his father was sealing a deal to become the European manufacturer for Herman Miller, to wit: some of the most important furniture designs of a generation. Young Rolf had gone along in part as a translator, but the experience ended up transforming him, and eventually his family’s company, Vitra.  “I had never met a designer before, but I quickly learned that they were very special beings: cool and sovereign,” he says today, almost six decades later. “They designed products, but also a world.” 

Fehlbaum went on to get a doctorate in the social sciences, but eventually took over the helm at Vitra. And in his long tenure there (he came into the company in 1977 and is now chairman emeritus), he has made it possible for us all to experience some of the joy he’s found in design. At Vitra he has commissioned work from an astounding roster of designers, who have produced furniture, objects, and buildings that challenge, please, provoke, delight, and charm us.

The list of architects and designers (Fehlbaum often refers to them as “authors”) is long and star-studded—Frank Gehry, Herzog and de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, Hella Jongerius, Marc Newson, Ron Arad, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Maarten Van Severen, Jasper Morrison, Antonio Citterio, and Alberto Meda (to name just some), not to mention the Eameses, Miller, Verner Panton, and Jean Prouvé. The work ranges from objects you can hold in your hand up to factory-sized buildings. At Vitra’s core, says Fehlbaum, is “respect for the designer and the belief that good design can change the world—admittedly in some hard to describe way.”

© Vitra/Eggimann photo

This winter the Philadelphia Museum of Art is honoring both Fehlbaum and Vitra with a wide-ranging exhibition (it includes furniture and other objects, drawings, photographs, books, and more). Fehlbaum himself curated the show, aptly titled Vitra—Design, Architecture, Communication. In addition, in November Fehlbaum received the annual award given by the museum’s influential design support group, Collab. Collector and author Lisa Roberts says Collab sought to honor Vitra’s innovative approach to furniture design and Fehlbaum’s visionary leadership. “His creative collaborations with leading international architects and designers made Vitra one of the most design-forward furniture companies in the world,” Roberts says.

The company’s official home is in Switzerland, but the more widely visited Vitra Campus is just over the Swiss-German border in Weil am Rhein. In addition to structures by Gehry, Herzog and de Meuron, Ha-did, Nicholas Grimshaw, SANAA, Tadao Ando, and Álvaro Siza, the campus features two important (transplanted) small mid-century buildings, one by Prouvé, the other by Buckminster Fuller. Fehlbaum “is really a collector of buildings,” says Kathryn Hiesinger, the Philadelphia Museum’s senior curator of decorative arts. On the campus he also added a major sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen and, most recently, a large-scale participatory artwork from Belgian artist Carsten Höller in the form of a giant slide.

© Vitra/Thomas Dix photo

The Vitra Design Museum, one of Gehry’s buildings on the campus, mounts important exhibitions on both historic and contemporary designers; on view through December is Alvar Aalto: Second Nature, but previous notable shows have covered topics ranging from Czech cubism to Gerrit Rietveld. VitraHaus, where there are also a shop and a café, features a multistory installation that tells the story of the company’s long-enduring product lines.

“Every product sends messages, good or bad, confusing, boring or encouraging,” he says. “The designer is the creator of these messages and if she or he is a real author there is consistency between the different manifestations of the work. I guess that independently of a specific style preference we are attracted by objects that are both familiar and new. And the classics though we have seen so many times remain eternally new because they are still full of the experimental spirit of their beginnings.”

Fehlbaum himself is an avid collector, with a focus on (and an encyclopedic assemblage of) modern chairs and lighting devices; that collection, currently archived in a cavernous basement space at one corner of the campus, will eventually go on public view in an additional museum structure (designed, as was

VitraHaus, by Herzog and de Meuron). All this puts Vitra squarely into the books for those interested in the history of modern and contemporary design. And Fehlbaum has been quietly shepherding this, guiding Vitra with a philosophy that took root in 1957 when he first met the Eameses and Nelson.

philamuseum.org vitra.com

A Grand Bezar

Bradford Shellhammer, the wildly inventive co-founder of Fab.com, picked the right time to launch his new venture, Bezar.com. With a graphic, colorful, and decidedly sunny presentation, the online market for art and design is almost a harbinger for warmer days.

Through a series of short-term pop-up shops in four categories – art, house, jewelry and accessories – Bezar will feature work by emerging and iconic designers and artists alike. Among its first offerings is bold jewelry by Brooklyn-based mimimimosa, clever desk accessories by Hatch Hub, and limited-run posters featuring art by Josef and Anni Albers, created in collaboration with the Albers Foundation.

Paul Rand: Graphic Impact

By Steven Heller

Direction magazine cover, March 1939.

When Paul Rand died on November 26, 1996, at eighty-two, his career had spanned six decades, three generations, and numerous chapters of design history. In the late 1930s he began to transform commercial art from craft to profession. By the early 1940s he had influenced the look of advertising, books, and magazine cover design. By the late 1940s he was proffering a graphic design vocabulary based on pure form where once only style and technique prevailed. By the mid-1950s he was altering the ways that major corporations used graphic identity. And by the mid-1960s he had created some of the world’s most enduring corporate logos, including IBM, UPS, ABC, and Westinghouse. He was the channel through which European modern art and design—Russian constructivism, Dutch De Stijl, and the German Bauhaus—were introduced to American commercial art. His first of four books, Thoughts on Design, published in 1947 when he was thirty-two, was a bible of modernism. In his later years he was a teacher, theorist, and philosopher of design.

It is in symbolic, visual terms that the designer ultimately realizes his perceptions and experiences; and it is in a world of symbols that man lives.” –Paul Rand

2014 marked Rand’s one hundredth birthday, and on February 25, 2015, the Museum of the City of New York opened the first major museum exhibition of his contributions to New York design. Curated by Donald Albrecht (I am a co-chair of the show), the exhibition takes off from an earlier solo retrospective at the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA) organized by Daniel Lewandowski, who runs the Paul Rand website (paul-rand.com).

Trained in the commercial art bullpens of New York’s publishing and advertising industries, Paul Rand (born Peretz Rosenbaum but Paul Rand was more balanced) was critical of the poor aesthetic standards that prevailed. He modeled himself on such avant-garde artists as painter Paul Klee, designer El Lissitzky, and architect Le Corbusier, each of whom advocated a timeless spirit in design. Adhering to Le Corbusier’s dictum that “to be modern is not a fashion, it is a state,” Rand devoted his life to making what he modestly called “good work.”

Graphic design—which fulfills aesthetic needs, complies with the laws of form and the exigencies of two-dimensional space; which speaks in semiotics, sans-serifs, and geometrics; which abstracts, transforms, translates, rotates, dilates, repeats, mirrors, groups, and regroups—is not good design if it is irrelevant. –P. R.

Westinghouse magazine advertisement, 1961.

Looking to the European moderns for inspiration, he developed a fresh and individual approach to visual communications. His magazine and advertising layouts wed functional simplicity to abstract complexity. Void of ornament, each detail was planned to attract the eye and convey a message. Yet nothing was formulaic.

The page was a stage on which Rand performed feats of artistic virtuosity. His work was so distinct from that of both his traditional and faddish contemporaries—so radically counter to the accepted norms yet progressive in ways that tested the limits of print design—that his admirers called him the “Picasso of Graphic Design.”

I Know a Lot of Things, book designed by Paul Rand and written by Ann and Paul Rand, 1956. Jazzways magazine, 1946. Courtesy of MCNY.

“The Coronet Brandy advertisements are based on a common object­­—the brandy snifter—in animated form. The dot pattern of the soda bottle was designed to suggest effervescence; the dotted background, in turn, is a visual extension of the bottle; the waiter is a variation of the snifter glass; the oval tray individualizes for Coronet the silver tray we used to see in liquor advertisements.” –P. R.

Coronet Brandy magazine advertisement, 1943.

For the rest of his career, he lived up to that distinction. His work covered a broad range from advertising to book covers, from children’s books to corporate identity. He was not the first designer to create modern logos, but he was the most invested in making the logo more than a mere trademark. Much of his work, and especially his logos and marks, are as fresh now as they were then. Most of them are still used (IBM, Westinghouse, ABC, Morningstar)—UPS has altered theirs for the worse.

Even more significant are the words that Rand lived by—the writing he did in later life in books and articles—that defined modern design and the modernist designer. Paul Rand the writer, however, is another story. Here we look at the enduring designs that first made him famous.

Steven Heller has taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York for more than twenty-five years and is co-founder of two of the school’s MFA programs, Design Criticism and Designer as Author. He is the author/co-author of 170 books, including Paul Rand (Phaidon Press).
Except as noted, all images courtesy of DANIEL Lewandowski / paul-rand.com

[From the archives] Mettle Work

With six years under its belt, MODERN Magazine delves into its archives to take another look at the people, places and things that have kept us inspired. This interview with Silas Seandel was originally published in our Fall 2009 issue.

A visit with Silas Seandel: artisan, sculptor, furniture-maker, and master of metal

Seandel's “Terra” table has a formstone top incised with channels filled with bronze. The base is cast bronze. Photos courtesy of Silas Seandel Studio except where noted.

These days—when design is taught via computer programs, and art students seem as calculating as finance majors—hands-on, largely self-taught studio artist-craftsmen are a vanishing breed. Silas Seandel, born in Brooklyn in 1937, has been keeping the fires of the tradition alive since the early ‘60s. In recent seasons, his singular pieces have won him a wide following among collectors. Seandel’s metal-based tables—his preferred form for what he calls “sculptural furniture”—generally fetch between $5,000 and $7,000 from design dealers. “Clients come in and say, ‘That table is fantastic—who did it?’” says Kurt Ducovna, co-owner of Modern Galere, a West Palm Beach design 44 dealership. “I think Seandel is still an under-known talent. His work falls between art and furniture. He is daring, and there is a kind of sensuousness in his use of metal.” MODERN spoke with Seandel, still hard at work on sculpture and furniture commissions, in his workspace and showroom in Manhattan’s Chelsea district.

It must be nice, being in the center of the New York art world.
Yes, but it’s a coincidence.This is my fifth studio in New York—and my last. I’ve been here since 1978. Back then these places were all auto-body shops and warehouses.

You earned an economics degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Kind of an odd choice for someone with an artistic bent.
I didn’t know I had an artistic bent. After I left the service, I had no idea what to do. A family friend suggested that a business major was a safe path. I did the homework and got good grades. But I didn’t learn anything.

The “Jools” cocktail table has a glass top inset into a solid cast-metal base—bronze in this example, though it can be made of copper, steel, or almost any metal.

So how did you discover your path?
Well, I was always a tinkerer. I liked to work with my hands, and took clay-modeling classes in college. I was intrigued by Calder. I made little mobiles and models but it was just a hobby. One week in 1963, I went to Cape Cod. I had a couple of hours to kill in Provincetown, waiting for a friend to meet me, so I went to [the Walter P. Chrysler] museum, where they had a show about sculptures of the ‘50s. I saw metal sculptures by John Chamberlain, Jason Seley, and Richard Stankiewicz, and thought, “Wow! That’s what I want to do!”

What was it about metal that inspired you?
It goes back to Calder— that perfect joinery of parts. Metal is wonderful: it’s strong, durable, impervious, but at the same time it can be flexible and formable. I loved to see molten metal flow.

And then? I went back to New York, bought a book on welding, and set up a studio in the kitchen of my walk-up apartment in the Village. I started experimenting and learning technique Modern using tin cans. It was illegal, of course. I 46 had to smuggle in welding torches and fuel tanks. But I learned—mostly from the mistakes I made.

A brass variant on Seandel’s welded sheet metal “Convoluted Tree Truck” table. Photo courtesy of Galere, West Palm Beach.

Were you showing your work to art galleries?
Oh, no. I still had so much technique to learn. I was dirt poor. I bagged groceries in the neighborhood, and worked as a stockboy at [the now-defunct department store] B. Altman. But I spent every free minute working on metal.

What was your “big break”?
There were two, really. One was almost an accident. Altman got the contract to renovate a country club in Westchester County, and the guy in charge of the project knew I was an aspiring sculptor. He asked me to make a wall sculpture for the dining room— it showed golfers in different phases of a swing. A lot of decorators saw it, and started to call me with commissions. Also, about that time they were opening the D&D Building [the Decoration & Design Building in midtown Manhattan, which houses dozens of showrooms]. Friends said I should put my work on display in one place, so I borrowed $30,000, rented a space, and got so much business from decorators, and department stores like Neiman Marcus and Gump’s, that I was able to pay back the loan in three months.

Seandel often alters his designs—a “Volcano” form reworked as coffee table is shown—to accommodate new aesthetic ideas, or new uses.

How did you come to take up furniture?
Because of fakes. I learned that people were making copies of the pieces in my catalogue, and doing a sloppy job of it. So I decided to make furniture.You can’t fake furniture—the craftsmanship is much more demanding. You have to get the balance and proportions just right.

What techniques do you use?

Two, mainly. Some pieces are made of rolled sheet metal that is cut into forms that are welded together, then ground and polished.The other method is metal- casting, usually using bronze or copper.

Most of your pieces have a similar format: a glass top with …
That’s so you can see the sculptural metal base, which I think is the most important part, naturally.

Of course. So your pieces with stone-and-metal tops are a departure.
The idea is actually old. But it took a long time to realize, because I had to do a lot of experimenting to create a form-stone in which I could create fissures to fill with veins of metal. It’s called the “Terra” table. It’s meant to resemble a vertical slice of rock, with creases of ore running through it.

The two-foot tall “Volcano” and “Twigs”end tables executed in cast bronze.

Looking around at all these examples of your work, it’s easy to tell that they were all made by the same hand. Yet you don’t have a signature style, really.
Part of that is the beauty of metal—you can do anything with it.Mostly, I follow my instincts.That has always stood me in good stead. I get an image in my head, and I just go with it. I don’t dwell on a particular form. Because of that, I have a fairly large body of work in which each piece is distinctive. Some works are similar, but no two are identical.

What’s going on for you now?
Well, I recently finished a pretty large public sculpture commission—a fifteen-foot- tall stainless-steel-and-bronze 9/11 memorial for the grounds of Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut. Other than that, I have a good roster of clients, so it’s just the usual: day-to-day hard work. I have two assistants who have each been with me for more than thirty years. But working with this stuff, especially at my age, is tough.

Ever thought about taking up a new, perhaps lighter, material? Nah. I’m too in love with my welding torch.