LED “Bubbles” by Grimanesa Amorós

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Courtesy Amoros Studio

The graceful undulations of LED tubing compose a striking display in the windows of 125 Maiden Lane at the heart of New York City’s financial district. The latest sculpture in Grimanesa Amorós’s most recent body of work, the installation plays on the artist’s signature “bubble” sculptures while providing a new mode of exploring her longstanding interest in lighting effects and diffusive materials. For Amorós, the work conveys ties to her birthplace of Peru, with bubble shapes recalling man-made islands in Lake Titicaca and LED tubes referencing distinctive reeds that grow in the northern reaches of the country. Such references inspire her intuitive process of formulating site-specific works. Here, a structural grid against the back wall echoes the building’s monumental windows and acts as a spine for the seemingly weightless swirls of light. A dynamic pattern activates LEDs in four shades of white and a golden yellow. At night, the sweeping and curving work reflects off the marble walls, steel ceiling, and windows to create a hypnotic illumination.
For more visit grimanesaamoros.com
—By Sara Spink

Open House

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The restored Kraus house in Saint Louis is a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian Gem
By Joanne Kohn and Laura Meyer

The open living and dining area of the Kraus house with the central hearth as well as the furniture and built-ins designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo by Kristen Peterson.

Another view of the open living and dining areas, with the terrace doors to the left. The art pottery on the shelves was collected after the house was made into a museum.


For decades, Ruth and Russell Kraus lived quietly in their small modern house in Kirkwood, a Saint Louis suburb. Few people other than their friends and acquaintances even knew that there was a Frank Lloyd Wright treasure tucked into the secluded wooded site. But the house built between 1951 and 1955 for the Krauses, she a lawyer and he an artist, is not only exemplary of Wright’s work and way of thinking but also stands as testimony to what can happen when a small but determined group of people bands together to preserve historic architecture.

After Ruth Kraus died in 1992, Russell realized he needed to sell the house and agreed to a plan to preserve it as a Frank Lloyd Wright museum. A nonprofit organization was formed and, after an eight-year effort, $1.7 million was raised to purchase the house, its original furniture, memorabilia, and ten and a half acres as of January 18, 2001.

Today Ruth and Russell Kraus’s house is owned by Saint Louis County and operated as a house museum by the nonprofit Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park, the name also formally bestowed on the house. The property it sits on is a county park named for Alec W. and Bernice W. Ebsworth, the parents of philanthropist Barney Ebsworth.

Wright began designing his Usonian houses in the 1930s for middle income clients with the understanding that these modest and economical dwellings would be integrated into the surrounding landscape. This is particularly true with the Kraus house, which is sited in a lovely grove of persimmon trees and nestled into a hillside surrounded by woods and grassy fields.

To reduce costs in his Usonian houses, Wright advocated a simplified approach to construction and a paring down of elements. He developed a “unit system” method of design based on geometric shapes—squares, rectangles, equilateral triangles, hexagons, and parallelograms. For the Kraus house, he used intersecting parallelograms with 60 and 120 degree angles, which created geometric intricacies and dynamic spaces.

The Kraus house has all the elements that Wright considered essential. True to Wright’s Usonian concept, the floor plan is open, including a living room, with a large central hearth, and shared dining area looking out onto vistas of the persimmon grove and woods beyond. The living and dining space opens onto an adjacent, efficient kitchen, and what Wright called the “work space.” The bedrooms are small, typical for Usonians, but the Kraus house is one of the few Wright houses in which the shapes of the beds conform to the geometry of the house. The entire house features built-in furniture, storage, bookshelves, and indirect lighting. It is efficiently warmed by radiant heat, with hot water flowing through pipes embedded in the concrete slab. The Krauses made no structural changes and retained all the original furnishings, making the house an exceptional historical document as well as rare in a world where change is constant.

Like other Usonians, Wright designed the house without a basement, attic, interior trim, radiators, overhead lighting, gutters, downspouts, or a garage (a carport was sufficient). Materials are the same inside and out: brick, concrete, tidewater red cypress, and glass. The interior walls are of wood board-and-batten construction, requiring no paint or plaster.

This expansive view of the house from the southwest gives a sense of the dynamic angles of Wright’s design. The motor court is on the right, with the tool house at the end.


The architectural attributes and historical importance of the Kraus house were evident, but the years had not been kind to it. Financial constraints in his later years had left Russell Kraus unable to adequately maintain the house—water had proved particularly destructive. After research, Chicago architect John Eifler, known for his expertise and experience in the restoration of Wright Usonian houses, was selected to direct the project. Jeff Markway was chosen as the contractor.

Throughout the restoration, museum quality standards and museum quality craftsmen were used. Original finishes and materials were preserved whenever possible. Stains were painstakingly removed from tables, countertops, and other furniture rather than removing original finishes.

Neglected exterior cypress was cleaned, restored, and treated with Sikkens, a protective wood coating. The terrace doors had suffered too much water damage to be saved, so new cypress doors were constructed; the original stained glass designed and executed by Russell Kraus (who was not only a painter but a designer of mosaics and stained glass) was reinstalled in the doors. Adding gutters to the roof above the doors would prevent further water damage, but this was not an option because one of Wright’s core principles was that houses should be low and parallel to the ground and that gutters and downspouts called attention to the vertical rather than the horizontal. The contractor suggested slightly slanting the door sills to shed water, and to repeat a layer of Sikkens whenever the wood begins to weather.

Drainage issues affected the brick even more dramatically than the wood. Wherever the brick was exposed to the elements, it had spalled. Forty percent of the brick had to be replaced, including walls of the motor court, main terrace, and master bedroom lanai. Eifler found new brick in Sioux City, Iowa, that was a perfect match to the original Alton Brick, which was no longer available.

The doors to the main terrace incorporate stained glass designed by Russell Kraus.


Throughout the restoration, the walls were made to look as Wright intended, but were fortified with protective measures to help prevent future disintegration. For example, when rebuilding a brick living room wall that had buckled from the weight of the vaulted ceiling, steel rebar was incorporated into the brick to make the wall stronger and better able to absorb the weight of the ceiling. Old brick was salvaged and reused on the new wall, so all the brick inside the house remains original.

Restoring the concrete that Wright prescribed for inside and out has been the most challenging task. Wright liked to use red concrete—which he called Cherokee red, as it reminded him of the earth, of clay—and almost all Usonians have aging red concrete damaged by staining and weathering. The repair of concrete is complicated, however, because it absorbs products deeply; if the wrong product is used, the concrete cannot be returned to its original state. John Eifler suggested Kemiko English red wax for the interior concrete, which blends beautifully into Wright’s original floor. A search continues for the right products and methods to restore the coloration of the exterior concrete, watching how other Usonian owners handle this ubiquitous problem.
Saint Louis Art Museum textile curator Zoe Perkins directed restoration of the original Schumacher fabrics used for drapes, bedspreads, and chair, bench, and floor cushions. Replacing cracked drapery linings, shortening draperies, spotting, and vacuuming the fabric were all done by hand to protect the fragile materials.

Electrical problems included replacing aluminum light fixtures built into the brick terrace walls. The fixtures, intended for interior use, were dangling, exposing the light bulbs. They were rewired and replaced with exterior-grade aluminum fixtures, but water seepage continues to be a problem. Still, the nighttime glow of these lights is magical.

To improve the electrical system, wires were buried underground and fed to circuit breakers, which replaced old fuse boxes. Recently, wiring in the tool house failed and electricians had to dismantle part of the ceiling to gain access to brittle wiring, which led to a new challenge—how to replace the sixty-year old particle board ceiling that crumbled when panels were removed. (A similar particle board was eventually found by the contractor and stained to match the original.)

One of the three Taliesin lamps Wright designed for the Kraus house, all different from one another.


It is nerve-wracking to care for a Wright house. There are constant concerns about what will need to be fixed next and who is trained, sensitive to historic restoration and Wright’s original intention, and available to make the proper repair. It can make one crazy, but it is worth the challenge. Now, visitors from all over the world are able to experience a Usonian house just as Wright intended it.

The house is open year-round for guided tours, Wednesday through Sunday, by advance reservation only. For further information, call (314) 822-8359 or visit ebsworthpark.org.
Joanne Kohn led the campaign to raise the money to save the Kraus house and open it to the public, oversaw its restoration, and has chaired the nonprofit board that operates it since 1997. Laura Meyer has been administrative director of the house since 2008.
Several other Usonian houses are open to the public, including the newly restored Kenneth and Phyllis Laurent House in Rockford, Illinois, which opens on June 6. Considered by Wright to be one of the thirty-five best works of his career, it is the only building he ever designed for a person with a disability—a wheel-chair-bound World War II veteran and his wife. Visit franklloydwright.org for a list of the Usonian and other Wright houses that are open to the public.

Celebrating the first half century of a master woodworker’s life

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Courtesy Moderne Gallery

It is safe to say that David N. Ebner was born to work in wood. Among his earliest recollections—as recounted in a new book on his work—are the hours spent in his father’s workshop, where, by the age of nine, he had made his own baseball bat. Beginning in 1964, as a student at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Craftsmen he studied with Wendell Castle and William Keyser and began to identify himself as an artist-craftsman.

Not quite fifty years later, Philadelphia’s Moderne Gallery is mounting a major retrospective of Ebner’s work. The exhibition, which opens April 25, includes more than sixty chests, stools, chairs, mirrors, desks, benches, and consoles that, taken together, paint a portrait of the designer’s craft. Robert Aibel, the founder of Moderne and a leading expert in the American studio furniture movement, has represented Ebner for more than a decade. “He forged a style of his own from the very beginning and has never allowed himself to stop evolving,” Aibel writes in his foreword to the lively and wide-ranging newly published David Ebner: Studio Furniture, by Nancy N. Schiffer. “It is exciting to present David’s sculptural furniture as he is constantly developing his own ideas and styles in fascinating ways, Aibel says.”

Ebner likes to call his designs “antiques of the future.” Because he often draws on traditional forms but remakes them in a thoroughly contemporary way, he sees them as “classical impressions” in which he relies on the forms of the past but removes the embellishments.

His work, most often in fine hardwoods, melds sculpture and furniture, art, and craft. It is sometimes graceful and delicate and sometimes far sturdier and more forceful. His Twisted Sticks series from the mid-1990s incorporates naturalistic forms drawn from his observations of the way honeysuckle vines wrap around themselves. His scallion- and onion-inspired chests and coat racks (he says they are among his favorites) are at once witty and timeless. His elegant, highly articulated Sternum series—it includes both a music stand and a dictionary stand along with tables and chairs—was inspired by looking at the bones of a duck he had eaten for dinner. Although he is versatile, his most recognizable pieces usually stand on improbably slender splayed legs and have precise joinery.

Courtesy Moderne Gallery


A dovetailed joint stool he made shortly after settling in Eastern Long Island (first in Blue Point, then Brookhaven, and finally Bellport) was selected for the 1975 exhibition Craft Multiples at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and was later selected for the museum’s collection. Dated 1974, it is now known as the Renwick Stool and signaled the start of Ebner’s success and recognition. Another 1974 piece, a rocking horse made of carved Douglas fir and German yellow pine, was selected for the juried exhibition Bed and Board at the deCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Moderne’s exhibition, entitled David N. Ebner: 50 Years of Studio Furniture, traces all this and much more. It runs through June 30. modernegallery.com
– by Beth Dunlop

“DAVID EBNER: 50 YEARS OF STUDIO FURNITURE” has been extended through August 15, 2014

Cape Cod Modern

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The Race Against Time to Save an Overlooked Legacy
By Susan Morgan

The Kugel/Gips house in Wellfleet, designed by Charles Zehnder, 1970, has been restored by the Cape Cod Modern House Trust. Courtesy of Raimund Koch photos.


In 1959 Massachusetts Senators John F. Kennedy and Leverett Saltonstall introduced legislation to create the Cape Cod National Seashore—a plan to preserve 44,600 acres of wild and fragile coastal land along a forty-mile stretch of the Outer Cape, a sublime and mutable terrain comprised of windswept beaches, parabolic sand dunes, salt marshes, creeks, ponds, and pine barrens. When the proposed legislation passed in 1961, President Kennedy signed it into law, and the existing buildings within the newly designated park’s boundaries fell into what architect Peter McMahon, founding director of the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, describes as “an administrative limbo.” Although the federal government acquired the land through eminent domain, the structures were leased back to their owners under a twenty-five-year agreement; at the end of the lease period, the buildings were slated for demolition and the land was to be left to nature.“The Park Service owned all these buildings, most of which were abandoned,” says McMahon who has been steadily identifying the Outer Cape’s important cache of derelict or overlooked mid-century architecture.

McMahon, principal of South Wellfleet-based PM Design, had studied in Boston and started his career in New York but always migrated back to the Outer Cape. “When I was ten, my parents hired Charlie Zehnder [one of the region’s most prolific self-taught architects] to do a summer house for us in Wellfleet,” he recalls. “Growing up in that modern house, I was fascinated by it.” In 2006 McMahon and Bob Bailey, a Truro-based artist, co-curated A Chain of Events: Modernist Architecture on the Outer Cape, Marcel Breuer to Charles Jencks for the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. As their initial exhibition concept expanded from simply photographing abandoned houses to collecting archival material, producing new architectural models, and selecting local art from the postwar period, the idea for the Cape Cod Modern House Trust evolved. Meeting with Bill Burke, historian for the park, McMahon began to pore over binders filled with blurry images of endangered structures still standing throughout the National Seashore and tracked down any place that displayed a “flat-ish roof” and a whiff of modernism. While inspecting the 1970 Kugel/Gips house—with its rotting wooden decks and weather-beaten plate glass—McMahon quickly recognized Zehnder’s architecture. “Bill told me if I had a nonprofit organization, the park could lease the building to it and I could figure out what to do with it,” McMahon says. “So I filed for a creative 501(c)(3) and that was it.”

Established in 2007 as a grassroots or­ganization, the trust has obtained leases for three of the surviving modern houses on the federally owned seashore. Working with an extraordinary range of volunteers, donors, and support from the Community Preservation Act, a Massachusetts initiative dedicated to preserving historic sites and open spaces, restoration has been completed on the Kugel/Gips house, the Hatch house (1962), and the Weidlinger house (1953). During the spring and autumn, the houses are used to host a residency program for artists and scholars; in the summer, they are rented to appreciative modernist aficionados or traditional nature lovers and offered to trust members as a premium. “The summer rentals make a huge difference,” McMahon admits. “If we’re able to get a building on its feet, it supports itself and we don’t have to fund-raise our entire budget every year.”

Overlooking Cape Cod Bay in Wellfleet, the Hatch house, designed by Jack Hall, 1960, has been restored by the Cape Cod Modern House Trust. By Koch photos.

Since the early twentieth century, the Outer Cape has attracted unconventional holiday makers—avant-garde circles of artists, writers, and designers with a reverence for rustic living and progressive ideas. As writer Mary Heaton Vorse, a 1920s Greenwich Village radical and long-time resident of Provincetown, observed in 1942, “People here have been nourished by beauty and change and danger.” Thus came houses and studios that rested lightly on the land, constructed with a knack for improvisation: the “Paper Palace,” a nautical moderne beach house (1938), was made out of reclaimed timber and Homasote fiberboard; a chicken coop artfully repurposed as a string of sleeping huts provided inspiration for the refined modular grid of the Hatch house; and Bernard Rudofsky, the influential architect and social critic, summered in a primitive cabin, a remnant from a defunct Girl Scout camp. Beginning in the late 1930s an extraordinary wave of European émigré architects and designers—including Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, and Olav Hammarström—settled in the area; the homes they made for themselves provided an idyllic escape, laboratories for testing design prototypes, and a social roundelay of cocktail parties and invigorating conversation.

Hatch house porch by Koch photos.


In addition to restoring endangered houses, the Cape Cod Modern House Trust has identified and archived information about nearly one hundred local “modern houses of interest.” In July Metropolis Books will publish Cape Cod Modern: Midcentury Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape, a vibrant cultural history that considers how time, place, and intersecting lives coalesced to generate the built environment. Co-authored by McMahon and Christine Cipriani, a Boston-based writer and Wellfleet summer resident, the pages of Cape Cod Modern brim with captivating images, original scholar­ship, un­expected legacies, and humorous anecdotes. Central to the trust’s mission, the authors state in their introduction, “is the notion that buildings and landscapes bear cultural memories.” In Cape Cod Modern, those cultural memories have been preserved with great dedication and joy.

Smiljan Radic’s Serpentine Galleries Commission

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External indicative CGI © 2014 Smiljan Radic Studio

Internal indicative CGI © 2014 Smiljan Radic Studio

Architect Smiljan Radic becomes the fourteenth architect commissioned by the Serpentine to design a pavilion outside the entrance to its Kensington Gardens gallery. Conceived in 2000 by director Julia Peyton-Jones, the Pavilion project has presented works by highly prestigious architects and become an important site for architectural experimentation. Radic’s design references his earlier work, much of which resides in his native Chile, but also speaks to the architectural traditions of England. “The Serpentine 2014 Pavilion is part of the history of small romantic constructions seen in parks or large gardens, the so-called follies, which were hugely popular from the end of the sixteenth century to the start of the nineteenth,” Radic says. His semi-transparent cylindrical structure atop large quarry stones resembles a shell and encloses a flexible, multipurpose social space with a cafe?. During its four-month tenure (June 26 to October 19), it will provide a venue for the Serpentine’s Park Nights series— interdisciplinary events combining art, poetry, music, film, literature, and theory. The pavilion itself will offer additional enticement for visitors at night, Radic says—the amber-tinted light showing through the translucent shell “will attract the attention of passers-by like lamps attracting moths.” serpentinegalleries.org
— by Sara Spink

Looking Forward: Finland in the 21st Century

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A new exhibition in Minneapolis explores contemporary Finnish design
By Mason Riddle

Bagley Nature Center, University of Minnesota-Duluth, designed by Finnish-American architect David Salmela, 2010.


Who doesn’t covet an Alvar Aalto bentwood Paimio chair? And what’s not to like about Iittala glassware designed by Aino Aalto, or Kaj Franck’s iconic mid-century Teema ceramic cup for Arabia, or a striking stretch of Marimekko fabric? And those orange-handled scissors by Fiskars are everywhere. Of course we embrace these things: they are all twentieth-century examples of Finnish design burned into our aesthetic consciousness.

Innovative, elegant, and to-the-point design has long been Finland’s international calling card, and the new exhibition Finland: Designed Environments at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts provocatively reinforces this idea. Organized by Jennifer Komar Olivarez, MIA’s associate curator of decorative arts, it is the first in-depth museum exhibition in the United States since the 1990s to explore Finnish design. It takes us well beyond the twentieth-century object and thrusts us into the more comprehensive notions of twenty-first-century Finnish design.

“The legacy of Finnish design runs deep,” Olivarez says. “It is a step above what we normally consider good design. The Finns continually find ways to improve upon design ideas of the past and always ask how design can meet the needs of the people. How can design address the problems of today?”

Designed Environments handily demonstrates the ways in which, over the last fifteen years, the Finns have incorporated thoughtful design into virtually every aspect of their daily lives. Accompanied by a well-illustrated catalogue, with essays by Olivarez, Jukka Savolainen, director of the Design Museum, Helsinki, and Juulia Kauste, director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture, Helsinki, the show is divided into five thematic areas: “The City Redefined”; “Relax, Recharge, and Reflect”; “Artful Living”; “Design and the Body”; and “New Design Realities.” Topics addressed include the ways in which urban design is reshaping the quality of Finnish life; the significance of summer homes, saunas, and recreation to Finnish notions of well-being; how well-designed domestic objects are integral to daily life; contemporary ideas of fashion; and innovations in areas of sensory design, graphic design, food, and systems design.

Birch Octo 4240 lamp designed by Seppo Koho, 2005, manufactured by Secto Design, Espoo, Finland.

Helsinki was designated the World Design Capital 2012 by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, an award that highlights accomplishments of cities that use design to improve social, cultural, and economic life. Designed Environments will feature several projects from this event, including photographs of the 2012 pavilion, designed by Pyry-Pekka Kantonen and the Aalto University Wood Program as a temporary “living room.”

Several other architectural designs are also represented, including Olavi Koponen’s Sauna and the Kamppi Chapel of Silence by Kimmo Lintula, Niko Sirola, and Mikko Summanen. Bridging Finnish and American design thinking is the Bagley Nature Center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, designed by Finnish-American architect David Salmela.

In terms of objects, Olivarez says, “Alvar Aalto’s legacy of strong, clean lines with an organic feel in form and material is still apparent in Finnish design. However, ideas of creative sustainability and non-material design are increasingly explored.” The Orange Box chair by Hannu Kähönen, for example, is made from wooden fruit crates to draw consumers’ attention to waste and recycling. Japanese architect and designer Shigeru Ban, recipient of the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize and globally renowned for his sustainable design thinking, has created a modular 10-Unit System chair that is manufactured of recycled material by the legendary Helsinki design company Artek, founded by the Aaltos in the 1930s.

Kamppi Chapel of Silence, Helsinki, by K2S Architects (Kimmo Lintula, Niko Sirola, and Mikko Summanen), Helsinki, 2008–2012.

The array of innovative functional objects includes Esa Vesmanen’s sleek Balance chair, a chaise longue that integrates a personalized audio system into its “sound pillow.” Savoy, a limited edition ceramic dinner service by Karin Widnäs, honors the seventy-fifth anniversary of the still celebrated Aalto-designed Savoy Restaurant. The long tradition of Finnish textiles is continued by Vallila Interior’s colorful fabrics, screened with images that bring elements of the outdoors inside. Two bicycle designs, so important to the twenty-first-century city, make an engaging appearance, including the 2000 update of the classic 1965 Jopo.

“One of my favorite pieces in the show is the Sukupuu (Family Tree) Maternity Package,” Olivarez says. “The World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 wanted a fresh new design for a maternity package, and a student, Johanna Öst Häggblom, won the competition. It’s not necessarily the first thing people think of when they think of contemporary design, but it has everything needed for a newborn and shows how design is a part of the lives of even the youngest Finnish citizens.” Affectionately called the “baby box,” it is distributed to new parents by Kela, the Social Insurance Institution.

Olivarez is also inspired by contemporary Finnish lighting design. She notes that the Octo 4240 by Seppo Koho “shows how wood is used in ways that we don’t think of for lighting—as the integral fixture and shade.” Likewise, she thinks the Kubo light therapy lamp by Eero Aarnio “will be revelatory, since most of the lamps treating SAD [seasonal affective disorder] available in the U.S. look like makeup mirrors. Innojok, the manufacturer has really evolved the SAD lamp from medical equipment to sculptural lighting.” Mikko Kärkkäinen’s birch LED1 lamp is futuristic in feel but made from wood, perhaps Finland’s most revered design material.

Sense Light swing designed by Alexander Lervik, 2005, manufactured by
Saas Instruments, Helsinki.


Information technology plays a role in Designed Environments too. Who knew that what may be Finland’s biggest worldwide export, the video game Angry Birds, was designed by Jaakko Iisalo in 2009?

But what might be the quintessential twenty-first-century object in this cornucopia of Finnish design is the Sense Light swing by Swedish designer Alexander Lervik, made from acrylic and LED lights by Helsinki’s Saas Instruments. In a country that spends much of the year in darkness, what better way to generate a little breeze and the sensation of a shooting star on a warm summer night?

Reminder: NYC Makers at MAD

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Misha Kahn photo courtesy of MAD


NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial, an exhibition that spotlights the creative communities thriving across New York’s boroughs today opens on July 1 (to October 12) at the Museum of Arts and Design. It’s the first exhibition to be organized under the leadership of MAD’s new director Glenn Adamson (see MODERN, Spring 2014, pp. 132-137) and will showcase the work of approximately one hundred highly inventive artisans, artists, and designers who create objects or environments through exquisite workmanship and skill. Exemplifying the museum’s ongoing commitment to craftsmanship across all creative fields, the exhibition will serve as a platform not only for makers who typically display their work in a museum setting, but also those who operate behind the scenes. madmuseum.org — by Cynthia Drayton

A Well-Stated Place

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The London-based designer Philip Michael Wolfson filled his mid-century Miami Beach apartment with treasures of its own era
By Beth Dunlop
Photos by Robin Hill

After he moved into his mid-century building in Miami Beach, Philip Michael Wolfson began to scour open-air antiques sales, flea markets, and thrift shops to fill it—thus many of the pieces in his apartment lack specific provenance. The Eero Saarinen Tulip table and chairs were a thrift shop score from a period when the demand for modern furniture was not as strong. The living room sofas were a kind of hand-me-down from an apartment Wolfson designed for Swiss clients in a nearby Miami Beach condominium. When the clients sold their apartment, he was able to reuse the large-scale Italian sectionals. The rug, a junk-shop find, is Scandinavian.


Italian glass and an acrylic sculpture sit atop a table that Wolfson calls an “homage to Noguchi.”


IN 1957, WHEN BELLE TOWERS OPENED, the apartments came fully furnished (if you wished) with interiors by a society decorator no less. There was seven-day maid service, a round-the-clock doorman, modern all-electric “dream” kitchens, plus “speed” elevators, car washers, and porters. “Belle Towers apartments are not to be compared to any other apartments,” read one 1957-era advertisement that expounded: “A private estate would serve as a better comparison…the quiet seclusion required for refined gracious living is zealously guard- ed by the carefully selected staff of Belle Towers.”

Conceived as a luxury rental building with a lot of panache, the building itself is a bit of a Miami Beach icon, designed by Robert Swartburg, whose other works include the famed Delano Hotel and the just-renovated Vagabond Motel. Another advertisement pronounced it the “Established Address of Prestige.” Today in the lively South Beach, “quiet seclusion” is a glimmer of a memory. But the eight-story Belle Towers, now flanked by bigger and taller buildings, remains a prime and almost-untouched example of Miami’s best mid-century architecture.

In fact, it was one of the few buildings that the London-based designer Philip Michael Wolfson considered when he shopped for an apartment in Miami. And though Wolfson’s formal interests as a designer revolve around the dynamic forms of futurism and its contemporary interpretation in furniture and sculpture, he wanted to live in the Miami of a particular era—and in a building that was an icon of that time. A great aunt had lived in Belle Towers back in the “refined gracious living” days, so he had strong childhood images of it. “The building is exactly what I remembered about Miami,” he says.

An American by birth, Wolfson had moved to London when he was still in architecture school and stayed. But the time came when he yearned for “a place in the states.” At Belle Towers, he found a one-bedroom unit that was basically unchanged. It still had its original bathrooms and kitchen, which featured (and still does) a Frigidaire Flair Custom Imperial countertop oven and range. “It’s still the original apartment,” he says. “Really, I just stripped the floors.”

Cuban-born Gilberto Ruiz painted the toreador who presides over the Wendell Castle Castle chair in the bedroom.


He filled the space with fine examples of modern design—much of it found through serendipity at Lincoln Road’s Sunday antiques and collectibles market or in thrift shops, pieces more readily nabbed by astute buyers in the 1990s—to create a rich but spare aesthetic. “Absolutely, I found treasures,” he says. “Everyone did. Those were the days.” The furniture ranges from an Eero Saarinen Tulip dining table and chairs to two Wendell Castle Molar chairs in the living room and a Castle chair in one corner of the bedroom. There’s an Aldo Tura side table, Swedish chests, an American 1950s desk, a set of Noguchi “homage” tables, a table by Richard Schultz for Knoll, and two Charles and Ray Eames Aluminum Group chairs for Herman Miller. The porch features a few family hand-me-downs from his cousin, the collector and museum-founder Mitchell Wolfson Jr.

To all this, Wolfson added in “lots of objects,” in wood and glass especially, plus works by African, Cuban, and African-American artists, notably Gilberto Ruiz, who is Cuban-born but works in New York, and the late Purvis Young, who despite fairly widespread national recognition continued to work as he always had in his back-street studio spaces in central Miami. “I was drawn to their figurative qualities,” Wolfson says.

Wolfson spent his childhood in such cities as Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles—wherever his father’s career as a rocket engineer took the family. In his third year at Cornell University, he decided to study abroad and enrolled in the Architectural Association in London. “And I realized that the AA was what I wanted—more design-oriented and less engineering-oriented.”

As luck would have it, he was hired for a summer job by a then-little-known emerging architect named Zaha Hadid, a professor of his. He was one of two designers she hired for her tiny office that year, and the work was largely competitions (most of which they won). “That summer,” Wolfson recalls, “was a very important summer.” One thing led to another and Wolfson stayed as Hadid’s career grew, then founded his own firm, Wolfson Design. London became home, along with Zurich, where his longtime partner Beat Raaflaub, lives. Miami makes three.

The designer of the mid-century American desk is unknown; the chairs are Charles and Ray Eames Aluminum Group for Herman Miller.


His career has taken Wolfson around the world. The Shanghai gallerist Pearl Lam has long represented him (and has displayed his work at Design Miami shows). Not long ago, he created the furniture for Robert, the restaurant in the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. In recent years he’s shown his work in such divergent locations as London, Lake Como, and Miami. There’s a range, from interiors to furniture to what he likes to call “functional sculpture” (most typically one-off or extremely limited editions) to sculpture itself. “Futurism is what interests me most, and postwar abstraction, the development of contemporary art from its beginnings,” he says, “mostly minimalism and motion. The dynamic of motion interests me, and the fluidity of it. I just like to give it more speed.”

For the most part, one might not sense that from his Belle Towers apartment, where only small pieces of Wolfson’s own design, some RSVP candleholders and a maquette among them, are on view. Yet when he sits just so in the living room and looks past the Molar chairs and the bronze sculpture and catches a glimpse of the Noguchi-esque tables, he sees a “continuation of the dynamic,” he says. “It’s all there.”

Taking Risks in Creative Design

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Goldner (left) and Geva in the chicken-house-turned-foam factory on Kibbutz Reshafim in Israel where they sometimes work.


An innovative duo combines industrial techniques with craftsmanship and high design

Designers Gal Goldner and Iftah Geva thrive on pushing boundaries—not only merging technology with design concepts, but also working without a designated studio or schedule. The two men create complex furniture, jewelry, and sculpture at night and on weekends in a diverse trio of locations in Israel—their laptop computers at home; a former chicken coop-turned-polystyrene-foam facility on their northern kibbutz; and a drone aircraft factory in the south of the country. “Each location serves a particular purpose and we work whenever we can,” Goldner says. “The computer is essential for our original three-dimensional designs, and the other places offer the specialized machinery we need, from the unique wood CNC (Computer Numerical Control) milling machine to the equipment for the final polishing by hand.”

The duo’s Solar Plexus table of birch wood and carbon fiber, like the Jihad table, was created over a period of three years, and first shown at the New York Salon in 2012.


Unknown to the design world before 2012, Geva and Goldner had developed techniques for carving local woods into undulating curves and organic shapes, animated by industrial carbon fiber. They were discovered on a trip to Israel by Daniella Ohad, a New York–based design historian and consultant and director of the collecting design program at the New York School of Interior Design. Ohad recalls that she was impressed by their unusual choice of materials. “The result is a unique, personal aesthetic that can be defined as a fusion of two opposites—high tech and craft—but with the hand of the makers always visible in the sleek, streamlined forms,” she says. “Efforts to adopt materials and technologies from other sophisticated sectors to design is seen everywhere, but Goldner and Geva have done it successfully.” She compares the way they have used technologies from the drone industry for their furniture designs to Charles Eames, who famously adopted the molded plywood he had used in developing leg splints for the U.S. Navy to his furniture.

Born thirty-seven years ago on neighboring kibbutzim in Israel’s fertile Beit She’an Valley beneath Mount Gilboa, Geva and Goldner had comparable experiences growing up close to nature and helping out in the kibbutz fields, chicken coops, and fish farms. They also learned their way around tools: “I tried welding in the blacksmith’s shop at the age of twelve,” Geva says. Both recognize the influence of their early surroundings and later travels on their creativity. “I think the abstract inspiration for our work comes from within us—from where we grew up and what we absorb in our lives,” Goldner adds.

The two met after high school and went on to serve in the same unit for their mandatory army service. Afterward they toured Australia together by motorcycle and Jeep and then Goldner continued on to New Zealand followed by ten months in Chicago. Geva, meanwhile, returned to Israel and worked in a drone aircraft factory, where he honed his knowledge of machinery and metalworking. He also discovered the fabric-like material carbon fiber: “I was fascinated by its light and flexible properties,” he says. “I saw the creative possibilities of using it in combination with wood.” He enrolled in the industrial design program at the Holon Institute of Technology, in Israel where he found the first year enlightening and stimulating but was disappointed by the second year’s practical aspects. He left, brimming with ideas and armed with the belief that he could create remarkable pieces marrying art, design, and function, unshackled by tradition.

Goldner, back in Israel and studying mechanical engineering, cut back on his courses (it took him two additional years to graduate) to partner with Geva in forming a company they called GGI to implement their ideas. They produced a number of successful, innovative products, including one for chopping onions without tears, a next-generation playground, a drone-launcher, and more.

The black and white kinetic sculpture is titled Relations to symbolize human connections of different kinds. Measuring one meter in diameter, the sculpture is constructed of painted carbon fiber that has been polished to a high gloss. Internal weights help balance it at a critical angle.


Nowadays they divide their time between two enterprises: Life Assistant Ltd., which designs technologies and products to aid the disabled and elderly and GoldnerGeva, which focuses on design and art—furniture, jewelry, and sculpture. Geva is the artist and designer while Goldner handles the studio’s business side, but they share decision-making and the practical aspects of sculpting and sanding.

The first furniture collection from GoldnerGeva received outstanding reviews at the New York Salon: Art and Design show in 2012. Their Inside Out series of three tables embodies their personal philosophy of balance and harmony in work and life. Each represents a different aspect of deep inner search transformed into matter. The fifty-one-inch diameter Solar Plexus table represents different levels of the mind expressed as a perfect circle, but concealing corners and empty spaces. It began as a thousand pounds of thick sheets of raw birch plywood and took two thousand hours to complete. Ninety-five percent of the original material was meticulously sculpted away to create spaces that were reinforced with carbon fiber painted black. “There were times when we were faced with the unexpected complexity of the process,” Goldner says. “Instead of discarding it, though, we kept innovating and turned it to an advantage.”

Geva chose olive wood for the Jihad table, taking the literal translation of the word jihad—“effort”—to represent the spiritual sense of human beings aspiring to inner balance. The table requires effort to maintain equilibrium when placing objects on its top. The Anicca table, still in model form, represents the Buddhist term implying constant change. Its sculptural curves transform from dark to light, inside out and from top to bottom.

“Their work is so much on the cusp of what can be done that some pieces couldn’t be completed until technology caught up with their design concepts,” says Robert Aibel, owner and director of Philadelphia’s Moderne Gallery, which represents the pair. “Their use of beautiful wood and organic design elements clearly relate to the work of Nakashima, Esherick, Maloof, Ebner, and Castle in our gallery.”

Geva and Goldner’s first bracelet, seen here in two views, is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.


When Israeli-based multidisciplinary artist Ilana Goor saw Geva and Goldner’s tables at Moderne, she suggested that they apply their furniture techniques to creating jewelry. Their first bracelet was acquired by New York’s Museum of Arts and Design in 2012, and in 2013 they launched a second series of jewelry in olive wood and carbon fiber, some of which incorporates gold inlaid into the wood grain.

Dale Anderson, a noted collector and co-founder of the Association of Israel’s Decorative Arts (AIDA), which promotes Israeli artists in the United States, says: “It is tremendously exciting to see such sophisticated contemporary design and craftsmanship coming out of Israel. This small country is producing many talented designers in different fields.”

Geva and Goldner continue to develop new furniture forms, including a pair of stools, and they say they are planning a second series of tables to be called Duo to symbolize the relationships between couples. Meanwhile, their kinetic sculpture, launched in New York in May 2014, presents their latest challenge to the ways we perceive the boundaries of design.

— By Helen Hill

DREAM CARS IN ATLANTA

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Norman Timbs Special, 1947. Courtesy of Gary and Diane Cerveny/Peter Harholdt photo.


In search of a (vicarious) thrill ride? Make your way to the High Museum in Atlanta, where curator Sarah Schleuning’s exhibition Dream Cars: Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas is on view until September 7. Featuring some of the rarest and most imaginative automobiles ever built, the show includes seventeen “concept” cars from the 1930s to 2001—cars that represented (and represent) the amazing possibilities for the future of driving.

Built by automakers, custom coachbuilders, and independent designers, most concept cars are never intended for series production but rather are the testing ground for innovations that might find expression in automobiles produced decades later. William Stout’s 1936 Scarab, for instance (which he envisioned as essentially a living room on wheels), could be considered the grandfather of today’s minivan, while “L’Oeuf électrique,” a small, almost spherical electric “bubble car” designed in 1942 by Frenchman Paul Arzens for his personal use during the German occupation of Paris, anticipated the postwar boom for fuel-efficient mini-cars.

Chrysler’s sleek 1940 Thunderbolt offered a radical aerodynamic aluminum body, hidden headlights, enclosed wheels, a retractable one-piece metal hardtop (controlled by push buttons on the dashboard, which was leather- covered and featured round, etched Lucite dials), and an experimental semiautomatic overdrive transmission. Mechanical engineer Norman Timbs hand-built his gorgeous 1947 Special, a futuristic doorless roadster capable of more than a hundred miles an hour. General Motors’ 1953 Firebird I was the first gas turbine-powered automobile built and tested in the U.S. In essence a wingless jet plane for the road, it never took off for myriad technical reasons. Then, there was the three-wheeled Runabout with a built-in shopping cart.

These are just a few of the autos that make up the story told in Dream Cars. In addition to the cars, the exhibition includes conceptual drawings, patents, and scale models. The accompanying catalogue is gorgeously illustrated and packed with every bit of information you could possibly want about these dream machines, built and unbuilt. If you’re a car person and can’t get to the show, the book alone is a must-have.
— By Eleanor Gustafson

Alessi at Home and Afield

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By Arlene Hirst

Photography by Santi Caleca

The living room of the Alessi's house is dominated by a massive dining table, designed by Alessandro Medini, the house's architect, who also did the fireplace, created from three large chestnut trees in the garden.

Alberto Alessi had a dream. He wanted to be a vintner, but not just any kind of vintner. “My ambition is to do the best wine ever in Italy,” says the sixty-seven-year-old head of Alessi, SpA, the $130 million family company he has headed since 1970. He has transformed it from a staid producer of stainless steel housewares into a dynamic powerhouse driven solely by design, be it in metal, glass, wood, ceramic, or plastic, and be it housewares, tableware, kitchens, baths, furnishings, or fashion— the company introduced a collection of eyeglasses in Milan this April.

To turn his dream into reality, Alessi set out to find land where he could not only grow grapes but create a home for his family. After a long search, he found an old farm, Villa Fortis, in the Piedmont village of Pratolungo, a small town just six miles from Crusinallo, where the Alessi factory and offices are located. But both the buildings and the grounds of this estate, which dates back to the early nineteenth century (its actual origins go all the way back to the sixteenth century), had been completely abandoned, and part of the land had returned to the wild. It was not habitable.

Alessi is a major figure in Italy’s Piedmont region—the Alessi factory is an important driver of the local economy—and yet when it came time to embark on a renovation, there was no favoritism; in fact, Alessi’s chosen architect, Alessandro Mendini, a longtime collaborator and trusted consultant, had to submit four different plans before he was finally able to satisfy the requests of the various local authorities. Alessi closed on the property in 2001, but construction didn’t begin until 2007. “Finally, after three proposals, we realized what they wanted,” he says—the restoration of the old house and surrounding buildings that stood on the grounds. Fortunately, total fidelity was not required. “They were really only interested in the facade and volumes,” he says.

Alberto and his wife Laura, on the grounds of their estate in Pratolungo, a small town in the Piedmont region of Italy.

Before the move, Alessi and his wife Laura and daughter Emma had lived in a small, loft-like space in an old villa in Suna on Lake Maggiore and they wanted to re-create the same sense of intimacy, hiring a fengshui expert to consult with Mendini. In spite of its lofty presence on a hilltop, surrounded by a serene rolling landscape, the house’s interiors are simple with a warm farm-like feel, thanks to the extensive use of wood and stone, much of which was recycled from the old house and grounds.

The one touch of extravagance is an indoor spa, complete with swimming pool. “I wanted to fulfill a long-term dream of living close to a spa so we could combat the humidity of our beloved lake,” explains Alessi. Eleven-year-old Emma loves entertaining school friends there.

The entrance to the house is through a long hallway with a study for Laura Alessi off to the side. The graphic intarsia walls add a touch of drama. The two-story living room, where the family spends almost all of its time, has a welcoming fireplace that was built using three chestnut trees from the property. At the other end, an open kitchen—a super-sized version of La CucinaAlessi produced by Valcucine and Oras and also designed by Mendini—dominates the space. Both husband and wife cook. A large wood table also crafted from the felled chestnut trees is surrounded by a virtual hall-of-fame of designer chairs including ones by Jasper Morrison, Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec, Enzo Mari, and Naoto Fukasawa.

Arlene Hirst is a design journalist living and working in New York.

 

The Dream Factory of Alessi

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Promise and polish in Silver and chrome (and plastic and porcelain)

By Katrine Ames

The Try it trivet designed by Dror Benshetrit in 2009 is composed of three stainless steel arcs. Each piece can be considered a trivet in its own right; when assembled together they create a stable suppor for multiple uses.

In 1918 four Polish immigrants opened a studio on Sunset Boulevardin Hollywood. That studio, Warner Brothers, soon became one of the best of the so-called Dream Factories, most admired for its gritty Depression-era movies.

Around the same time, Giovanni Alessi, an Italian metalworker who excelled at making brass knobs, opened a studio of his own, in a valley near the Swiss border. Though this studio made small objects for the home—metal coffee- and teapots, trays, flask holders—it shared something with Warner Brothers: Alessi was rooted in handsome practicality, not lavishness.

Today, the Hollywood Dream Factories are long gone, but Alessi is thriving, with one eye still focused on function and the other on art and invention. Some of the greatest designers and architects of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including EttoreSottsass, AchilleCastiglioni, Aldo Rossi, Michael Graves, Philippe Starck, Norman Foster, and Jasper Morrison have worked with the company. The president, Alberto Alessi, grandson of the founder, calls it “the dream factory.”

Since 1921 Alessi has operated from the same northern Italian valley within striking distance of the Alps, and it doesn’t outsource everything to China: virtually everything made of cold-pressed metal or of wood is still manufactured in Italy. “Everyone there is extremely loyal,” says the gifted Israeli designer DrorBenshetrit, who is creating a collection for the company. “For many of the people I work with at Alessi, it’s their first job, and will probably be their last. And they maintain a lot of their local craft, even though it costs more.”

These days you can indulge in an Alessi bathroom, equipped not only with Alessi fixtures but with an Alessi bathtub plug, toothbrush holder, toothpick holder, toilet brush, soap dish, and laundry basket. Not to mention a scale, which you might want to avoid after cooking dinner in an Alessi-designed kitchen, deploying Alessi pots, pans, dishes, glasses, and cutlery. The company has produced (and this is by no means a complete list) egg cookers, honey pots, spice jars, nutcrackers, timers, clocks, watches, graters, bottle openers, compact-disc racks, corkscrews, candlesticks, calculators, colanders, lemon squeezers, trolleys, garden tools, vases, cruet sets, toast racks, telephones, radios, desk organizers, wastepaper baskets, tables, figurines, frames, mirrors, and (dare we mention them in the United States?) ashtrays. In some corners of the world, you can even drive a Fiat Panda Alessi. “I believe that all industrial products would strongly benefit from a design-excellence approach,” Alberto Alessi says.

Carlo Alessi—Alberto’s father—was an industrial designer who shepherded the company through the Depression and World War II, and produced the sleekly stout Bombé tea and coffee sets that his son has called the “archetype of early Italian design”—a harbinger of what was to come. “Right after the 1940s,” Alberto Alessi says, “the company changed from pure craftsmanship to industry, from lathe-spinning to presses.” It was not until 1988 that the company expanded its manufacturing base to wood, and in the next five years added plastic, ceramics, and glass. “We are metalists by roots,” Alessi says.

The quantum leap came in 1979 when Alessandro Mendini proposed having several architects, including Robert Venturi and Richard Meier, design classic silver tea and coffee services. Produced in limited editions, they were elegant, inspired—and witty. Something was changing. Philippe Starck may have said it best: “Alessi sells joy.” Who could not respond happily, for instance, to Michael Graves’s now-classic tea kettle with a bird at the spout or his cheese tray with a mouse for a handle? Alberto Alessi agrees. “I trace playfulness in our design history in Michael’s works for us,” he says, “and in a different way also in masters like Castiglioniand  Mendini.”


Though the company’s association with superb designers is long, Alberto Alessi has brought in the greatest number and variety (none is a resident employee, however). In 1990 Alessi began working with unestablished designers, including students, which has revivified the house; the firm has also established workshops, including one at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Alberto Alessi thinks of his job, in part, as “managing a stable of racehorses. There are approximately two hundred and I try to take care of every one of them in the best way. They well know how I rely on them.”
Designers clearly relish not only the freedom Alessi gives them, but the technical risks the company is willing to take. Says the Milan-based Miriam Mirri, whose items for Alessi include the delicious porcelain and stainless steel Babette coffee cup: “They have the courage to follow my intentions or to suggest new solutions, sometimes based only on trust.” Bonnie Mackay, the former director of merchandising, creative, and marketing for MoMA Retail, has worked closely with Alessi. “They’re open to anything, which a lot of companies aren’t,” she says. “That’s why we love them. Alessi does a lot of investigation. They mix things, like plastic with stainless steel. That needs two different molds, but they’re willing to take the step. They push it farther than other people do. ”

Then there is the instantly identifiable Alessi look. Like music, it is difficult to describe. “They are unbelievably focused on their product,” DrorBenshetrit says, “to make sure it has the Alessi DNA and integrity. They keep it solid. You have to; otherwise you dilute your image.” He still marvels at “how many hands one single product, even a little oil cruet, moves through.” Bonnie Mackay frequently observes customers’ reactions to Alessi and may come as close as anyone to identifying our response to “the look.” It’s not just the quality of the pieces, she says, “it’s the aha! factor. When you see something of Alessi you think, ‘I never knew you could do this.’”

Gaetano Pesce: Homage to the Master in a Major Rome Retrospective

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photo courtesy Gaetano Pesce's Office

“I find him more interesting than any other industrial designer,” says the collector Alberto Eiber of Gaetano Pesce. “Everything is an experiment and unique. It is purposeful that each piece is imperfect and irregular.” Eiber, who lives in Miami Beach, is a major collector of Pesce’s work, both large and small, and has followed his career for several decades.
This summer, a major retrospective devoted to Pesce’s work will open at MAXXI, the Roman museum devoted to art and architecture of the twenty-first century. The exhibition will include some eighty pieces conceived and executed during Pesce’s full career, from the 1960s, when, starting in his student years in Venice, he was part of the collective Grupo N, to the present. He has lived in New York since 1980 and before that, resided in Paris for fifteen years.
Pesce’s work ranges from architecture, interior design, and urban planning to industrial and furniture design and art. It is generally figurative (if in an abstract way) and often fulsome. He has long used unexpected materials and ideas to explore difficult and emotionally charged contemporary themes from love and peace to violence and war—often expressed in complex, even contradictory, and yet compelling ways. “I think he is on a different level,” Eiber says.
At MAXXI, Gaetano Pesce: The Time of Diversity (June 26 to October 5) will rely on an unusual exhibition design in which the works will be displayed on moveable panels, allowing visitors to change the order, the point of view, and the organization. Pesce describes it as being like a “mutant labyrinth” that is intended to express his notion that diversity is fundamental to life. One gallery will be given over as “the ice room,” to be kept at a frigid temperature and featuring a video installation that will address such concepts as the difference between “official time” (which is the division of the year into months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and is what we live by, tracking them on our watches, cell phones, and clocks) and the more metaphysical or existential notion that no two instances of time are ever, in our lives, exactly alike.
The museum’s courtyard will feature an eight-meter (somewhat more than twenty-six feet) version of Pesce’s famously anthropomorphic UP chair (based on the female body) that will actually be a structure housing video installations dealing with the global issues affecting women (the idea is for visitors to enter into the “womb” of the chair, which was designed forty-five years ago). Pesce conceived this as both a celebration of his most iconic design and as a cautionary message, which only underscores the depth and intricacy of his thinking.
— by Beth Dunlop

Textiles and the City: Design by Inspiration

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Sina Pearson Textiles

In 1934 New York City opened an elevated rail system spanning Manhattan’s Lower West Side. The freight line was an integral part of the city’s transport of goods and materials until the rails were closed in 1980; but after some thirty dormant years the structure reopened in 2009 as the High Line—a public park hovering thirty feet above the busy streets. Today visitors to the High Line can mingle with indigenous plants, contemporary art, local cuisine, and of course the city itself. It is these elements that combined to inspire Sina Pearson’s rhythmic new Walking the High Line series of fabrics. The four patterns are geometric and call to mind everything from the railroad ties underfoot (in Tracks) and the surrounding layers of square and rectangular glazing (in Windows) to the tall buildings in the distance (Skyline) poking above the overlapping grid of modernist structures (in Facades). The patterns appear in four color families combining the neutral grays of the metropolitan landscape with bursts of color taken from the High Line’s array of wildflowers; the adaptive reuse of the High Line also inspired Pearson’s interest in sustainable design and use of recycled materials in the fabric. sinapearson.com

Kirkby

New York City isn’t the only source of railway-inspired design. UK-based Kirkby Design has taken the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the London Underground to introduce its Underground Collection, which re-creates five iconic fabric designs taken from the London Transport Museum. The original thick velvety moquette fabrics were created under the direction of Frank Pick, publicity manager and later managing director of London Transport from 1907 to 1940. Pick commissioned innovative designs for everything from station architecture, maps, and signage to promotional posters and the fabric on the seats. To this end he enlisted the talents of artists like Marion Dorn, Paul Nash, and Enid Marx, who was told that in addition to looking well in artificial lighting, the material should “look fresh at all times, even after bricklayers had sat on it.” Pick’s legacy of a well-designed commuter fleet endured, and today’s re-creations draw from designs for 1930s buses, 1950s Green Line coaches, and tubes from the 1970s and 1990s. The goals for today’s fabrics are the same: innovative geometric designs in bold, contemporary color palettes, and of course the ability to hide wear, tear, and bricklayer’s dust. kirkbydesign.com

James Shanks Photo

Another collaboration bringing the urban environment indoors is the new Grethe Sørensen Collection produced for Wolf-Gordon. The Danish Sørensen combines her traditional weaving expertise with an extensive knowledge of digital photography and technology. She has developed a “random weave” method that combines the two mediums by translating photographic pixels into thread. Her images of light-filled cityscapes are abstracted into delicate, ethereal compositions effecting the look of unfocused light. Millions of Colors, the upholstery fabric in her new line, is aptly named. Sørensen’s random weave technique arranges pixels of basic colors to create endless gradations that gradually shift into each other. While Sørensen’s work is undeniably modern, it certainly owes a debt to the study of light and color in impressionist painting and even the beauty of chance in surrealism. Wolf-Gordon, an American company, released Sørensen’s line in March, which includes three versions of the Millions of Colors fabric and twenty-six colorways of her three wall-covering patterns. wolfgordon.com

— by Katy Kiick

Scoping Out Salone

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Marco Covi photo

It was mid-afternoon of a balmy April day, the fourth day of Milan’s massive annual International Design Fair, and out at the Salone del Mobile, the fairgrounds were abuzz. Matteo Renzi, the handsome young prime minister of Italy, was paying a visit. A crowd gathered at the top of the escalators expectantly, as a smiling Renzi rode up to visit the hall to see some of Italy’s finest furniture companies showcasing their wares.

The visit had larger significance than politics alone. Italy is a nation of artisans and fabricators, but in recent years, the country (like many others) has been plagued by a stagnant economy, in some ways exacerbated by a somewhat controversial government, which meant that Renzi’s appearance at the Salone signaled better days ahead. “In Italy, we believe that design is value, that quality is value” says Claudio Luti, who is not only president of the design company Kartell but also heads Cosmit, the consortium of Italian furniture manufacturers that mounts Salone.

Each year designers, architects, collectors, showroom owners, gallery operators, journalists, scholars, and aficionados descend on Milan by the thousands. The Salone itself is a prime destination for most. This year a special exhibition, Where Architects Live, offered a multimedia glimpse at the personal homes of architects Shigeru Ban, Mario Bellini, Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas, Zaha Hadid, Marcio Kogan, Daniel Libeskind, and Studio Mumbai/Bijoy Jain.

It is almost axiomatic that at the fair itself, lovers of contemporary design make a beeline for Halls 16 and 20, where brands (many though not all of them Italian) ranging from Artek to Zanotta can be seen. (Other modern and contemporary brands can be found elsewhere at the Salone, but these two halls offer the concentrated study of what’s new and what has endured.) Among the many standouts: Patricia Urquiola’s rugs for Gandia Blasco and Artek’s launch of new work by Konstantin Grcic and reinterpretations by Hella Jongerius of some of Artek’s Alvar Aalto staples.

The celebration of contemporary design spills out from the fair across all of Milan, with entire districts (Brera, Tortona, Lambrate) devoted to showcasing design, often, though not always, from younger designers. The venerable Milan design guru Rossana Orlandi showed an array of fascinating (and sometimes provocative) work at both her gallery in an old tie factory, and in the separate Untold, which took over the historic Museo Bagatti-Valsecchi. Orlandi’s acute eye is legendary, and this year was no exception with works from the Lebanese duo known as Bokja, the Viennese firm of Lobmeyr, and the Japanese-born Yukiko Nagai, just to name three.

Others—among them Hermès and Established and Sons— similarly occupied venerable Milan palazzos and other landmark buildings to display often remarkable new work. At the Palazzo Clerici, for example, one could see edgy new work from Formafantasma for Gallery Libby Sellers using cooled lava as a primary material. The Dutch brand Moooi, on the other hand, took over a modern factory space and then reshaped it with Massimo Listri’s giant-sized photos of palazzo interiors shaping the spaces.
“It goes from the young to the stars,” Luti says. “I like to think that it is the best in the world.”
­—by Beth Dunlop

Taking It Outside: Design for the Garden

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Ingrid Donat's white concrete armchairs and Art Book coffee table, 2010.

Look at today’s concentration on nature,” says Lowery Stokes Sims, chief curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, who organized the museum’s 2013 exhibition Against the Grain: Wood in Contemporary Art, Craft and Design. “It stands to reason that designers internationally are turning their attention to the garden and outdoor living in general, and in doing so embracing a decided movement away from the traditional iron bench to more creative interpretative designs.”

A host of designers is offering pieces intended specifically for the garden, and collectors, curators, interior designers, landscape architects, and archi­tects are turning their attention to this area with renewed interest. In this high tech age, many designers are using new materials and new technologies, while others are rooted, so to speak, in traditional materials and techniques. For example, the London design collective Yard Sale Project, which is represented by Todd Merrill in Greenwich Village, is turning out computer-generated wood chairs. On the other hand, both Brazilian designer Hugo França and New Yorker Michele Oka Doner focus on fashioning enormous felled tree trunks into organic seating in tune with the millennium’s emphasis on the environment.

Aurélie Julien heads the Paris branch of the London-based Carpenters Workshop Gallery. Com­manding center stage there are Pablo Reinoso, Ingrid Donat, and Rick Owens. “The swirling, curvilinear organic shape of Reinoso’s 2010 steel Huge Sudeley bench is in harmony with nature,” Julien says, making it perfect for the garden (see our cover). The work of the Argentinean-born Paris-based Reinoso can be found in the Centre Pompidou, the Museum of Arts and Design, and the Vitra Design Museum.

Donat turns to concrete for furniture that is surprisingly sleek rather than cumbersome. She also works in bronze, creating pieces—from seating to chests—that bear engraved patterns drawn from sources as diverse as art deco and tribal tattooing and are frequently used outdoors by designers and collectors alike. For decades Donat’s furniture has been sought by A-list architects and designers such as Jacques Grange, Tony Ingrao, Peter Marino, and Robert Couturier. In fact, Couturier furnished practically an entire Jackson Hole, Wyoming, com­mission with Donat designs. “Her work is strong, always innovative and surprising,” he says. Prices run from $27,500 to $275,000.

Rick Owens is best known as a fashion designer, but he also lends his hand to design for the garden. One example at Carpenters Workshop is his 2013 Plug table in white marble, in an edition of eight, priced at $175,000.

Besides PAD Paris, Carpenters Workshop Gallery takes part in Design Miami/Basel, Design Miami, the Paris Biennale, and the Salon: Art and Design fair.

The black iron legs of Eric Robin's coffee table evoke tree branches, juxtaposed with the seven gold-leafed circular tops.

Also in Paris, the gallery En Attendant Les Barbares features the work of Eric Robin, who was first discovered by the late interior and product designer Andrée Putman. The blackened iron legs of his tables evoke tree branches, making them perfect for the outdoors. “Clients for his oeuvre include Pierre Bergé,” says Agnes Standish-Kentish, who heads up the gallery. A coffee table with seven gold-leafed circular surfaces is about $15,000. “We had a huge response to Eric’s work at PAD Paris with many sales,” she says.

The sleek lines of the 1997 Loop chair by Niels Hvass are created in aluminum with wood details.


Paris dealer Maria Wettergren features the work of Danish designer Mathias Bengtsson, whose Spun Chaise in carbon fiber can be found in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. It wasn’t designed specifically for the garden, but, Wettergren says, it “can be put outside.” The same is true for Danish designer Niels Hvass’s 1997 aluminum Loop chair, the slim lines of which appeal to contemporary art collectors. Besides the PAD fairs in London and Paris, Wettergren participates in Design Miami and Design Miami/Basel as well as Salon: Art and Design.

In Cologne, Germany, Gabrielle Ammann’s eponymous gallery has long been an international magnet for collectors, connoisseurs, and curators. Demonstrating her global reach, Ammann participates in Design Miami and Design Miami/Basel as well as in Collective in New York and PAD London. Noting that a number of designers are stepping up and creating a wide range of challenging work for the garden, she singles out India-born, Amsterdam-based designer Satyendra Pakhalé, whose designs, she says, are “rooted in India with its long tradition of bronze and marble work, but his viewpoint is the future.” Also of note, she adds, is Korean Bo Young Jung and Belgian Emmanuel Wolfs’s 2009 Tree Trunk series of bronze benches and stools, which appear to be bark-clad but with the “cut” ends polished. Prices range from $40,000 to $90,000. “The demand is huge and in the past five years, I’ve witnessed a jump of 40 percent for design created for the garden,” Ammann says. “No one can compete with the beauty of nature. But to find design that is in dialogue with the landscape is a rarity, and the work of Pakhalé and of Jung and Wolfs achieves that with sensitivity.”

Max Lamb’s Rusty Steel Sheet tables come in a variety of shapes, each produced in an edition of ten.


Back in 2008 Gallery FUMI was the first design gallery to open in Shoreditch, London’s trendy contemporary art district. Since then it’s been a go-to destination for collectors and curators. Max Lamb was among the first designers brought in by directors Valerio Capo and Sam Pratt. Driving demand is Max’s distinctive sensitivity to sculptural design,” Capo says. His 2008 editioned Rusty Steel Sheet tables and chairs are desired by collectors for garden use. “Lamb also has a series of tables, chairs and cabinets that look like black rocks coated with a slick oil like finish,” Capo says. Called Poly, objects in that line are tagged at $5,000 apiece and up. Lamb’s garden seating also includes his 2013 Chatsworth Yew Logs, from yew trees felled at the historic English country house, with some of the bark still intact. Each is priced at $7,600. FUMI will show Lamb’s work at its Porto Cervo gallery in Sardinia this summer, as well as at Design Miami/Basel in June. FUMI also takes part in PAD London, Design Miami, and Collective.

Los Angeles dealer Patrick Dragonette offers a range of design for outdoor use. Top of the list, Dragonette says, are vintage pieces by the late William Haines, acclaimed for his interiors of Sunnylands, the Palm Springs home of Walter and Lenore Annenberg, and his work for Ronald and Nancy Reagan, among other Hollywood notables. On offer, for $12,000, is a set of four Haines rope and wrought-iron chairs of about 1950 from the Irene Rich estate. A pair of cast bronze torchères from Jack Warner’s Palm Springs place is priced at $11,500.

Three from a set of four woven-rope and wrought- iron chairs designed by Haines for the Beverly Hills estate of Irene Rich, 1950s.

New York’s R and Company, based in Tribeca and a regular at Design Miami, Design Miami/Basel, and Collective, represents Brazilian designer Hugo França, who carves furniture, predominantly seating, out of felled pequi trees. Zesty Meyers, who heads up R and Company, says, “Hugo’s work is an important commentary on sustainability and material re-use.” França’s work can be found in notable public collections in Brazil, such as the Instituto Cultural Inhotim in Brumadinho and the Museu Da Casa Brasileira in São Paulo, but his organic and highly sculptural seating and sculpture are hardly strangers to these shores. They were recently on display in the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami in an installation curated by Cristina Grajales. This summer and fall (to October 11) his work in craggy pequi wood is included in an exhibition titled exteriors the explosion of outdoor furnishings, at LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton, New York. The price range for França’s work runs from $3,000 for small wall-mounted shelves to over $250,000 for large scale works.

Byung Hoon Choi’s basalt after image of beginning 013-394
dates from 2013.


“I love selling works that are installed outdoors because of the way they interact with nature,” says Marc Benda of Friedman Benda in New York’s Chelsea district. These would certainly include the basalt benches of Korean designer Byung Hoon Choi (some measure up to nine feet in length), which were featured in the gallery’s recent exhibition Byung Hoon Choi: In One Stroke (see MODERN, Winter 2014, p. 88). The show practically sold out with prices from $40,000 to $200,000. Another favorite of clients at Friedman Benda is Ron Arad’s 2007 striated stainless steel Thumbprint chair—one from the edition of six was placed in a collector’s garden.

Jim Elkind, a Harry Bertoia specialist, is the head of Lost City Arts also in New York. “Bertoia’s Sonambient works are well suited to the garden as the components, when rustled by the wind, sound like church bells,” Elkind says, adding that examples can be found in one client’s wading pool in Arizona as well as in gardens in the Hamptons, on Boston’s North Shore, and even in Mexico. Recently Auckland, New Zealand, interior designer Katie Lockhart acquired Bertoia’s copper Hollow Gong of 1965, which stretches eight feet across by more than four feet high, for a garden in India. Prices for large Bertoia sculptures range from $100,000 to $300,000. Of course, contemporary renditions of his 1952 Diamond chair for Knoll now found at Design Within Reach are popular in gardens and poolside as well.

Greenwich Village dealer Todd Merrill spotlights the work of Britons Ian Spencer and Cairn Young who make up the Yard Sale Project collective. “For their 2012 Roccapina V chair, the pair fused the natural and digital worlds,” Merrill says. Spencer and Young turned to computer technology to make the pattern of hundreds of rectangular wood pieces that comprise the chair, which appears “pixilated yet with a smooth surface.” It was included in the Museum of Arts and Design traveling exhibition Against the Grain.

The Yard Sale Collective’s Roccapina V chair and OSMA chair (pictured) are offered by Todd Merrill.


The Yard Sale Project’s 2013 OSMA chair is entirely handmade of polypropylene plumbing pipes that have been hand-cut and hand-sanded and assembled in a honeycomb pattern. The chair is intended to be buried six inches deep in the garden, allowing plants to grow up through the pipes. “It’s about making the chair into a living part of the garden,” says Merrill, who participates in Art Miami, Art Southampton, and Masterpiece London.

In Soho Cristina Grajales also showcases design appropriate for the garden, among them pieces by Christophe Côme and Michele Oka Doner. Côme is creating tables with cast-iron sides in open rectangular and square shapes topped by slabs of Spanish cedar. “Côme is recognized globally, and Peter Marino alone has commissioned his work for several Chanel boutiques,” Grajales says. Artist-designer Michele Oka Doner, who is represented in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the Centre Pompidou, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, works in many mediums and on many scales. Appropriate for the garden would be her two 2012 Chitra benches, carved from massive Australian pines and priced at $45,000 each. They were featured in the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in 2011 and 2012.

— by Brook S. Mason

East Hampton aplomb

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New York collectors Joel and Helen Portugal reveal an affinity for mid-century design
By Brook S. Mason
Photography by Thomas Loff

Paradigms of mid-century and later design fill the open living and dining areas in the summer house of Helen and Joel Portugal, including a George Nakashima hanging wall cabinet and a Greta Magnusson Grossman coffee table.


The built landscape of Long Island’s Hamptons is dominated by late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century shingle style houses and the very latest in contemporary residences.  But Joel and Helen Portugal opted for a twentieth-century modernist aesthetic when it came time to outfit a new summer and weekend retreat in East Hampton. This is in marked contrast to the couple’s Upper East Side apartment, which showcases art deco from Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann to Jean Dunand and Edgar Brandt.  “Art deco particularly suits a Manhattan environment as the city is filled with so many major buildings from that period, such as Rockefeller Center and the Eldorado apartment house,” says Joel Portugal, who founded a corporate-identity consulting firm with clients ranging from Texaco to Citibank. “We did not set out to collect modernist furniture for our house in the country but rather to find furnishings and art we could live with while relaxing,” he says. “We had been drawn to design examples from the fifties and sixties such as Prouvé and Nakashima for our former summer home in Southampton and wanted to further emphasize that specialty in our new house.”

A ten-year-old residence in the modernist style gave them the opportunity to do so. To complete the setting the couple turned to East Hampton architectural consultant Sandra Brauer, who had executed a string of projects in the Hamptons that draw on the modernist aesthetic, and Amy Lau, who heads up Amy Lau Design in the West Chelsea arts district.  Brauer enlarged the footprint of the house from twenty-nine hundred square feet to thirty-four hundred, extending the kitchen and adding a guest suite.

The foyer contains a 1950s Jean Prouvé-Charlotte Perriand shelving unit and George Nelson’s 1946 Platform bench for Herman Miller.

For the interiors, Helen Portugal says, “with her knowledge of and sensitivity for mid-century design, Amy understood our needs on multiple levels.” Indeed, Lau, who started her firm in 2001, is no stranger to the fine points of mid-century art and design. After completing Sotheby’s graduate program in fine and decorative arts, she became design director at New York’s Lin-Weinberg Gallery, which specialized in modernist furniture. She subsequently co-founded the Design Miami fair in 2005 and served as co-chair of the Design Council of the Museum of Arts and Design. In addition to Lau’s extensive retail and residential commissions, she acts as an advisor to private collectors of twentieth-century decorative arts. “I first met Joel and Helen sixteen years ago while at Lin-Weinberg, when I introduced them to the work of such influential Swedish mid-century ceramists as Gunnar Nylund and Stig Lindberg,” Lau says. “Stoneware by those masters in specialized glazes from neutral to brilliant shades of red are really unique small works of art. Helen and Joel’s penchant for design from the fifties and sixties complements their ceramics collection to perfection.”

The upstairs guest bedroom contains Gilbert Rohde’s biomorphic Paldao coffee table, 1941, and a pair of Osvaldo Borsani P32 lounge chairs designed in 1965 and manufactured by Tecno. The contemporary ceiling fixture is by Ray Power from his Linke series.


Lau says that overall she “kept to a neutral palette to make the rooms appear larger and to emphasize their modernist furnishings.” “But Amy went far beyond paint chips and fabrics to sourcing pivotal design examples,” Helen says. Dominating the foyer is a Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand oak and enameled-metal shelving unit from the 1950s. Typically, such Prouvé-Perriand pieces are in a palette of black, yellow, and red, but this one is heightened by blue. “We purchased it from Tony DeLorenzo who was enormously helpful,” Helen Portugal says. DeLorenzo Gallery director Adriana Friedman adds, “We have never seen one in this exact shade of blue—it was probably a commission for a private residence.” Placed opposite the shelving is a George Nelson 1946 Platform bench for Herman Miller. “Everything works together because they are all icons of their period. Since Joel was in graphics, he understood from the beginning the importance of integrating balance in design, color, and line,” Lau says.

The loft area opposite the living room is a place for work and relaxation. The desk and desk chair are from B and B Italia. Patricia Urquiola designed the Fjord chair and ottoman for Moroso, as well as the Fergana tables in front of the Vitra sofa. On the 1960s table beside the sofa is an Otto Kolb table lamp, c.1950. The ceiling fixture is Foscarini’s Big Bang chandelier.


In the living room Lau reworked a brick fireplace wall by covering it in white stucco and building bookcases on either side, “so it’s the focus point to the room.” Over the fireplace is a 1940 Erik Nitsche lithograph for General Dynamics in brilliant red and yellow that provides a shot of color. The contemporary white ceiling fixtures by David Weeks give a Calderesque touch. Flanking the fireplace are Vladimir Kagan’s 1960 Swivel armchair number 524 and ottoman in a shade of citron and a classic Osvaldo Borsani P40 lounge chair designed in 1955 for the Alitalia lounge in Rome’s Fiumicino-Leonardo da Vinci International Airport. Lau had the Borsani chair reupholstered in Tecno fabric in the original poppy red. On one wall hangs a George Nakashima walnut cabinet. The coffee table by Greta Magnusson Grossman for Glenn of California adds another nod to the 1950s and the small triangular Alexander Girard mirrored table, to the 1960s. The contemporary sofa is backed by Judy Ross needlepoint pillows with a design in homage to Sonia Delaunay. 

The living room opens into the dining area, which contains a contemporary Mira Nakashima walnut table surrounded by eight chairs in the vein of mid-century Australian designer Allan Gould’s Compass chairs.

Among the furnishings of the master bedroom are several pieces in walnut by George Nakashima and two Pierre Paulin Tulip chairs. Lau had the Edmund J. Spence 1950s Wave chests with undulating fronts lacquered in sea foam green.


Helen Portugal refers to the master bedroom as “our Nakashima room.” The bedside tables, chest of drawers, and a small table, all in walnut, are George Nakashima’s designs; the bench at the foot of the bed is a 1950 design by Jens Risom for Dual Modern. “We wanted two of a particular Pierre Paulin chair for the bedroom, but there was only one,” she says, referring to Paulin’s 1965 F545 Tulip chair for Artifort. “Within forty-eight hours, Amy had found a matching one in Paris.”

That sort of expertise from Lau and their taste have helped the Portugals fill their new country house with exemplars of postwar and modern design.

A Bird’s-Eye View of Modern Architecture

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Photo courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York

Step into the gallery at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), and you are enveloped by song, melodic and enchanting. Look up, and you will see scale-model modern houses sitting high atop skinny tree trunks, almost as if they were, in fact, designed for very forward-thinking birds. All this might seem to be homage to something romantic, perhaps the way Case Study Houses appeared to cantilever over the edge of the land, but in fact they speak to far less idyllic moments in the history of architecture and social policy. Look closer, and you’ll see the varied metal screening covering windows, favela style, and you’ll notice that the wooden facades are mismatched—not glamorous at all. The birdhouses are the work of the artist Simon Starling, whose projects are embedded in research and offer surprising views of the modern world.

The two mahogany structures atop the poles were in fact designed after a failed public housing project built in the 1960s in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. At the time the houses were built, a kind of tropical optimism still reigned in Puerto Rico; even the poorest residents left their houses open. But, says Maria Elena Ortiz, a curatorial assistant at PAMM, all that changed as the island’s crime rate rose, and once-airy houses began to be turned into makeshift fortresses. “It’s a very complex story in terms of the history,” says Ortiz, who was also charged with writing the essay for the brochure that accompanies the installation of the birdhouses, a recent gift to the museum from Dennis and Debra Scholl.

The English-born Starling (he now lives in Denmark) sought to capture the glories and indignities, the successes and failures of such social programs in his Inverted Retrograde Theme, USA (House for a Songbird), which he created during a 2002 residency at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Starling first came to this idea during an earlier residency in Vienna where he was probing the works of the musician Arnold Schoenberg; from that he began to explore the connections between music and architecture, which in turn led him to the Austrian architect Simon Schmiderer, who—as Ortiz points out—was also inspired by Schoenberg. And in the 1960s, Starling discovered, Schmiderer had designed a social housing project in Puerto Rico. One thing clearly led to another.

Schmiderer’s housing, inspired in part by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was not only open in plan but open to the elements, but within a decade, the residents had begun to adapt the units to local customs and local needs, adding ornate screening and enclosures, “producing a dramatic visual contrast between the simple, rectangular doorways and windows and their individually designed baroque gates,” writes Ortiz in her explanatory essay.

Installed in a small gallery in the new Herzog and de Meuron-designed PAMM (and on view to September 14), Inverted Retrograde Theme USA has a powerful presence—enhanced by the bird melodies that sound like they are coming from within. The recorded birdsong conjures up memories of sultry island days and nights where one would be enveloped in the sounds of birds singing and frogs croaking, says Ortiz, herself a native of Puerto Rico. “It is highly poetic.” In Starling’s interpretation, “you wonder, who is being caged now?”
— by Beth Dunlop

Dream Job: Design Miami’s New Director

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We talk to Rodman Primack about past, present, and future

By Beth Dunlop

Andrew Meredith photo


Rodman Primack became executive director of Design Miami this past March, succeeding Marianne Goebl. He comes to the job with a rich history in the design world. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the interior design firm of Peter Marino, and then went on to work at Christie’s, run the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, and restart Phillips in London. He was later director of auctions at the online-only Paddle8, and now heads his own multifaceted art and design consulting firm, RP Miller, along with its subsidiary RP Miller Textiles.

This summer’s Design Miami/Basel, which runs from June 17 to 22 and features forty-eight design galleries, is Primack’s debut. For the show, he is inaugurating a new program called Design at Large, which will be curated by the creative director of Barney’s New York, Dennis Freedman, and consist of large-scale design installations proposed by Design Miami’s exhibition galleries. Ranging from an homage to historic modern interiors to a monumental display using digital technology and from the playful to the serious—all exhibited outside the more confined gallery spaces—the installations (most of them interactive), add a new dimension to Design Miami, which in Basel is housed in a new building designed by Herzog and de Meuron and completed in 2013. In its tradition of commissioning a large-scale work from an architect or designer early in his or her career, Design Miami/Basel will also feature an interactive light sculpture by New Yorker Jamie Zigelbaum entitled Triangular Series, a translucent acrylic installation that uses high-powered LEDs, advanced sensors, and software to create what is described as a “luminous respiratory system” that allows interaction both between the various stalactite-like pieces and between the observers and the installation.

Recently MODERN Magazine caught up with Primack for a conversation.
MODERN: In some ways, this seems like a job that is tailor-made for you because it brings together so many of your skills in the auction and gallery worlds as well as your talents as a designer (not to mention a blogger and writer). Is it a dream come true? 
Rodman Primack: Yes, you could say this is an ideal job for me. I have always been a huge fan of Design Miami and I am probably one of the few people who has such a round view of the fair in specific (having worn collector, advisor and exhibitor hats—at both Design Miami and Art Basel) and in general, from my previous lives as you mentioned.  I love that my role at Design Miami really brings together every area of interest and professional experience in my life like an intricate origami—if we can just figure out how to do the fair on a ski slope it will all be covered!

What in your upbringing led you to design?  Tell us a little bit about your past.
Firstly, I am a fifth-generation Californian, and I don’t think you can have that much California in you and not have an innate sense of aesthetics—the West Coast and the Rocky Mountain valley where I was raised are just too beautiful not to be in your visual DNA. I do not come from a “collecting” family but one that has always lived un-selfconsciously in great houses and gardens with excellent food. I was heavily influenced by my grandparents’ innate style in all they did and by their specific interests in architecture, engineering, and design. They commissioned a house by Case Study architect Carl Maston, where I spent much of my childhood, and they were best friends for sixty years with Al Martin whose firm designed the iconic Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Building. I was aware early that some things were more beautiful than others….From the moment I could hold a pencil I was drawing and thinking about buildings, furniture, fashion…in short, design. 

Eske Rex’s 2009 Drawing Machine is Galerie Maria Wettergren’s contribution to the new Design at Large program at Design Miami/Basel. Courtesy of the gallery and Joseph Barnett Photo.

You are taking over Design Miami at a high moment. What are your aspirations for it in the future? 
Oh my, I think it is too early to really say. I need more time to be in this organization before I can truly understand it and how I might like to grow and change it. It would be different if it were a mess, but it is the exact opposite, and the market is getting stronger every day. I feel rather lucky—fundamentally the fair is great, the level of quality and range of material are unparalleled. But just off the top of my head I would love to see more deco and before too long I would like to feel like we really have the twentieth century covered. Certainly I feel like the twenty-first century is pretty well represented, but I hope we can be ever more supportive and involved in new and experimental projects.
 
Do you see a shift in direction at all?  Or a widening (or narrowing) of the scope?  What are your ambitions for Design Miami?  
I am personally not only interested in the limited edition collectible design market, I am also interested in a bigger conversation that includes broad definitions of the decorative arts, in the excellent design we see in some unlimited production pieces as well as in technology and science….It is all design, but how that will come to affect Design Miami remains to be seen. I can say I have never been afraid of experimenting and making mistakes—what I like is interest, conversation, and growth. 

Gallery Libby Sellers is presenting Wrapped Architecture 020514 of 2014 by Anton Alvarez.


You are also a specialist in Latin American art and design. Do you foresee a stronger Latin American presence at Design Miami in the future?  
Not due to me directly. I think there is growing interest in the global market for work from Latin America, whether art or design or music—certainly Brazil’s emergence in this decade as a major economy has allowed people to see it and the region as a whole in a new light. Of course amazing things have been happening there for the last eighty-plus years but I think many people are still just discovering the rich history of modernism there. And yet there is so much more to see and uncover everywhere.  I do believe the market is increasingly global and we hope to be part of making it more so every day. In a way, the language of design is global yet local, and those local voices are exciting to see and foster and translate to a global audience. 

One of the bigger challenges of your career so far was relaunching the then-closed Phillips auction house in London. Can you tell us about that?
I have to say that working with the team to relaunch Phillips in London was to date my most rewarding professional experience. Truly it was a huge job and yet was so much fun—one has to remember that it was during an ebullient moment in the market and world. I am glad that I have also learned quite a bit since then and have much clearer ideas about what I think works and what doesn’t…yet I have not lost my fearlessness, in the sense that I don’t think it is ever worth just playing it safe, things have to be a risk in order to be interesting.

Tell us a bit about your career as a designer. You did a recent line of textiles, right?
Yes, the textiles were for my interiors firm RP Miller. I love textiles and have always collected them. The RP Miller textile line grew organically out of a big residential project we did for clients in Hawaii, where we either designed or commissioned most everything beyond the incredible collection of furniture and art we helped them collect along the way—everything from Joaquim Tenrerio to Jean Royère and Atelier van Lieshout. My work as a designer has always been with just a couple of clients who are basically interested in collecting contemporary art and design, and so we create environments with them and for them while we help build collections—it feels natural and organic.

Several fabrics from the textile line Primack launched in 2011. Courtesy MANUFOTO.COM.

What do you personally collect? Do you have a proudest possession?
I think the word collector is over-applied, and I think that although we are lucky to be living with beautiful things I wouldn’t say I have the focus and discipline to be the kind of collector I respect. I am too emotional and excited and lose focus. However we do have wonderful pieces—from a Michele de Lucchi Memphis table to a Pierre Jeanneret Chandigarh chair—and art works by Gabriel Orozco, Dario Escobar, José Kuri, Marylin Minter, Carlos Amorales, Ugo Rondinone, and avaf [assume vivid astro focus], among others.