nyc-etc: inside artists’ homes

October 16th, 2015
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Over the last few months I’ve had the opportunity to tour the homes of three of the most important and iconic creators of the 20th century: Philip Johnson, Russel Wright and Donald Judd.

Each was a fabulous, interesting and truly memorable tour in its own right, but seeing all three in relatively close succession was especially meaningful. If you live in the area or are here for a visit these are all truly “worth it” experiences.

The Glass House

Philip Johnson’s home in New Canaan, Connecticut is one of the most famous, instantly-recognizable in the world. The National Trust for Historic Preservation opened the house to the public in 2007, and it’s been on my bucket list ever since.

The house was built in 1949 and was one of the most prominent (at the time) examples of the International Style of architecture. And while its design and use of materials was startlingly innovative, the house is equally (if not more) important for its totally seamless integration into the landscape:

“The Glass House started because of the land that was there. That was my hardest job by far. I worked for three or four years throwing out ideas. And it was all conditioned by the landscape itself.”

And I have to say that the tour of the grounds (as well as the various buildings and pavilions that populate the property) was just as interesting as the house. Johnson, along with his long-time partner David Whitney, painstakingly sculpted the landscape to enhance (or subvert) views, create anticipation or direct you on a specific path. He did this by meticulously moving, pruning, adding and removing hundreds of trees, along with lots of digging, carving and re-grading of the terrain itself – over the course of many many years. The end result is not one you are ever aware of being so “done”, but rather one that subtly guides your eyes and feet the way Johnson specifically intended.

Here are some photos of my day there:

glass house donald judd scuplture

Donald Judd’s “Untitled”/The Glass House

glass house interiors

glass house monument to Lincoln Kirstein pavilion in the pond

The Glass House/Monument to Lincoln Kirstein, Pavilion in the Pond

glass house brick house ghost house studio

Studio, Ghost House/Brick House, The Glass House

glass house da monsta

Da Monsta

Our tour guide was wonderful – interesting, informative and full of fabulous tidbits about Johnson and his fascinating life.

Check out the website for beautiful pictures as well as information about the house’s history, extensive painting and sculpture collection, landscaping and preservation efforts.

Donald Judd Home/Studio

While discussing the Donald Judd sculpture at The Glass House, our guide mentioned that tours were also given at Judd’s Soho home and studio. All five floors of the 1870 building are open to the public, and it is currently the only intact, single-use cast-iron building remaining in Soho.

We spent a wonderful afternoon exploring the building with the help of our engaging guide, who highlighted Judd’s respect for the historic nature of the building while applying his own unique approach to the placement of artwork, furniture and decorative objects:

“I spent a great deal of time placing the art and a great deal designing the renovation in accordance. Everything from the first was intended to be thoroughly considered and to be permanent.”

No photography is allowed, due to the vast amount of important works by Judd and other artists – and also so that one could be more inclined to “turn off” and be fully immersed in the tour. I recommend this essay by Judd, about the building and its interiors.

101 spring street2

101 spring street1

all photos: Elizabeth Felicella

This piece from The New Yorker is another good read. And of course you can find out more on the foundation’s web site.

Manitoga/The Russel Wright Design Center

This was truly a special visit. I have been an avid admirer of Russel Wright forever – specifically his American Modern ceramic dinnerware. Wright was a brilliant industrial designer, who created modern, affordable and beautiful homegoods and furnishings, using at-the-time radically different materials – solid wood, spun aluminum, stainless steel, earthenware, paper and plastic (you can read more here).

Much like The Glass House, Manitoga is a stunning example of how the landscape on a property can guide and enhance the design and placement of the home that will be built there. And much like Philip Johnson, Wright spent decades carving out waterfalls, vistas and walkways on the property – to create a very specific experience from the moment you enter.

manitoga russel wright studio

Our guide pointed out dozens of details that appeared to be “natural”, but were in fact subtle manipulations of the land by Wright and his crew.

“Along each path, the landscape and its themes unfold sequentially. There is an introduction, a dramatic build-up, elaboration of a theme, and then a climax or goal; the building of tension and its dramatic release—the whole design a musical composition.”

And then there was Wright’s home and studio – if you are a fan of mid-century design I can’t recommend a visit here highly enough. It has been restored – down to the last detail – to its original 1963 condition and is a stunning example of juxtapositions – of the artificial and organic, of form and function, of natural and synthetic materials.

The outdoors environment not only informs the design (as evidenced by the huge cedar tree trunk that is in the center of the living space), it is brought in at every opportunity. There are huge expanses of glass, pocket windows that lower to “disappear”, and strategically placed terraces for viewing.

Wright also merged elements from nature right into components of the house itself. Butterfly wings are pressed between sheets of plastic in a bathroom wall, pine needles are embedded into one of the ceilings, and the roofs are covered in a carpet of sedum.

And there are countless opportunities to see Wright-designed furnishings, lighting and built-ins up close. There’s a black lacquer lazy Susan coffee table and a clever, multi-use bedside table.

The surface of the dinner table can be unscrewed and replaced with a larger top for bigger parties. And the entire home, from the window treatments to a flippable panel of paintings – turkey or blackbird – is outfitted with two different color schemes that are adjusted for the seasons (so that one feels”cool” in the summer and “warm and snug” in the winter).

Some photos of my visit:

manitoga russel wright studio

manitoga russel wright studio

manitoga russel wright studio

manitoga russel wright studio

For more, head over to the web site.

Have you ever had the chance to see the home of someone you’ve admired?

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