Sunday
Jul262015

The Glass House Site Visit

The "Glass House" Site Visit on July 23, 2015

My visit to Philip Johnson’s Glass House last week was nothing short of astonishing. Completed in 1949, this modern architect’s home still has much to teach us and it is beyond inspirational. When anyone mentions a glass house, this is the original. It’s so curated as to be poetically liberating – a liberation from the non-essential, the non-beautiful, and just anything “non” if you know what I mean.

Clear glass is, of course, simultaneously transparent and reflective. But because this entire home is a rectangle composed essentially of floor-to-ceiling glass, it creates a pleasantly disorienting experience on-site in which both the house and its visitors can appear but sometimes vanish, based on angles of light. And the effect is magical.

Johnson’s intentional illusions begin from the start via careful siting and landscaping. As you walk down the windy, tree-lined drive to the house, you can’t help but focus on a large, circular, concrete sculpture by Donald Judd below you (his first). Its bold shape and material steal the show as it contrasts with the green grass & trees waving in the breeze. And then it happens…as you get down closer and your gaze lifts to appreciate the subtly slanted top edge of the artwork, the Glass House suddenly “appears” maybe just 100 feet behind it past a stone wall! No need to play it cool here…I actually gasped with delight. The Glass House’s dark steel framing blended so well into the tree trunks and the furnishings’ exposed color palette mixed so well with the natural setting that an entire building literally snuck up into my view. Now that’s magic.

As you then approach the house, its expansive glass wall reflects the architectural counterpoint that is the red Brick House directly across the lawn. Designed to house guests, this windowless (except round ones on the back) box of bricks is the polar opposite of its partner, both inside and out. But connected by delineated, pebbled pathways through the grass, the two structures were actually intended to be parts of one home. Sadly, it’s currently closed for renovations but I understand the space is stylistically very different with things like arches and Fortuny fabric (ah, the perils of flat roofs).

And beckoning quietly beside the pair of buildings is a serene, circular swimming pool with just a small, plinth-style deck in the corner of the manicured lawn. An eased edge below the waterline on one side provides seating and the scale is intimate without being small.

Before we step inside the house, have a look at the construction drawing below to better understand this minimalist space if its new to you. While many spaces are “loft-like” and “open” these days, this lack of interior walls was totally visionary at that time  (In the photo above, I’m standing just outside the rectangle on the steps at the bottom).

The rectangle is composed entirely of glass walls and the circle represents the sole, floor-to-ceiling, bricked structure that “floats” in the room and appears visually to support the whole place, though it obviously doesn’t. That cylinder houses a fireplace facing the living room area and a bathroom behind it, with the rest of the furnishings in what he called “rooms” around it. Due to the reflections in daytime, one can stand on the grass but appear to be simultaneously “in” and “outside of” the building, as shown below. Fascinating.

 

As you enter, the seating area greets you straight ahead and the herringbone brick floor space feels surprisingly large given its efficient 55’ x 33’ footprint. The now familiar but brilliant, caramel leather daybed there was designed by Van Der Rohe specifically for Johnson, and it’s joined by a pair of matching Barcelona Chairs, a Stool and glass-topped Table. The plush, white rug grounds the area and provides a box within a box effect nicely. One of the home’s only three lamps stands sculpturally just below the painting that is displayed on an upright frame. Johnson designed that light specially to overcome nighttime reflection issues in the Glass House – it shines bright light upward into the flattened cone top, which then directs the light back down all over the floor rather than up into the room and the glass walls. Looks great and problem solved. I had to resist opening the gorgeous little malachite box on the coffee table but tried to imagine its contents (A lighter, perhaps? Deck of cards?). Lastly, I’m no one to critique a master’s composition, but artwork is very personal and I just didn’t love this sort of morbid one depicting a statesman’s covered body being carried out of Athens; I can however appreciate why he loved “Burial of Phocion” by Nicolas Poussin, with its carefully laid-out landscape setting so similar to his own and perhaps the symbolism of the subjects. And it does look classically wonderful in the room if you don’t look too closely.

The rounded fireplace to the right provides a traditional focal point, but I thought it does so rather quietly; its shape more so encourages you to walk all around it rather than stand still in front as you normally might. There is a sense of freedom of movement and there are no dead ends in his floor plan.

Each of the building’s four sides has a centered door and the living area’s door leads out to a grassy overlook of a man-made pond below. Johnson also built the Lincoln Kerstein Tower in the background and a smaller-than-life scale pavilion on an island where he would entertain guests for picnics. Its size creates the illusion that it is farther away than it really is and many visitors must actually duck to stand inside. I love how he points out that, “…it is an island….if you’re young and lithe, you jump…the jump is an important thing…you have to do something, you have to make an effort.”

Back inside, the dining area consists solely of a beautifully veined, marble slab top table and four, black leather Brno Chairs. I got the sense that both casual dinners and serious business meetings could have been held there, but every person would have a wonderfully distracting view regardless.

The kitchen is just a T-shaped island, with sink, oven, refrigerator and storage all very neatly enclosed in a walnut jacket on the outside, with charcoal grey door/drawer fronts on the inside. Theatergoers may recognize this tall, paper mache sculpture of two circus ladies by Elie Nadelman - a larger, white marble version presides over the atrium of Johnson’s elegant New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center). This is just one example of the countless treasures he collected over decades with his partner, David Whitney. It was apparently placed there because it made it seem as if someone was always home and I’ll admit I fell for that trick on the way up the walk as well. Note the monolithic Brick House in the background below.

 

I loved his idea that the sink & cooktop can be concealed entirely in the cabinetry by folding over two hinged countertop pieces shown below. Johnson and Whitney entertained countless art & cultural world luminaries there, including Andy Warhol, so I imagine that feature was convenient to create an uninterrupted surface area.

I gathered that more storage was needed at some point since the second set of cabinets, shown at right below, are not shown on the original plans. They are darker grey fronts with a bluestone countertop instead, but still feel like part of the whole there and actually add visual interest. In fact, many kitchens today are designed to mix materials just like this from the beginning. Note that was our awesome guide in the coral dress.

The bedroom area is defined behind an above-head-high row of walnut closets, which acts as both a loose boundary for the living area and also a headboard/wall on the opposite side, with a lot of storage. Now, I’ll admit I’m yearning for some pillows and such here, but you have to sort of admire the monk-like focus he desired and built for himself, no? And keep in mind the reality that a nosey passerby could see right into the space if he managed to peek over the stonewall at street level. Much to Johnson’s chagrin, many people did and he had to finally post a sign that the house’s occupant would appreciate his privacy!

And while the bed area does include a simple desk facing the pool, he later built a small, freestanding Study/Library with a single window & skylights where he worked just across his property. FYI There is also a wonderful Painting Gallery, a Sculpture Gallery, and several other structures like Da Monsta on-site that were each very interesting in their own way. Note Johnson & Whitney had an extensive art collection, including works from Stella and Rauschenberg, but the Sculpture Gallery is currently closed for renovation so I’ve another excuse to go back (again, the roof!).

Last but not least is the European-style bathroom that is enclosed in the bricked cylinder at the back of the last photo. The shower is basically open to the room, with another wooden floor drain nearby and a circular curtain. Two slim, mirrored wall cabinets provide storage and the sink’s pipes are left unceremoniously exposed. Both the brighter green-tiled walls & floor and the leather-tiled ceiling initially surprised me, but they seem to actually make sense now.

As an interior decorator, I found it fascinating to learn that Johnson not only mapped out every detail of the building itself & grounds as any architect would, but also every piece of furniture, artwork, and lighting that you just saw, which were all installed and remained precisely in place as drawn for the 55 years he lived there and still today since it has been preserved! His is therefore a rather permanent study in a conceptually fixed way of life and an appreciation of the beauty of very few, carefully placed furnishings. But located in New Canaan, CT, (where I grew up not far off and fondly recall four very distinct seasons) the home’s 50-acre landscape beyond the walls is an ever-changing parade of color & weather. From verdant summer greens shown below to an array of autumn oranges, to blankets of white winter snow and withered browns in early spring, I can imagine how the view there is constantly evolving. So there’s a very centering quality to this home’s controlled interior and Johnson comically liked to say he simply had “expensive wallpaper”.

The estate is at once familiar yet totally fresh. I was struck by the crossover of attractive elements he created and I’ve enjoyed elsewhere, or those where he took inspiration from other designers or places I’ve had the pleasure to visit. I found myself thinking of Serra, Palm Springs, Goldsworthy, Gehry, Japan, the MoMA, Storm King, Mondrian, and of course, Van Der Rohe. Also writer Milan Kundera and his wonderful book “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” come to mind….I wonder if those two geniuses ever met.

In fairness, I should note Johnson himself recognized his design to be shall we say inspired by discussions with and contemporary designs by one of my other favorite architects, Mies Van Der Rohe, who was a mentor of sorts for him. Van Der Rohe’s similar, on-going Farnsworth House commission in IL (constructed 1945-1951) probably caused him to famously storm out of the Glass House upon seeing it completed in 1949. But the houses have many significant differences also and I hope to find a chance to tour the floating Mies building if I can I get out near Chicagoland again.

Since it’s a short subway ride away, Johnson’s Four Seasons Restaurant (within Van Der Rohe’s Seagram Building) will be the next stop this week as Vanity Fair announced today that the new tenants will take over in August. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking what a shame it’ll be to lose such an iconic restaurant, or any detail therein frankly. Unlike the Glass House, which is a protected, National Trust Historic Site, the Four Seasons in NYC will be renamed and “respected” but “improved upon” by Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, and Jeff Zalaznick. Their landlord & partner, Aby Rosen, is not exactly a preservationist and Picasso’s painting may already have been removed but I just reserved a table for lunch on Tuesday so stay tuned for my next follow up post.

In summation, talented architect Steven Holl commented below about a building he designed in Finland, but I respectfully think the same is true of the well-loved Glass House….

“You can’t photograph that building. Only people who have been there can experience it.”

I encourage you to plan your own visit to see it for yourself via the website & link below.

http://theglasshouse.org

 

Monday
Apr202015

DIFFA Dining By Design 2015

DIFFA Dining By Design 2015:

The 2015 DIFFA dining tables & spaces were an inspiring bunch as usual & I finally made time to post some photos. This year felt big since they’re celebrating their 30th year of making a difference in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Hats off to a charitable, stylish group of talented people!

There was something special in all the table & room designs. I could imagine a unique dinner experience at each one, complete with a fantasy guest list, menu & soundtrack that seemed to match the look. I noticed a lot of green schemes overall – but maybe I was simply drawn to those after a long & dreary NYC Winter. Anyway, here are a few designs that would have me booking a reservation…

Everyone must feel like a star in the glamorous, green & gold room below where the backdrop photo of an opera house audience suggests the meal will occur on stage! Dozens of lush, green cymbidium orchids fill the centerpiece while the wavy gold wiring between them echoes the eye-catching, metal chair frames. Marks & Frantz for the NYDC goes all out as usual with a mirrored ceiling, taxidermy peacocks, super graphic walls & floors, and a retro starburst chandelier (Photo by AD as mine didn’t do it justice). Fabulous...

 

I was intrigued by Perkins + Will’s offbeat approach to materials, with long swathes of torn paper undulating overhead, piles of origami-inspired fold-ups filling the table, and more layered sheets underfoot. Sculptural table bases super-sized the concept and even the bench upholstery fabric mimicked the shapes. Paper may never have looked so hip...

It’s bright orange. All of it. It’s stark & bold. And that’s exactly what’s so interesting. Every single surface is covered in nearly-indestructible Bolon outdoor material and VIIIR has kept all the angles straight. You might not want this look or seating arrangement for everyday, but it sure is full of wonderful drama for a festive fundraiser...

 

I love the playfully disorienting, reflective, gold-paneled walls. It says disco and present day all at once. The graphic floor treatment Antonino Buzzetta chose adds to the optical illusion and the black Ghost Chairs look extra slick all awash in bouncing light. Topping it off, the Michael C. Fina table settings are decadently graceful. Let’s party...

 

Calvin Klein Home really wrote the book on distilling things down to their most understated, honest, modern beauty. From the perfect, wooden block stools to the beautifully marbled table top to the quiet table settings, white walls, and full moon above it all, they create a room that whispers confidently while others shout...

 

I’ve been even more obsessed with Japanese style since an inspiring trip there last year during the annual cherry blossom blooms. For me, these next two rooms capture the very different feelings of their biggest city and their countryside stops, respectively.

This precise, all-white space with an illuminated table, architectural framing & benches, and clear acrylic, divided dinner boxes seems right out of a 47th floor Tokyo hot spot. Each guest has his own, glass-encased, decorative branch and a furry napkin ring, along with clear chopsticks. It’s cool, futuristic chic. It looks like the students at NYSID had some fun with sociology on this one and they had a great mentor in Brad Ford...

As with many things Japanese, the details here reveal themselves only if you stop to look closely...

This welcoming, woodsy, brown space by Kitty Hawks & Spin Ceramics is anchored by a gorgeous, live edge wood dining table and striking Nakashima chairs. The unexpected, red wineglasses pick up on the wabi sabi red glaze around the edges of the handmade plates & bowls, likely a nod to DIFFA. The textured wall covering, wild flowers in sake bottles, and organic branch & paper lantern chandelier add to the carefully hand-crafted, more traditional feel...

Gensler + 3Form played with Philip Johnson’s ideas by enclosing their outdoors-y table in a glass box and using a sunset photo of his Glass House as a backdrop…perhaps it's just across the lawn. I imagine an après-tennis brunch happening here under blue skies. The white Bertoia chairs and sage green Russell Wright dinnerware seem right at home, indoors or out...

 

I’ll admit I was probably drawn to the sunny, waterside setting of Hickory Chair’s space, but the over-sized leaf wallpaper, classically tailored seating and funky, dark lighting fixtures kept me there. The subtle color palette and more relaxed styling were also a refreshing take on effortlessly chic entertaining...

 

With the Kentucky Derby just two weeks away, I for one have ponies on the brain. Hermes doesn’t disappoint with this colorful, feminine table dominated by a huge, richly detailed artwork of a horse, flanked by illuminated, ikat wall panels. The light purple runner seems subtly regal while touches of gold and hot pink flowers round out the ornate and always lovely table settings...

 

And lastly, who could miss Casali’s boldly-patterned, mod statement room below? I love how the overhead light casts another layer of the mesh-y look on the white chair seats below and even the floor. Continuing the seamless concept, I noticed a couple of its designers walk by dressed head to toe in fabrics with the same pattern! Thank you to Mac Stora, Tonom, Mohawk Group, Ghelamco & Artemide for that...

Saturday
Jul272013

The gorgeous TWA Terminal like you've never seen before

The gorgeous TWA Terminal like you've never seen before...

For just one day last fall, visitors were allowed inside the iconic, if dusty & closed-since-2001, Eero Saarinen TWA Terminal at JFK’s Jet Blue T5. I jumped at the chance to ride subways over an hour to experience the interior firsthand, especially since I knew it would soon be under renovation to create a – wait for it - boutique hotel. The place was in a word: mesmerizing.

Unless you were lucky enough to await your flight there back in its heyday, you’ve probably only seen the striking, white façade from that sterile elevated walkway. Completed in 1962, it was the epitome of modern architecture and reminiscent of a bird’s wings as it takes flight. It has seen better days but is holding up just fine.

 

The vaulted ceilings, endless concrete and tile curves, and hot red upholstery & carpeting combine to create a crisp, space age portal to the world. Long, tunnel-like entry hallways lead travelers on their way. Even just standing there, you feel as if you’re being propelled forward on a conveyer belt into the very future – and it looks bright.


The main hall was designed to move travelers through efficiently, but not before they note the meaning behind the big dial clock overhead and rest a bit in the sleek, sunken, red lounge area by the gigantic wall of windows that once overlooked the runways. It was civilized, achingly civilized. And I dare say inspiring.



 

The French handbag maker Longchamp even shot a promo video there this Spring to highlight their new collection but the terminal backdrop provides good competition. Click the pic below to watch supermodels Coco Rocha and Liisa Winkler as they dance through a fake security checkpoint.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mHn_0LpJYL0

What I found most interesting was that, only at this particular moment, were you allowed to witness this grand ol’ dame’s ungraceful yet still beautiful transition unfolding. Observant visitors could look past the glossy veneer to be treated to countless, juicy visual moments, filled with symbolism, about the past and what would remain for the future. Here, shadows on the floor show where things once were and a dividing wall is spraypainted “stay” to advise the builders not to demo it. That JetBlue building outside sure wasn't part of the original view.

An old TWA garbage can still looks freshly minimalist against a wall of light, even though they haven’t owned the place since the 90’s.

I found this stylishly outfitted V.I.P. nook tucked away on the upper level. This modern look could have been installed yesterday or 50 years ago - it still seems one might be sucked right up into that gold vortex thing overhead.

And another sort of secret room where “who knows what but no one will talk about it” happened. I love the toilet paper unapologetically left on the chair.

Even the shoeshine seating was tiled in those perfectly round, speckled “penny” tiles and included a built-in drink coaster. Imagine!

An illuminated counter and a whole mirrored wall of Lucky Strike cigarettes and products once beckoned from the Duty Free Shop.

 

The dark and seedy looking bar where you might meet a new friend.

Remember pay phone booths? Yeah, neither do I. But here is a pair of lovely, upholstered little cubbies with the antiquated landline phones ripped out. Maybe these will become iPhone charging stations instead?

Things must change and progress is positive. As a society, we must collectively decide what is important – what stays and what goes. There has been spirited debate about this structure, notably by architects Philip Johnson and Robert A.M. Stern as proponents of preservation. The design community is especially watching to see how the renovation will be handled because buildings have meaning in so many ways; they represent some of the best ideas and talents of men. I sat down in the lounge to think about all this and take it all in one last time. When I looked down, I saw this humble electrical outlet sporting a "Good" sticker indicating that it still works. I like to think it was also an aesthetic evaluation and I wish someone had put one of those on everything that was once a part of that awesome place.

Thursday
Mar212013

DIFFA Dining By Design & Architectural Digest Home Show 2013

Today was opening day for the Architectural Digest Home Show and the DIFFA Dining By Design table exhibits (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS) - a day I look forward to all year long. Interior Designers and Architects lined up around the block in the NYC cold to get in to this bevy of inspiring lectures, table designs, furnishings and architectural products. It is a national highlight for the industry's calendar and everyone seemed to be appropriately excited to rub elbows and see what's new.

I attended a few of the seminars and was lucky enough to hear personally what some of the field's top talents think about and love. Margaret Russell of Architectural Digest shared her love of "layers" in an interior - a rich and thoughtful array of  things, besides just that sofa and coffee table, that give a space true personality and visual interest. Nate Berkus signed my copy of his new book, "The Things That Matter" and it was clear that he shares my obsession with the thrill of the hunt for amazing objects at flea markets, auctions and antique dealers. Thom Filicia moderated a panel with Antony Todd, John Finton and Gina Wicker about "casual luxury"; their conversation made clear the trend that clients today are more likely to want what Thom called "accessible and exceptional" design, meaning things that aren't too precious to live with but still manage to be quite special. I also caught a bit of the discussion about how designers balance what clients want from their kitchens vs. what appliances and technology are available (John Willoughby, Bruce Bierman, Steve Brown & Jamie Drake). For me, I see most of what I need to know in Jamie Drake's own gorgeous kitchen just featured in AD and now on my Pinterest page under "Fantasy Kitchens" (www.pinterest.com/gwynnemccue). It's open to the living space, there is a swanky & enormous island for entertaining, and the appliances manage to be very low key. He's ready to welcome guests for cocktail hour at a moment's notice - and who wouldn't want that?

Next up: A first look at some of the striking and beautiful table settings designed by a host of talented people. I didn't photograph all of the 40-45 tables and it's really hard to choose some sort of "winner" so instead I'll simply offer you the 10 designs I enjoyed the most - feast your eyes on all manner of inviting spaces below!

Here is Kenneth Cobonpue's "cage" design. This striking concept caught my eye from across the room and managed to feel both exclsuive and inclusive due to the thin, off white decorative structure around the free-standing table. He used a mossy runner with live beta fish as the centerpiece along with wooden plates and branchy silverware. The effect was organic and made you feel as if you were outdoors.

A super concept from Gensler & Herman Miller, this "Many Hands" table/room was as beautiful as it was meaningful. They glued purple Hershey's kisses all over the backdrop walls, which looked really chic for candy! Big, purple anemone flowers made a burst of color down the center of the table. More importantly though, the idea was that viewers should step into the booth and take a chocolate from the wrappers on the wall - thus participating in the design's transformation from purple to silver but also participating in the idea that we all touch our communities with our actions. Check out the close ups below to see this and read their explanation of the concept.

I remember seeing a somewhat similar idea from artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) last year. He filled a room with mounds of silver-wrapped candies on the floor and invited visitors to take one, and then replenished them periodically. For him, this represented the cycle of life's "depletion and regeneration" and was created in honor of his partner, whom he lost to AIDS in 1991. Imagine everyone's shock to see others bending down to take a part of a MoMA exhibit! I thought a security guard would step in to tackle everyone but instead he just smiled. Here is a photo I snapped of that enormous installation...

I always love what Michael Aram creates. His signature silver tabletop collections always capture the texture of tree bark or the shape of a flower so beautifully in one of my favorite finishes: silver. Here, he offers a woodsy, round table set in a dramatically black background with gold accents and succulents as accents. Lovely!

Next up are the students from F.I.T. with mentor, Jes Gordon. Their white room felt fresh and inviting with an angular, cut-out screen enclosure symbolic of life. I loved the chandelier and sleek table, accented with gold and amber tones of glassware. I'm drinking imaginary champagne in this one.

Another super idea from the students at Pratt, along with mentor Arpad Baksa, was this illuminated backdrop. By inserting clear glass test tubes into a black, perforated wall that was lit from behind, they created a glowing map of the world. The effect was mesmerizing! So much so that I managed not to shoot the table itself (oops, sorry!). But isn't the wall impressive enough already...?

Recycling, upcycling, repurposing...they're all the rage. Sometimes, it can look "hokey" but not this time. Check out this cool table/room from NYU students along with mentors David Rockwell & Barry Richards. Yes, those are all common, metal wire coat hangers! They zip tied them together to form a decorative backdrop much like wallpaper and then took that concept into 3D with sculptural table & chair bases made from the same. I'd be a little scared to crush the chair but really...how cool is this? It's cool.

A close up of the table placed on a glowing floor...

Elizabeth Bolognino came in with a "quiet" but subtly beautiful table/room design. Great lines, a brass chandelier of concentric circles (one of which lit up), and lots of sandy colors looked understaed and gorgeous. I loved the mosaic floor tiles in cream and beige.

The New York Times & Frette teamed up to ofer viewers a taste of what seemed very "Italian villa lawn party". You couldn't miss their fun, black & white striped tent, but I loved the pop of hot orange cushions, flowers and cumquat/orange trees inside. It was down to Earth and so welcoming. I'm dipping my imaginary ciabatta in my imaginary olive oil.

Also looking great in crisp black & white stripes was the Architectural Digest table. They carried the idea through with striped columns and a huge, paper lantern. A riot of color erupted from the centerpiece: orange poppies, yellow ranunculuses, and hot pink anemones all looked gorgeous. Plus I'm partial to these dove grey Bellini side chairs that we used for our wedding!

Last but not least in this short review is Ralph Lauren's chicly simple take on dining. A classic never dies and it is true of this look as well. Yes, that is a wall of rushing water at the back of the space and adds a nice kinetic quality to this serene space. Love it.

Visit my new Pinterest page for these tables and even more. www.pinterest.com/gwynnemccue

Well, I don't know about you but I'm feeling inspired to dream up some table design ideas of my own and invite a few friends over to celebrate. It's Springtime and we're all coming out of our Winter coat shells at last. Cheers to that!