Monthly Archives

July 2015

Architecture Travel

Rhode Island Modernism | Ira Rakatansky

July 28, 2015
modernist rhode island architect ira rakatansky office

From striking Colonial-era houses to the splendor of Newport mansions Rhode Island is undoubtedly rich in architectural history. However, its modernist tradition lies surprisingly empty. The main exception is Ira Rakatansky, a Harvard alum who, in the 1940s, studied under Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius. Rakatansky left behind a selection of elegant residential works mostly centered around Providence, so when a recent trip to Rhode Island included a stopover in Providence, a quick tour of Rakatansky’s work was in order (I primarily followed this map, which lists his key buildings). I was surprised that many of these structures were often difficult to spot from the street, appearing almost hidden on their lots. And although Rakatansky believed landscape was secondary to architecture, the discrete volumes, large windows and muted palette of his buildings undeniably establish a gentle rapport with their surroundings.

One of my favorites was Rakatansky’s architecture office (above), all angles and glass. Not to mention the striking detail of clerestory windows in the main building, particularly powerful when seen from the inside.

In 2010 Apartment Therapy presented a lovely tour of Rakatansky’s own home, which can be found here.

modernist rhode island architect ira rakatansky houseRhode Island Recommendations: 

Cabin (Jamestown)

The Mooring (Newport) / Simpatico (Jamestown) / Al Forno (Providence)

Cable Car Cinema (Providence) / RISD Museum (Providence) / Newport Mansions (Newport)

Design Independent Designers

Best New Makers

July 20, 2015
Dana Bechert Ceramics

Dana Bechert
Behind the intricately carved geometric patterns of Dana Bechert’s ceramic vessels lies an ongoing problem-solving process: “I create things as I develop a need for them,” says Bechert. From coffee pour-over funnels to planters and tea sets, Bechert’s interests in cooking and gardening find a functional expression in her ceramics. She credits her time at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and the broad range of classes she took there, with teaching her how different crafts can inform one another.

In her work, Bechert, who grew up in rural Connecticut and has a studio in Nottingham, Pennsylvania, draws from imagery as diverse as American pieced quilts, Native American Acoma Pueblo pottery, and historical textile prints and weavings, but her primary source of inspiration remains geometry as it appears in nature. “Most of my ceramic work is done outside, among the birds, bugs, and plants,” says Bechert. “I find my work looks best when it is paired with organic matter, and I feel like, in some small way, I am able to add value to these wild subjects.”

For an artist who prefers to work in nature, winter might be considered a quiet time to rest and regroup, but Bechert has, instead, been keeping busy with her next project, a camp and artist residency called Oak Hill Nature Center. “It will be focused on environmental and agricultural education, with traditional craft and culinary skill-building as part of the curriculum,” says Bechert. “I’m excited to see how my ceramics practice will fit into my pursuits there.”

Founding studio DAMM gave wife-and-husband team Brenda and Robert Zurn an opportunity they were more than happy to embrace—to work on new projects together. “From our very first apartment together, we have made our own furniture, including bookshelves, coffee tables, bed frames, and cabinets,” Brenda says. Based in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Zurns decided to launch their joint venture with a foray into lighting. “Lighting allows us to be sculptural in an open way,” says Robert. “The restrictions on lighting are minimal and, if done well, a fixture or a lamp can stand alone like a unique art object.”

From a Memphis-inspired table lamp to the pastel simplicity of their Hombre pendants, their products reveal a wide variety of influences and visual expressions. And although their ideas might start in different places—Robert being heavily inspired by concepts rooted in the art world and Brenda’s interest in history and storytelling—they share a strong preference for utilizing simple, honest materials.

In their work, the Zurns strive not to disguise the authentic nature of materials such as wood, brass, and glass. “These types of materials have a built-in history because people have interacted with them for millennia,” says Brenda. “They also have sense of authenticity that goes all the way through the object.” The duo is set to continue exploring the field of lighting design in developing its first floor lamp, but is also eager to expand its range through a line of home goods, which it plans to release later in the year.A sense of history, both in terms of its aesthetics and the exceptional level of craftsmanship, is a signature quality of Smith Shop’s work, particularly its elegant copper and steel serving ware. “We look backwards a lot, and try to create work that embraces tradition, but also breaks away from it a little bit,” says Craig. One of these historical points of reference is Detroit itself, its Art Deco heritage, and, even more so, its unwavering sense of entrepreneurship. “For a long time in Detroit, the currency was talking about doing things that would turn the city around, and eventually it became a city of doers,” Craig says. “We’re here, we’re committed, and we’re doing things.”

Studio Dunn Furniture
Studio Dunn
Faced with the difficulty of finding custom-design work in the throes of the economic downturn, Asher Dunn decided to create his own. “When the market crashed, we all looked at this uncertainty around us and were eager to regain a sense of stability in our lives,” Dunn says. “A huge amount of innovation and entrepreneurship came out of it because one way people recovered a sense of control, was by employing themselves.” For Dunn, the decision was fortunate—his first collection won him the Best New Designer award at the 2010 International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF).

That same year, Dunn founded his studio, which has since grown to employ seven other designers and makers. “I wanted to recreate the atmosphere that I found while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design,” says Dunn. “Our design process is very natural, but there’s always a lot of back and forth.” The work produced by the studio is highly varied, both visually and materially—from the warm, midcentury modern-inspired wooden furniture to raw industrial lighting—but is driven by Dunn’s desire to explore the capabilities and limitations of materials, as well as a commitment to using only sustainable materials.

As the studio’s repertoire is expanding, with forays into metalwork and soft goods, Dunn remains dedicated to carving out his own path. “There is a huge amount of value in entrepreneurship and being able to create your own success,” Dunn says. “It’s exciting to see that people are returning to creating things themselves, and that we are starting to reevaluate what it means to manufacture products in the United States.”

Smith Shop Detroit
Smith Shop
Detroit, once the national icon of mass manufacturing, is quickly becoming one of the most exciting incubators for young makers and craftspeople. Among these is Smith Shop, a metalworking studio founded in 2012 that has made a name for itself with a selection of ethically sourced and exquisitely crafted jewelry, kitchenware, and architectural hardware.

Smith Shop is based in Ponyride, a vibrant studio space and community of small creative businesses in the Corktown area that sprang up in an effort to revitalize the city. Spaces like Ponyride have been instrumental in organizing exchanges between makers and the general public—Smith Shop values workshops and lectures. “There’s a long history of craftspeople sharing what they do with people who want to learn,” says Gabriel Craig, one of the founders of Smith Shop. “Metalworking is primarily an oral tradition. It’s an opportunity for people to engage with their hands and learn how manufacturing happens.”

John Hogan GlassworkingJohn Hogan
Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, the birthplace of the Studio Glass movement, John Hogan had a long tradition to draw from. “I started blowing glass at the Toledo Museum of Art youth art program at 15 years old,” says Hogan. “That started me down the rabbit hole of glasswork.”

With the help of some of the country’s most influential glassmakers, Hogan immersed himself in the history of the craft, from the highly technical Italian approach to the more minimal method, focused on the optical qualities of glass, that he observed during a sojourn in the Czech Republic. Finally settling in Seattle, the current hub of the glass-blowing community, Hogan is now eager to help other artists and designers develop their own projects through Ballard Assembly, a consulting, prototyping, and production operation that he is developing.

Meanwhile, Hogan’s personal work, which manipulates glass for experiments with color and light, is garnering accolades in both commercial and gallery settings. And while influences on his work come from sources as diverse as electronic music and culinary art, he distills them all in crisp, simple forms that let the material shine through. “For me, the most challenging aspect of working with glass is staying out of its way,” Hogan says. “I admire artists and designers who choose to work in many materials. But, for me, the specific elements of a material as complex as glass can only be understood with immense amounts of time and focus.”

Originally appeared in Metropolis.


Greta Grossman

July 19, 2015

Today mostly remembered for her elegant and playful Grasshopper Lamp, in the 1950s and ’60s, Greta Grossman was a highly sought-after architect, interior and industrial designer who worked across two continents.

Growing up in Sweden in 1920s, Grossman, as a precocious teen, defied expectations by taking up woodworking, a predominantly male profession at the time. She followed this venture by becoming one of the first women to graduate from the Stockholm School of Industrial Design. Greatly influenced by functionalism, Grossman travelled across Europe, visiting the pioneering Weissenhof settlement and joining the conversations at the Motta restaurant in Milan, a primary meeting place for Milan’s art and design world, where, among others, she befriended the famed designer Gio Ponti.

Back in Sweden, Grossman rose to prominence in Stockholm’s design scene after opening Studio, a store and a workshop, which immediately became the most popular gathering place for young Swedish designers. Grossman herself became the poster-girl for modernism in Sweden, until in 1940, under the dark cloud of the Second World War, Greta and her husband, jazz player Billy Grossman, emigrated to the United States. Once settled in Los Angeles, Grossman opened a store in Rodeo Drive. Grossman played up her Swedish heritage (her business cards read simply Greta Magnusson Grossman: Swedish designer) in order to attract American customers who were awed by Swedish design after the highly-successful exhibition of Swedish Modern at the New York World’s Fair.

Grossman’s personal brand of modernism was never a cold, monochrome one. But once in LA, it fully blossomed by combining a Swedish fondness for color and texture with the opportunities allowed by bright and open spaces of Southern California. With a humanist sensibility, she designed large, airy living rooms which were meant to serve as spaces for dining, entertaining and working, while keeping the bedroom a private haven, removed from the bustle of activity in the rest of the house. Always designing for comfort and practicality, she placed a great emphasis on roomy, multi-functional kitchens, saying: “no architect should be allowed to design a kitchen without running a household for a couple of months! Please, keep us from the ‘rationalized’ kitchens with all their expensive and fancy appliances but without decent cupboards for this and that.”

Grossman’s furniture, too, shows a strong interest in merging functionality and comfort. However, this did little to curb her desire for experimentation, as she enjoyed combining wood with new materials, such as metal and plastic, and playing with bold colors. The most iconic products Grossman designed after moving to LA were the Grasshopper and the Cobra lamp. The Grasshopper, introduced in 1947, is made up of an aluminum conical shade resting on a tubular steel tripod stand and remains her most popular design, while the Cobra won the 1950 Good Design award and was consequently showcased at the MoMA.

Grossman remained a design star in California for the rest of her life—her pieces selling to Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo and Frank Sinatra—while today she is renowned internationally for her significant role in defining the modernist esthetic.

Originally published: Dwell.


Harry Bertoia

July 18, 2015

Recognized worldwide as a genius of 20th century design, it’s hard to believe that Harry Bertoia designed only one series of furniture. His steel wire chairs, designed in 1951, are a masterpiece of structure and transparency and remain a staple in every midcentury inspired home. While most of his contemporaries were interested in the properties of wood and plastic in their designs, Bertoia focused on steel, combining his metalworking knowledge with his interest in sculpture in producing a collection of woven-wire chairs, “If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them,” Bertoia said.

Bertoia, who was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States in 1930, met Florence Knoll at the famous Cranbrook Academy of Art. While he started working on chair designs in California, collaborating with Charles Eames, another Cranbrook alumnus, he moved to Pennsylvania to develop an original seating collection in 1951. Florence and Hans Knoll encouraged Bertoia to explore whatever he liked, and he was immediately drawn to the idea of utilizing steel wire in developing a new chair design. To further soften the hard shell of the woven-wire, furniture designer Richard Schultz was asked to help Bertoia in coming up with ideas for the upholstery. The collection was introduced by Knoll in 1952 and quickly became a classic. The success of the collection allowed Bertoia to move away from furniture design and devote himself entirely to his art.

Although the products of a single collection, Bertoia chairs remain one of the most popular chairs in home furnishing. It’s hard not to be drawn to the strictness of steel wiring made delicate by the transparency of the grid. The chameleon-like qualities of the chairs allow them to work well in any environment, from dining rooms to outdoor spaces, and they make a bold statement wherever they’re placed. So for those who are wondering how to include these chairs in their home or are just curious about the story of this modern classic, here’s a look at the history of the Bertoia seating collection and some of the Dwell homes that showcase the chairs to their best advantage.


Finn Juhl’s House

July 17, 2015

Although today relatively obscured by the fame of his peers, Arne Jacobsen and Hans Wegner, Finn Juhl remains a central name in the story of Danish modernism. His chairs still impress with their sculptural, expressive forms (his Pelican chairs, which critics dubbed “tired walruses” when they first came out, look avant-garde even today) and the meticulous craftsmanship required to produce them. Finn Juhl and His House (Hatje Cantz), a new book by Per H. Hansen, reevaluates Juhl’s famous design—as well as the best exhibition space of the designer’s work, his own home in Ordrup, just outside of Copenhagen. Remarking that “When I build a house, I don’t like someone else to come in and spoil it,” Juhl made sure to design every detail of his home, and he adjusted the details until his death in 1989.

Although Juhl was educated as an architect, he designed only a few houses. He built his own home in 1941, with the inheritance received after his father’s death. He approached the design of his home primarily as a furniture and interior designer, starting from articulating the interiors and reserving the development of the exteriors for the very end. His idea was that furniture created the room, and the room created the facade.

The 2,200-square-foot home is made up of two buildings connected by a low entrance hall. As one of the early examples of open plan houses, the spaces flow into one another organically, and all the rooms open up to the surrounding garden through large windows and doors, making the outside a direct extension of the interior.

Juhl kept the the inside of the house in a constant state of flux. The furniture and the layout changed throughout the years as Juhl developed new designs and incorporated them into the interiors. In the dining room, for instance, Juhl originally employed Windsor chairs, only to replace them with his own designs sometime in the 1940s and finally settle on his Egyptian chairs in 1949. While he mostly utilized furniture he designed with cabinetmaker Niels Vodder, some pieces he designed specifically for the space, like the famous Poet sofa of 1942. “One cannot create happiness with beautiful objects, but one can spoil quite a lot of happiness with bad ones,” said Juhl, as he kept developing his designs, keeping in his home only the ones he was fully satisfied with.

Juhl’s guiding thought was to foster an interaction between furniture, art, color, and light. Perhaps the best example of his approach can be found in the living room where, above a white Poet chair, hangs Vilhelm Lundstrom’s painting of Juhl’s wife, around a white brick hearth that extends into the room like a rug. The room becomes a medley of light and texture.

Now, as the house has become a part of Ordrupgaard museum, visitors get to experience the effects of this midcentury marvel for themselves.

Full article: Dwell.