The Artist's Muse, the Old Woman and the Collection

I had never heard of Dina Vierny and was only barely aware of the sculptor Aristide Malliol when Gina and I visited a friend with a terrific art collection about 18 months ago. I had arranged the visit so we could see our friend's paintings. Among the Monets, Renoirs, Vuillards and Dufys, there is a painting by Utrillo that drew me in the first time I ever visited the house, because when you look at it – the gray sky and the slushy snow – you know exactly what that kind of day feels like in a city, even if you’ve never been to Paris.

Our friend told us that her real passion is sculpture and, indeed, she said she had the second largest private collection of Malliols in the world, I think. Most were large bronzes of women, or rather of one woman. One in particular, a nude, was placed in the corner of a sun room, on a lazy-susan-like pedestal that our friend had had made so people could view the whole sculpture without it having to occupy the middle of the room.

Nearby was a photograph of a young woman. She said it was Malliol’s model, taken in the 1940s, although it looked contemporary. The model was Dina Vierny. She and our friend met when Madame Vierny learned that our friend was collecting works by Malliol. When Madame Vierny first visited, our friend was expecting to see someone who looked like the model. But by then the photo was perhaps 50 years old and of course a photo of a person's face gives you no idea how big that person is. Madame Vierny was driven to our friend's house and the figure the emerged from the limo indeed turned out not only to be an old woman but a tiny old woman -- four-feet, eight-inches, our friend said, and as wide as she was tall. She was a fierce personality but eventually they warmed to each other and became close friends.

Later during our tour of her art collection, in one of the upstairs rooms where our friend keeps paintings she doesn't love, I asked about a landscape on the wall of a bedroom. She said it was a Malliol. Years ago her husband had seen in a catalogue that a Malliol painting was going to be auctioned, in Paris, I think. So he sent an associate to the auction with instructions to buy it. The expected price was $75,000. The associate asked how high he should bid. Whatever it takes, he was told. But someone else was interested and the bidding rose and rose, above $200,000 to almost $250,000. Our friend's associate dropped out. The next painting to be auctioned, though, was also a Malliol, so he bid successfully on it. Unfortunately our friend didn’t like it. But she was stuck with it and hung it in an upstairs bedroom. She found out later that the other bidder for the first painting was Dina Vierny, who wanted to buy it for the Malliol museum she oversees.

I saw Dina Vierny's obituary in this morning's Times: "Dina Vierny, Artist's Muse, Dies at 89." I found it to be absolutely fascinating. -- ta

Perfectly perfect

I just commented to Justin at materialicious that my heart's a thumping over this house: the wooden cabin by Group8. Look at the built-in beds and benches! And the clever Swiss windows which open sideways like doors and out like vents depending on how you twist the handles. How lovely and fresh it must smell with all that wood, too. Happy sigh! – GF

Updating a Modern, Slowing the Tear-Down Trend

Has the tide turned on the appalling trend of destroying modern houses and replacing them with huge and hideous monsters? Impossible to say. What is clear to me though is that we're hearing more lately about modern houses being renovated than about them being razed.

Last week's New Canaan Advertiser has an interesting story about an architect named Mark Markiewicz, who lives in a house on Ponus Ridge Road designed by Frederick Taylor Gates for himself and his family. (Devoted readers might remember that Gates was the architect I'd never heard of in a post from last spring called "Architects We've Never Heard Of" -- indeed, not only had I never heard of him but when Gina was telling me yesterday about him and another house he designed on the other side of New Canaan, I didn't even remember I had written about him. Since I'm already digressing, I should point out that we first heard about Markiewicz's house from his wife, who left us a comment about it yesterday but left it on post about the Glass House; I cut and pasted it onto the right post this morning.)

In the Advertiser, Markiewicz said one of his goals in the renovation was to improve the house so it doesn't become a tear-down, like so many others in New Canaan and elsewhere. Janet Lindstrom, of the New Canaan Historical Society, noted for example that 12 of the 29 houses in New Canaan designed by the Harvard Five architects are gone:

Of the original 29 built by Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, John Johansen, Philip Johnson and Eliot Noyes, 17 are still standing, two of which have been significantly altered, according to Janet Lindstrom of the New Canaan Historical Society.

However, she also pointed out that the total number of mid-century modern homes in town, including but not limited to those of the Harvard Five, stood at about 120 since the 1950s and that around 100 of those remain, some with modifications.

“There was a period of time that they really were not looked at,” she said. “But with all the attention and celebrity surrounding them now, they are being revalued.”

Note that the Advertiser cites her as saying that about 100 of the original 120 or so mid-century moderns in New Canaan are still standing. Not long ago the accepted figure was about 70. Perhaps this inventory project has served to document that the tear-down phenomenon although bad wasn't really as bad as we all had thought. Does that constitute a tide having turned? Maybe not, but it's nice to see someone expressing an opinion that implies that the mid-century modern world isn't coming to an end.

Markiewicz, by the way, talks a bit about the conflict between the need to renovate and expand a modern house and the obligation to respect the original architect's vision:

Beyond bringing in more natural light via a series of clerestories — upper ribbons of glass that visually detach the space from the roofline — the purpose of the addition architecturally was to work with the existing space “without absorbing it into non-existence,” he said.

“Some of the houses you see being redone end up looking very different from the original,” he added. Of “utmost importance” to him was the need to maintain and complement the qualities of the structure Gates had designed.

“Coming up with a design that both completes it and has its own personality,” he said, was a challenge.

That very issue is going to be the theme of the New Historical Society's Modern House Day in May.

New Canaan's Next Modern House Day

Logo for the Modern House Day Tour and Symposium in New Canaan, CT
The New Canaan Historical Society is planning another Modern House Day this year, on May 2. The theme is how modern houses have changed to meet the needs of today while keeping the characteristics and philosophy of mid-century modern design (according to the Historical Society letter we got asking us to help again).

On the tentative agenda for the day are houses designed by Hugh Smallen, Eliot Noyes and Marcel Breuer. Our guess is that the Breuer house is the one on West Road that is being expanded by Toshiko Mori. You can read about it on her website, here. I took this picture in August 2005, just before the renovation started.

breuer west lane front facade 1

The symposium and lunch will be at New Canaan Country School, down the road from the Glass House. Here's what I wrote about the last MHD, in November 2007. -- ta

If you should be passing through . . .

I wasn't aware that this was a permanent exhibition at the New Canaan Historical Society until just now when I was researching something I intend posting about soon (it's kind of exciting news, so stay tuned). Celebrating New Canaan's Modern Architects 1953 – 1983 is on the second floor of the main building in the collection of historic houses and out buildings that make up the Historical Society.

The exhibition ". . . gives an overview of thirty years of work by New Canaan architects. Most of the works selected for this exhibit are located out of New Canaan, for as their fame spread, commissions took the architects far and wide, and their styles developed in a variety of architectural expressions. Included among the works in the exhibit - mounted on the second floor - are personal interpretations and rethinkings of the International Style, restorations, eclecticisms, and post-modern allusions to our past."

The Historical Society is a short walk up from the MetroNorth train station, and about an hour and 10 minutes from NYC. – GF

Shell house

Normally, I don't like curvy walls in architecture – seems like an indulgent waste of space, or something . . . but the Shell house by ARTitechnic Architects of Japan has so much going for it that I've made an exception. I'd love to see what the spaces really feel like – cave-like? Snug? It looks like a house cats would love to curl up in.

It was seen on Dezeen, and they've included lots of photos with explanation from the architects, so check it out there. – GF

Photographs by Nacasa & Partners Inc.