A House in the Woods
Once upon a time, a black beast lived in a little house in the woods. It kept its back arched against the sky, all the better for children to crawl on it – for the beast was friendly, and stood very still. In the wintertime, snow would settle on its limbs, and it would look just right, with the walls gathered around it, walls of stone and walls of glass.
It sounds like something from a fairy tale, but it’s all true. The Black Beast II in question was a sculpture by Alexander Calder – a very early permanent “stabile,” executed in thick plates of steel. And the little house in the woods was, and is, a Modernist masterpiece by Eliot Noyes. Designed in 1954, completed in 1955, and beautifully preserved today, this was the second home that he built for himself and his family in New Canaan, Connecticut.
Noyes’s somewhat happenstance decision to move here paved the way for an influx of other architects in his circle – the so-called “Harvard Five,” among them Marcel Breuer and Philip Johnson, whose Glass House is only three and a half miles south. New Canaan became one of the main proving grounds for American Modernism, though not without local controversy. A poem that ran in the local paper took aim at Noyes and his allies, expressing the wish that they be confined in padded cells - “windowless, doorless, charmless, and escapeproof” - rather than unleash their frightening architecture on the innocent town.
It’s hard to imagine this sort of reaction nowadays. The shock of the new has worn away, leaving a deeper, abiding sense of wonder. The Noyes house is eminently livable, warm and intimate, entirely in harmony with its natural surroundings. Yet it is also a brilliant study in formal juxtaposition. In one direction, the walls are glass and steel, allowing for views right through the building and out to the landscape. In the other direction, the walls are made of local fieldstone. This axial contrast of transparency and opacity, of “International Style” and vernacular, infuses the house with remarkable energy, making it an extraordinary setting for art.
It’s in this spirit that an enterprising trio of organizations – the new-model fair Object & Thing, and the galleries Blum & Poe and Mendes Wood DM – are staging a gentle takeover of the house this fall. The building is 65 years old this year: retirement age. But as I write, it is taking on a new lease of life, as works of art and design once again fill the space. Eliot Noyes and his wife Molly were not collectors, exactly, but they sure knew how to orchestrate objects. Like their close friends Charles and Ray Eames out in California, they surrounded themselves with a creative mixture of fine art, folk craft, tapestries, African sculpture and Americana (notably including several carousel animals). As part of this collecting activity – described by Noyes as “a small, intermittent, economical operation but done with tremendous excitement by the whole family” – treated their living room table as a sort of exhibition-in-miniature, setting upon it small scale works by Calder, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso and others. For anyone that associates Modernist display with white-walled galleries and strict disciplinary hierarchies, their characterful, ecumenical approach will come as a surprise.
Many of the artworks that the Noyes family brought here are now in other homes, or in museums; but this has led to the happy opportunity to repopulate it, in an equally ecumenical spirit. Where Black Beast II used to stand (Noyes bequeathed the sculpture to the collection at The Museum of Modern Art, where he had himself been a curator in the 1940s), a commanding work by Alma Allen now takes pride of place. Also in the courtyard, where there was once a set of slatted outdoor furniture, one can sit in a newly-made suite by Green River Project LLC; the corners of the enclosure are punctuated with large-scale pots by Kazunori Hamana. The living room table is again activated by a range of objects, including a not-so-miniature ceramic by Lynda Benglis and two face jugs by Jim McDowell, made in the southern African American tradition, and charged with contemporary relevance. Where another Calder – this one a mobile – used to hang, a fiber sculpture by Sonia Gomes clambers down from the ceiling in mid-air.
Several of the participating artists have created works especially for the exhibition, including Mark Grotjahn - who broke with his usual format, creating a horizontal painting to hang right above the hearth – and Daniel Steegmann Mangrané, whose aluminum ‘curtain’ reframes the view of the forest, rearticulating the porous boundary between outdoors and in. Sometimes you have to stop yourself and wonder. How long has that Sheila Hicks been hanging inside the door? What about that gorgeous boro textile on the bed, by Megumi Arai, or the subtle wood-fired ceramics of Frances Palmer? They’ve all only been here for a few days, as it turns out, but they feel right at home.
Curiously, something a little bit like this actually happened once before, when the house was brand new. In 1956 the Wadsworth Atheneum, in nearby Hartford, lent a houseful of American antiques to Noyes for the purposes of a Look magazine shoot. Eames chairs yielded their spots to ladderbacks. The family was photographed playing cards on a big hooked rug. The moral of the story, as far as Look was concerned, was that the “the battle between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ is over.”
Whether that was quite true at the time is questionable. But all these decades later, we do seem to be liberated from that either-or mentality. And that owes at least something to Noyes. He was a path-breaking figure in many ways: as a curator in the 1940s, he established the design program at MoMA, shaping it into an outpost for progressive and democratic thinking; as an architect in the 1950s, he played pied piper, turning New Canaan into a Modernist mecca; as a consultant to industry in the 1960s, he popularized the notion of universal design, preaching to his clients (among them IBM and Mobil) the virtue of consistency in all things – architecture, graphics and products.
As visitors flock to his house this fall, taking photos on their iPhones, they might well reflect that companies like Apple are essentially following the Noyes playbook. And to the extent that we’re all able to appreciate a Modernist chair, an abstract painting and a carousel giraffe all at once, we are also following in Eliot Noyes’s footsteps. As an innovator, his influence was both wide and deep. We can see it everywhere. But it is here, at his home, that we can experience his vision in its purest, holistic and accommodating form. In 1958, Noyes commented that aesthetic objects can “best be enjoyed in a house designed to bring art and their daily lives into as close daily contact possible.” He created just such a place, and that sense of contact is still alive and well: a modern story, with a fairytale ending.
By Glenn Adamson, an independent writer and curator based in New York