‘Everything was designed to complement the art’

Award-winning architect Jim Olson talks about designing An American Place, Barney Ebsworth’s Seattle home, which was conceived as a showcase for the American Modernist masterpieces in his celebrated collection

Designing a house in Seattle for the art collector and businessman Barney A. Ebsworth was an education for the architect Jim Olson. ‘It was like taking a college course in 20th-century American art,’ he says, referring to the array of blue-chip paintings and sculptures assembled by Ebsworth since the 1960s, which are being offered in two dedicated sales on 13 and 14 November at Christie’s in New York. ‘He was so proud of his collection, it was like an extension of his personality.’

So passionate was the collector, and founder of the travel conglomerate INTRAV, that he named his home An American Place, after the groundbreaking New York modern art gallery founded by Alfred Stieglitz in the 1930s.

For the award-winning architect, the task he faced was to design a house that could operate both as a family home and as a museum. ‘I let the collection inspire me,’ he says. ‘There are certain shapes that re-occur — rectangles in particular, which means there are a lot of horizontal lines that mark your movement through the building.’

‘It was like taking a college course in 20th-century American art,’ says Jim Olson, PrincipalOwner of Olson Kundig, FAIA, of designing An American Place with Barney A. Ebsworth. Photograph by Rafael Soldi

‘It was like taking a college course in 20th-century American art,’ says Jim Olson, Principal/Owner of Olson Kundig, FAIA, of designing An American Place with Barney A. Ebsworth. Photograph by Rafael Soldi

The greatest challenge for Olson, however, was managing his client’s expectations: ‘He wanted the perfect setting for his paintings.’ Thankfully Olson had experience, having designed several houses for art collections — among them, a dynamic space for the Seattle collectors Elizabeth and Richard Hedreen, and for the Denver-based philanthropists Frederick and Jan Mayer. ‘I guess that's why he hired me,’ he says modestly.

Fortunately, Ebsworth and his architect were on the same page. They agreed that there would be only one painting per wall — ‘it always bothers me in museums when you are trying to focus on an artwork and there are five others in your peripheral vision,’ reveals Olson.

They also agreed that the house needed to be divided between the public and the private: ‘Barney had two types of artworks, those that were delicate and of a human scale, and those that were monumental. I let that scale inspire me. There is a hierarchy to the house — the uptown and the downtown and a long hallway that ties it all together.’

‘The public space felt like a museum, but in the smaller, more intimate rooms your relationship with the paintings would be entirely different’ — Jim Olson

What is clear from the design is that nothing was left to chance. Each painting had its own particular spot, and, as the architect reveals, ‘everything was designed to complement the art, from the metal of the fireplace to the colour of the trim.’

A special wall was built in the sitting room for a David Hockney painting because it was so big, while the Edward Hopper masterpiece Chop Suey (1929) was destined for the den, where Ebsworth wanted to see it as he read his morning paper.

The collector’s idiosyncrasies never fazed Olson. Instead, he was charmed by the stories Ebsworth wanted to tell. ‘I loved what he did in the entry hall, placing two, relatively small-scale Georgia O’Keeffe paintings opposite one another and then the grand, powerful Gaston Lachaise bronze nude in between. I thought Barney was making a statement about women’s power!’

The entrance hall with a view to the lake and Standing Woman (1932) by Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935), which is offered in An American Place The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November at Christie’s in New York. Photograph by Paul Warchol

The entrance hall with a view to the lake and Standing Woman (1932) by Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935), which is offered in An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November at Christie’s in New York. Photograph by Paul Warchol

A different view of the Gaston Lachaise sculpture, which is flanked by two small works by Georgia OKeeffe. Photograph by Paul Warchol

A different view of the Gaston Lachaise sculpture, which is flanked by two small works by Georgia O'Keeffe. Photograph by Paul Warchol

Ultimately, Olson saw the house as a container for the collection and deliberately kept the colours and textures of the building low-key. ‘They kind of melt into the background,’ he explains. ‘They reflect the bark on the trees and the soft grey of the sky. The climate of Seattle is similar to that of Kyoto, and the architecture of the Pacific Northwest is influenced by Asia. I took that Japanese sensibility and wanted to build a bridge between nature and life and art and life.’

The result is a woodland house that is relatively modest in scale. ‘It’s a simple house,’ agrees Olson, ‘but it has layers of space and light.’ That said, the alchemy involved in placing priceless artworks in a potentially damaging light-filled space was complex.

An original Jim Olson sketch of An American Place in Seattle

An original Jim Olson sketch of An American Place in Seattle

‘We went to great lengths to protect the paintings,’ states the architect. ‘We spoke to curators and conservators. Fortunately, the house is shaded by evergreen trees, which dappled the light, plus we built in ledges and overhangs above each painting which provided a certain amount of shade. Each painting was on a wall with windows either side, so they were never in direct sunlight, and of course the glass was UV-protected.’

The house was completed in 2004, and Olson never tired of returning to it. ‘Barney would have these cocktail parties and everyone would gather in the public space which felt like a museum, but then if you went for dinner you would find yourself in one of the smaller, more intimate rooms where your relationship with the paintings would be entirely different.’

Olson’s favourite aspect is still the entrance hall. ‘It looks out over the reflecting pool on one side and the lake on the other, and there, in the centre, is that powerful Gaston Lachaise sculpture holding court,’ he says. ‘I truly love that space.’