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.’
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!’
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.
‘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.’