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The Private Home as Museum : Daily Living With an Art Collection

January 11, 1987|SAM BURCHELL | Sam Burchell is a former senior editor of Architectural Digest. and

We arrived here with little more than pots and pans and a few American Indian artifacts," Burton Brenner says. He is describing the time 4 1/2 years ago that he and his wife, Barbara, having sold their house and auctioned off most of its contents, found themselves in a virtually empty Beverly Hills condominium. It was by no means a daunting experience, however, since a fresh canvas was exactly what they wanted.

The Brenners sought the help of J. William Foster, who had been responsible for the traditional European decor of their previous home, and today their 3,000-square-foot condominium is furnished and arranged to serve two seemingly contradictory purposes. It is a small museum housing their collection of American Indian arts and crafts, and it is also a comfortable space designed for living and entertaining.

"Certainly it was a challenge," says Foster, of Foster / Caldwell, an interior design firm. "The Brenners were amassing an impressive amount of American Indian art, and they wanted to live with their collections, not simply display them."

The danger for Foster was to allow himself--and the condominium--to be overwhelmed by American Indian artifacts. Their color and vitality are more than evident--from the ceremonial masks of the Northwest to the rugs and baskets and pottery of the Hopi and Navajo tribes of the Southwest. Quite as vivid are paintings by artists T. C. Cannon and Peter Pletka. In addition, the Brenners had commissioned two murals from artist Cynthia Andersen: a ceiling in the entrance hall derived from a Southwest sand painting and, in the bathroom, a large mural of the countryside around Santa Fe.

With these strong elements on all sides, Foster knew that a neutral background was called for. Above all, he had to avoid anything approaching a cliche. He used beige and off-white for the carpeting, Roman shades and vinyl-covered walls. Foster made no attempt to duplicate the decor of the Southwest but simply suggested it with such decorative elements as the antique travertine mantelpiece in the living room. Very soon, however, he realized that the creation of a simple background was not enough. He was overlooking the Brenners' wish for comfort and ease in entertaining.

"The key was direct access," Foster says. He concentrated on the flow of space and emphasized the theme of living in and with a museum. Throughout the home he created paths of movement and easy access. The living-room seating, for example, flows toward the fireplace and back again to the large circular table in the dining room, and along these paths of movement, built-in display cases, mirrors and bands of indirect lighting point up the art and artifacts. Marked by light, the progression is most apparent at night when, as Foster says, "you can turn on the furniture." In the entrance hall, for example, bands of light illuminate dramatic masks of the Northwest Indians--"Death and the Bear," "China Eyes" and "The Old Lady." The light leads into the living room toward the fireplace, establishing a firm visual pattern. All along the way, American Indian art appears on lighted pedestals and shelves, in vitrines and against mirrored backgrounds. In such a way, the art becomes a part of the living space.

The Brenners are as enthusiastic about the finished design and the way it functions as they are about the collection that fills it. "In the past," Barbara Brenner says, "we collected European furniture and antiques, but somehow over the years they became sterile and lost the meaning that they had had for us. When we first visited Santa Fe about 15 years ago, we both knew that we had found what we wanted. There is so much pleasure in collecting Native American art, and it is very relevant to the part of the world in which we live. I love all of it, particularly those marvelous symbols taken from nature--the raven and the bear and the eagle. It seems far more real to me than collecting European antiques."

"In addition," Burton Brenner says, "it is difficult to maintain any continuity in collecting European antiques these days. They are rare and expensive, and you have to be satisfied with what you can get. American Indian art, on the other hand, while it can be expensive, is still relatively affordable. And it has a vitality that European art no longer holds for us. It's something one can live with on a day-to-day basis."

So, on an empty canvas, the Brenners, with the help of J. William Foster, have created what is at once a museum, a home and a splendid tribute to our Native American heritage.

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