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Living The Modernist Dream

A couple fill an overlooked architectural treasure with furnishings by visionary 20th century designers

April 29, 2007|Michael Webb | Michael Webb has written 25 books on architecture and design

The name of a legendary architect--Oscar Niemeyer--compelled Michael and Gabrielle Boyd to fly to L.A. from New York to inspect an airy white stucco house on the edge of Santa Monica Canyon. Was the house they were inspecting that day in 2002 really a Niemeyer--the only one in North America?

Niemeyer, who is still creating brilliant buildings in his 100th year, is the father of Brazilian Modernism, the chief architect of Brasilia and, in collaboration with Le Corbusier, of the United Nations headquarters in New York.

A week or two of research convinced the Boyds that they had uncovered an overlooked treasure. The couple, who have spent years restoring modern houses in the Bay Area and New York, purchased the home and set to work using the architect's sketches as a guide, and the improbable story of its creation as their inspiration.

In 1963, maverick movie director Joseph Strick was invited to the Mar del Plata film festival in Argentina and continued on to Brazil, where he visited the new capital of Brasilia and Niemeyer's house in the mountains above Rio de Janeiro. Strick, who would later win an Oscar for his documentary short, "Interviews With My Lai Veterans," knew he had found the architect for his dream house. There were a few problems. Niemeyer was working flat-out on Brasilia, and he was an ardent Communist who had been denied a U.S. visa despite his international fame.

Strick was outraged by this injustice and sent Niemeyer an impassioned letter, convincing him that he should design a house on the site the director had picked out. Sketches and a model arrived, the design was twice changed, and the house was finally built, but Strick (who is now 84 and living in Paris) never spent a night in it. He and his wife, Anne, had split up on the eve of construction. The beauty of the house is matched by the furnishings--one of the most comprehensive collections of 20th century works by visionary designers in private hands--and the way the Boyds have artfully arranged them as a setting for domestic life. Iconic chairs by Jean Prouve, Gerrit Rietveld, Arne Jacobsen and Marcel Breuer are used every day by family and friends. Niemeyer is center stage in the living room, which features his springy steel and leather chairs and ottomans that he had designed--quite improbably--for the gray apparatchiks of the French Communist Party in Paris, where he was exiled by the Brazilian military junta.

The Boyds are living the dream of the first generation of Modernists, who believed in the transformative power of good design. Frank Lloyd Wright in America, Le Corbusier in France and Alvar Aalto in Finland, among others, designed furniture and every detail of their interiors down to the door knobs. They strove to create a total work of art that would uplift its users. Michael and Gabrielle do the same, but they've made more eclectic choices. Their sons selected favorite pieces for their own rooms. Sam, 16, picked a white Verner Panton chair, and his 12-year-old brother Henry took an Eames classic rolling desk chair. The most fragile treasures are kept on shelves or in the library, where you can find a stool and chair from Eileen Gray's Paris apartment, an Erich Mendelsohn chair manufactured by Desta, and Rene Herbst's Sandows chair.

Modernist pioneers also preached the gospel of fresh air, sunlight and indoor-outdoor living, and found an enthusiastic congregation in the benign climate of Southern California. The Boyds were inspired by landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx, a longtime Niemeyer collaborator, to create a tropical garden in which rocks and plantings are sculptural objects that complement the furniture within. Windows and glass doors slide open to nature, and sinuous paths work with the rectilinear geometry of the house, creating a balanced composition at every point. "Living in light-filled, open spaces with clean lines and well-reasoned details is freeing," says Gabrielle. "We honor the fearlessness and originality of the Modernists in the hope that we can follow their lead."

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