Living with art: a Michigan modernist gem regains its raison d’être

Living with art: a Michigan modernist gem regains its raison d’être

Michigan was a hub for modernist architecture in the mid-20th century, particularly the then-booming industrial centre of Detroit. The Motor City became home to architects likes Eero Saarinen and Minoru Yamasaki, and furniture makers Steelcase and Herman Miller weren’t too far away, in West Michigan.

Now, a hidden gem of modernist architecture by the lesser-known William Kessler is being rediscovered in the suburban town of Grosse Pointe, thanks to a benefit auction and group exhibition. Organised by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in conjunction with Library Street Collective, ‘Unobstructed Views’ presents a site-specific installation with works of 34 artists at the W Hawkins Ferry House.

Installation view of ‘Unobstructed Views’ in the W Hawkins Ferry House

Designed in 1962 by Kessler (who studied under Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and worked at Yamasaki’s firm), the historic house boasts dramatic views over the Lake St Clair, ten miles northeast of Detroit, and is named after his former owner – the late architecture historian, arts patron and all-round socialite, W Hawkins Ferry (who had commissioned Kessler specifically to display his art collection amid the scenic environment).

‘We learned most of what we know about the specific details of the house through the process of restoration,’ explains Anthony Curis, founder of the Detroit gallery Library Street Collective, who purchased the house in 2015 with his wife JJ. ‘We were met with surprise at every turn, uncovering the original walnut doors in the basement crawlspace, as well as an entire set of replacement pavers for the patio designed by artist Glen Michaels,’ he continues.

One of the most impressive elements of the house is the grand staircase, constructed on a single, grounded pedestal with undulating steps of granite terrazzo. Contrasting with this colossal feature is the delicate use of piano wires attached to stainless stanchions to create nearly invisible second floor balconies.

Installation view of ‘Unobstructed Views’ in the W Hawkins Ferry House

The installation is accessible to the public by appointment until 10 August and features works by established artists like Mike Kelley, KAWS and Paul Kremer, as well as more emerging ones such as Willie Wayne Smith. It launches with a benefit auction this Thursday 27 July, with all proceeds going towards MOCAD’s programme (bids may be placed online through Paddle8).

It was in a 1969 issue of House Beautiful magazine that a critic described the home’s ‘unobstructed views’ over art and scenery to be at the heart of Kessler’s design. Now, half a century later, this design has regained its raison d’être.

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