A strange fate, that of Philip Johnson, the most eclectic of the great 20th-century architects, versatile interpreter of many of the styles of the last century. History seems to have already indicated a clear hierarchy inside his work. The images of sunsets reflected in the curtain walls of his postmodern skyscrapers, the glories of the 1980s in Houston, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, have rapidly faded from collective memory. At the same time, his modernist period, from which the Glass House (1949) in New Canaan, Connecticut is the best-known episode, meets with constantly growing acclaim. Freely based on the Farnsworth House of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the project bears witness to Johnson’s interest in the Modern Movement, above all in Europe, but also to his ability to reinterpret, rethink and ‘betray’ the models provided by his mentors.
Over the last decade Craig Bassam and Scott Fellows have made a decisive contribution to the rediscovery and safeguarding of Johnson the modernist. Respectively chief designer and creative director of the brand BassamFellows, the two have restored and reactivated first the Hodgson House (1951), which is their home today, and then the Schlumberger Research Center Administration Building (1952), where they have created the brand’s headquarters. Less famous than the Glass House, both constructions stand in the same quiet, affluent suburb, a green corner of New England not too far from New York.
The dwelling is composed of two buildings connected by a short glass passage, while the offices are organized in a single compact block. Apart from these specifics, and in spite of the different function, the two buildings have many shared characteristics. First of all the choice of materials, such as gray brick and exposed steel of certain structural parts, and above all an overall sense of transparency. They are not precisely ‘glass boxes,’ but they are crossed by abundant natural light, open to the tamed landscape that surrounds them. In both cases, for example, the internal spaces are placed around an entirely glazed patio, while regular sequences of skylights provide zenithal lighting.
In the Schlumberger Building the external enclosure is also a practically continuous glazing; on the other hand, the solid brick structures protect the privacy of the inhabitants of Hodgson House. The project by Bassam and Fellows began with the philological conservation of the two buildings, starting with Johnson’s original drawings conserved at the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library of Columbia University in New York. The project for the Schlumberger Building, winner of an award assigned by Docomomo, redefines certain internal thresholds, but without disruption. The original hybrid configuration, somewhere between a complete open space and a more traditional sequence of closed rooms, has proven to be suitable, on the whole, for the needs of a contemporary workspace.
The element of greatest interest in the two projects, however, is undoubtedly the face-off between two interpretations of the modern: on one side the architecture of Johnson, preserved in its fundamental features, and on the other the design of the interiors and objects of BassamFellows. Since the launch of the brand at the Salone del Mobile in Milan in 2003, Bassam and Fellows have openly expressed their intention to insert themselves in the path of the modern tradition, in the wider sense of the term. Not by chance, “craftsman modern” is the expression they use to define their approach to product design, aptly summed up by the first of their iconic furnishings, the Tractor Stool.
The stool is a convincing synthesis of the imaginary of reference of its creators, which is that of an impure, artisanal modernism with forceful primitivist and brutalist accents. It is the first specimen of a long genealogy of furnishings of “sensual minimalism” (as the duo says), sturdy artifacts of sculpted material, which “represent an artful riposte to and rejection of the disposable nature” of rampant, rapid consumption. The Cluster stool, originally designed for the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Manhattan in 2018, and the Brutus chair, presented in 2020, are more recent results of this line of research.
Shifting from the scale of the product to that of constructed space, Bassam and Fellows assert that their action is like that of “a classic modernist producing total environments where architecture, interiors and furniture coalesce to complete a fully integrated experience.” After years of prestigious collaborations with outstanding architects like Marcio Kogan, Rem Koolhaas, Vincent Van Duysen and Jean-Michel Wilmotte, Johnson’s pavilions are a new proving ground, a truly exceptional place in which to demonstrate the validity of this vision. Framed by the interiors at New Canaan, conceived almost 70 years ago and stripped of any subsequent alterations, the contemporary furnishings of BassamFellows immediately find a perfect setting.
Alongside vintage pieces and some works by Johnson himself, they form a harmonious whole in which the chronological factor loses its importance. Were it not for the color, a distracted gaze might mistake the contemporary photographs for those of the original period by the legendary Ezra Stoller. The researches on the modern of Johnson and BassamFellows are combined in the renovated Hodgson House and Schlumberger Building, where their poetics resonate and mutually enhance each other. The success of the two projects lies precisely in the construction of this dialogue, in the staging of this respectful approach between designers, who turn out to be distant from each other only in terms of time.
Project Craig Bassam and Scott Fellows / BassamFellows - Photos Mark Seelen/Studio Marc Heldens (Hodgson House), Michael Biondo (Schlumberger Building/headquarters)