She's a Keeper *
Herman Miller's indispensable Hilda Longinotti embodies the term institutional memory
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 3/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
Engaging, witty, and quite the social butterfly, Hilda Longinotti stands out in a crowd. And in an era when some people change careers and addresses—even spouses—as often as wardrobes, she's positively sui generis. "I've had one husband and two jobs in the past 50 years," says Longinotti, who's spent three decades as Herman Miller's architecture and design liaison, following two as George Nelson's right-hand woman. "Plus, I've lived in the same house for 42 years. I guess that tells you what I'm about." Loyalty. If she likes something, she's in it for the long haul.
Take her house in Whitestone, New York. Awarded landmark status by the Queens Historical Society, the 1920's residence remains relatively unchanged since 1962, when Nelson's director of design, Dolores Engle, completed the interior for Longinotti and her late husband, Joseph. Renovations included installing quarry tile in high-traffic areas, masking the foyer's overhead plumbing with clever lighting, and drenching the kitchen in lemon yellow—1950's metal cabinets and all. "Dolores's design has transcended time," says Longinotti. "Any of the changes I've made have been solely about my own capriciousness." '
Engle also helped amass and arrange a comprehensive collection of modern classics. Run through a list of mid-century favorites, and chances are that Longinotti owns one of each. Charles and Ray Eames's leather-covered lounges recline in the den. An Alexander Girard abstract floral curtains the dining room. In the bedroom, Harry Bertoia's Diamond chair is paired with a Josef Hoffmann fabric. Rare Nelson prototypes abound, among them goblets and a Nessen Lighting pendant.
Everything, it seems, has a back story and a distinguished provenance. Sentimental favorites include the foyer's Bavarian 18th-century chest, purchased at a New York antiques shop after scouring the globe, and two colorful paintings by Ettore Sottsass, a personal friend. Some are bargains: a Georg Jensen bedside sconce, bought on sale for $10. Others are less so, such as the living room's custom V'Soske wool rug, handmade in Puerto Rico for $150 per square yard. ("And that included a trade discount.")
Longinotti is also the lucky beneficiary of hand-me-downs from the defunct George Nelson & Associates. A Nelson daybed, rescued from the ladies' rest room, now stands in the den; the living room features a U-shape tufted bench and a painting of unknown Middle Eastern origin. Castoffs from Nelson's home—courtesy of his widow, Jacqueline—include the sunporch's cast-glass pendant fixture.
Nelson left an outsize mark on her life in other ways, too. "He was my education, my college. I didn't even know what an architect was when I started," says Longinotti, who joined the firm straight out of Catholic finishing school. "He produced so many things—furniture, flatware, exhibitions, graphics, world's fairs. And acted as an impresario for a wonderful troop of people, many of whom subsequently became famous in their own right."
Lifelong connections made at Nelson's office helped her ' launch Herman Miller's trade-outreach efforts, starting with an annual expense account of $1,000. "A large part of my job was to explain new products and their applications," she says. "When the first open-plan system, Action Office, was introduced, no one knew what to do with it." (She probably didn't suggest that clients follow her lead, wall-mounting the credenzas in bedrooms and hallways as supplemental closet space.) "Then I nailed one of their largest jobs ever—3,000 workstations for Home Insurance," she recalls. "So they started to pay attention."
Hard as it is to conceive of a time when people did not pay attention to Longinotti, it's harder still to reflect on how dramatically the profession has changed during her tenure. "I remember when big firms like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill used to send four designers to the showroom just to check out a sofa. Now, no one has the time!" she laments.
One thing, though, has remained a constant. "Designers always want to see what's new and sexy," she says with a coy smile. "But they inevitably come back to the classics." Words to the wise from someone who's stayed loyal all along.
Hilda Longinotti's 1920's house in Whitestone, New York.
Her living room's vintage Georg Jensen sconce, accompanying an unidentified Middle Eastern painting from George Nelson's office.
A custom V'Soske wool rug anchors Isamu Noguchi's cocktail table in the oak-floored living room. Nanna Ditzel designed the wicker chair in the 1950's.
A Bavarian 18th-century painted-wood chest in the foyer.
A painting by Ettore Sottsass above teak nesting tables from Georg Jensen.
The bedroom features a coverlet in Alexander Girard fabric as well as Harry Bertoia's Diamond chair, with fabric by Josef Hoffmann.
A 1950's Ericofon sits on the den's teak credenza, by Nelson; he also designed the daybed. The marble-topped La Fonda table is by Charles and Ray Eames.
In the dressing room, a Sottsass painting hangs below a Dolores Engle storage unit.
Engle's spice cabinet finds a new function in the powder room.
Wall-mounted Herman Miller Action Office credenzas add storage space to the entrance hall.
Nelson's Asterisk clock keeps time above the kitchen cabinets.
Longinotti on the sunporch. A century-old wicker sofa nearby.
Engle installed teak poles to divide the sunporch's sitting area, with its cast-glass pendant fixture from Nelson's own kitchen, and the dining area, furnished with an Eames table and Arne Jacobsen chairs.