Blue-Chip White Box
Steven Learner brings nuance and sophistication to the Haunch of Venison space at New York's Rockefeller Center
Christine Schwartz Hartley -- Interior Design, 8/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
When London's Haunch of Venison gallery opens a New York branch in Rockefeller Center in September, sharp knives and tongues will be ready to go to work—and not just because "Abstract Expressionism: A World Elsewhere," the non-selling inaugural exhibition of work by Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and others is ambitiously being billed as "one of the first surveys of the movement in New York in nearly 40 years." What pundits will most likely be talking about is an event that took place a year and a half ago when Christie's acquired the modern and contemporary gallery in what many saw as a violation of the customary separation between primary sales, usually handled by galleries, and the secondary market, typically the domain of auction houses. Since the acquisition, Haunch of Venison has been handling both its own stable of artists and Christie's private sales, and the art world has yet to get over it. Now that a Haunch of Venison offshoot is opening in a duplex penthouse around the corner from Christie's. . . . You get the picture.
Well, let them talk. If the art at Haunch of Venison doesn't shut them up, the architecture will. Just stepping out of the elevators into the reception atrium, which soars 30 feet from the public galleries on the 20th floor to the offices on the 21st, is enough to make most jaws drop. And that's just the beginning. As designed by Steven Learner Studio, Haunch of Venison's 20,000 square feet may be one of New York's smartest, most versatile art spaces.
Steven Learner founded his art-centric architecture firm a little more than a decade ago, and he collects minimalist sculpture and contemporary photography, so he clearly understands gallery design. "You need to carve out space for art. You need walls. You need to control the light," he explains, adding that the Haunch of Venison location's 64 windows presented one of the project's most serious challenges. "You can't cover all the windows, because that would be a tragedy." But as someone who likes to work with the "essential elements of architecture—light, proportion, and how the body moves through space," he says, he was especially well suited to the job.
Learner immediately tackled the intense sunshine and a 360-degree panorama that extends all the way from the East River to the Hudson. To set the art apart from its surroundings, he blocked certain windows, he says, to "make the views much more specific." He also floated a sequence of five galleries of various shapes and sizes, for various types of art, inside the building's exposed brick perimeter and allowed space to flow between and around them. These contemplative passages invite visitors to move from one gallery to the next and back again with remarkable fluidity and seemingly endless possibilities and permutations. The museumlike loop unfolds almost cinematically to create constant opportunities for viewing art in surprising interplays with the vast city beyond.
The clever design scheme honors both what Learner calls the "muscularity" of Rockefeller Center and the refined environment needed for optimal art appreciation. This blend of opposites is prominent in the galleries, where pristine white walls and luxurious gray-flecked white terrazzo flooring establish a luminous counterpoint to the blackened steel lining the doorways. Brick walls in the main gallery and the perimeter passageways are painted a dark industrial gray; ductwork and sprinklers in the passages are visible through industrial steel-mesh panels. In the four rooms dedicated to private viewing, however, Learner turned down the volume. Radiators disappear inside pale gray covers of perforated powder-coated steel, topped by white solid surfacing; flooring is rift-sawn oak. He chose the neutral palette and the mix of vintage and contemporary furniture to help clients envision works of art at home.
Up a steel-and-oak staircase, Learner's elemental chic finds its last iteration in 4,000 square feet of mezzanine offices. Pointing to the uniformly white-painted walls and radiator covers, the aluminum-framed storefront system defining four private offices, and the aluminum-framed desks and open workstations, Learner says simply, "We kind of let it all quiet down." Coming from an architect who, even in his most ambitious gestures, has mastered the art of modernist elegance, the comment is quaint. It's a good thing Haunch of Venison's international managing director, Robert Fitzpatrick, is around to declare, more forcefully, that the New York outpost is a space that "says to you, instantly, I'm somewhere special." He can say that again.