Architect to the Art World
Steven Learner knows how to make art work
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 8/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Few architects have profited more from art-world buzz than Steven Learner. Since leaving the New York office of Gluckman Mayner Architects a decade ago to strike out as Steven Learner Studio, he has completed a café at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Sean Kelly Gallery, the nonprofit Art in General, and a deluge of art-centric apartments.
Current projects include a ground-up private gallery in Connecticut for a pair of intensely private collectors. Back in the city, he's working on a Brooklyn town- house renovation for painter Barnaby Furnas and the hotly anticipated Haunch of Venison gallery, the London spin-off that Christie's is opening in a 20,000-square-foot space on the 20th and 21st floors of a Rockefeller Center building. Here, Learner's architecture will share top billing with the likes of James Rosenquist, Bill Viola, Tobias Rehberger, and Jorge Pardo.
What are your thoughts about living with art?
Residences should be homes, not galleries with furniture in them. In the late 1980's and early '90's, many residences that incorporated contemporary art started to look like galleries. People would buy a piece at Gagosian and say, "Make my house look just like that."
And how do you differentiate the two?
I've grown unafraid of curtains—in a gallery that would be heresy. And I've started introducing color in furnishings. I don't think I'm a hard-core minimalist, but I'm still a modernist.
Tell us about Haunch of Venison.
Each gallery has a different character—for a different type of art: larger, smaller, wider, narrower. The entry has a 30-foot-high wall flanked by windows. The first gallery is 60 feet long, which should be great for sculpture. The second is a classic white box with a 12-foot ceiling. There's also a room for drawings and a black box for video projection.
You deal with the basic tenets of architecture and ask, "Is the scale of the space ideal?" Scale and proportion are critical, and bigger is not necessarily better.
How will visitors experience the gallery spaces?
You will feel it. The circulation is like a museum, so you can make the loop and return. I'm very interested in the movement of the body through space. That means sequence, scale, proportion.
How about those high-rise views?
The views are actually quite overwhelming. You need to have places to rest the eye. In some areas, we are actually denying the views.
As in blocking the windows?
Yes. They're covered with display walls.
What materials make a good backdrop for art?
I'm using a lot of terrazzo instead of concrete floors. I call it rich man's concrete.
The quality of lighting for art has changed dramatically, but you will still see no fluorescents in my galleries. No matter how many times my lighting designer tells me she can correct the color, make it not cold, I don't like fluorescent light for the display of art.
Do you collect, yourself?
I collect minimalist sculpture by Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, and Wolfgang Laib as well as photography by Thomas Struth, Andres Serrano, Candida Höfer, and James Casebere. I love contemporary art—that's the reason I do what I do.
Does being a collector help you identify with clients?
If they collect art, they appreciate the artistic process. That carries over to their relationship with me.
Your Connecticut gallery seems to be shrouded in secrecy.
My clients are very unassuming—they would definitely refer to it as a private gallery.
How will they use it?
It will be part of their daily experience. It's an intellectual exercise, a way of re-seeing work that they own.
How does that translate architecturally?
The building is dedicated to art, so there are spaces scaled to the display of larger work. And the systems, the security, the lighting, the storage—all of them are museum-quality. Why shouldn't they be?
How does working on a nonprofit compare?
It's great to be involved with a nonprofit in a very for-profit world. Champagne taste on a beer budget is always a little tough, though. I try to embrace the limitations and stick with the essentials.
What differentiates one huge, white space from another?
It's important for me to respond to the existing structure. At Haunch of Venison, it's the masonry of Rockefeller Center. At Sean Kelly, it was that great beamed ceiling. I try to create a dialogue between the wrapper and the insertions, maintaining a good fluidity. But the best gallery spaces challenge you, like the best art.