Philip Johnson is arguably one of America’s most illustrious architects. The Glass House (1949), which he designed for himself, sits amid 49 lush acres of rolling countryside in New Caanan, Connecticut. Anyone interested in architecture or interior design has heard of Mies van der Rohe‘s famous dictum, “less is more.” While I’ve always believed in this ideal, tried to design and school clients in creating an interior sans the crap we all accumulate, it wasn’t until my recent visit to Johnson’s Glass House did I truly understand why less really is so much more fantastic, why it produces a better home and likely a better life.
If you take the concept for what it is, to reduce a building or room and its components to exactly what it is, not more, you can achieve a comfortable and livable environment. Let necessary shapes exist on their own, become art, and remove all the ancillary bullshit we habitually add.
At first look, one wonders is this a little stark? Too pure in form or too empty? Once inside the Glass House your mind and body acclimates, a sense of peace takes over. As your mind questions: but what about the drapery, where is the lighting, what about all the whatever you normally surround yourself with, a new question becomes the answer… do I really need it?
In the middle of the woods, there is no need for drapery.
The kitchen is clean, simple and functional. Everything one needs is there, and hidden when not in use.
One surely doesn’t need ceiling cans or lamps in every quadrant of a room. Lights belong only where needed.
We routinely ask design clients how many people will typically sit in a room, or at the table. Johnson designs the appropriate answer based on his reality, not a dream.
In 1928 he met German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who became his life-long friend and mentor. Johnson was so taken with Mies, he hired him to design the interiors for his New York apartment which is how those very first pieces of Barcelona furniture, which he later moved here to his Glass House, came to the United States.
His desk was for written correspondence, not work.
Work took place in a one room studio he called an “event” on the landscape. He designed the space with one window and no bathroom as an environment for focus. No distractions while working, and without a bathroom he’d have to get up and walk to another building, pure brilliance.
The bathroom in the Glass House is housed on the back side of the circular brick column which also houses the fireplace, has the necessary accoutrements. These leather ceiling tiles are interesting. Originally the entire bathroom had leather tiles (much more durable than you or I would expect) however, like every designer utilizing their space as their lab, tile turned out to be a better solution for a humid environment.
Though a fan and collector of artist Frank Stella (click to see Johnson’s Stella collection housed in his Painting Gallery) an after giving a piece a try in this living room, the traditional painting by Nicholas Poussin (attributed to), Burial of Phocion, ca. 1648-49, serves the space the best. It enhances, but does not compete for attention.
The truth is, whether one’s walls are glass or not, every wall doesn’t need to be embellished. Johnson allowed nature to be his art. The ever changing landscape provides enough activity.
Of the fourteen structures on the property, two were built purely for his love of art. The equally minimalist earth berm Painting Gallery, equipped with only a four leaf clover-esque skylight as a window to light the four quadrants of the building, is for appreciating paintings and photographs. The brick and glass Sculpture Gallery with its reticulating interior of staircases leading to open rooms, is for three dimensional works.
Long before Johnson formally studied architecture and design at Harvard Graduate School, which he finally did at age 35, his natural personal interest in modern architecture is the basis of what we know about the topic today. From his in-depth study with historian Henry Russel Hitchcock of modern architecture in pre-WWII Europe, they authored the classic architectural tome International Style: Modern Architecture Since 1922. They brought us Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. Employed by the new Museum of Modern Art in New York, he, along with Hitchcock and Alfred H. Barr, Jr. organized the first exhibition on Modern Architecture in 1932. This new (post WWI) architecture was art, geometric shapes full of technological innovations, minus the old Victorian personality. Buildings were pure in form, functional for many, and a testament to the machine age.
Johnson designed both residential and commercial buildings in the modern and post modern styles. As an architect and designer he embodied the idea of studying and knowing the past before one can design for the future. The Glass House is physical proof of Mies’ declaration, less is more. Less is not only more, its better.