The Colorful History of the Eliot Noyes House, Explained by Abby Bangser
Abby Bangser, founder and curator of the art and design fair Object & Thing, shook up the New York scene last spring with a refreshing debut that freely mixed online commerce with curated, exhibition-style displays, and eschewed the typical fair model that’s rife with hierarchies, booths, and dealers. For the fair’s sophomore iteration— amidst an ongoing pandemic that’s brought much disruption to the art world—Bangser is switching up the art-fair formula once again by bringing it a little closer to home.
On view through Nov. 28 to small groups by appointment, Object & Thing, in partnership with galleries Blum & Poe and Mendes Wood DM, welcomes public visitors to the family home of the late influential architect and industrial designer Eliot Noyes, in New Canaan, Connecticut, for the first time. Here, Bangser shares the process of preserving, installing, and opening up the doors to a historic space, and why experiencing art and craft in the flesh is more important now than ever.
When did you first encounter Eliot Noyes’s house, and why did you select it as a venue for the fair?
My husband [Matt, a partner at Blum & Poe] and I relocated five years ago from New York City to New Canaan, and the whole area has an extensive history of Midcentury Modern architecture. Throughout the 1950s and sixties, it was a real hotbed for a group of architects that became known as the Harvard Five. At the time, there were nearly two hundred modern structures built. Now there are fewer than a hundred left, but still quite a number you can drive around to view: two Marcel Breuer houses, one by Frank Lloyd Wright, Landis Gores, and many more.
It was really through living here and becoming a part of this community of people that live in these Midcentury Moderns—and specifically through my friend Christy MacLear, who was the first director of the Philip Johnson Glass House—that I met Eliot Noyes’s son, Fred, and visited their home. This house has been something I’ve had in my mind for a while. The Noyes family is very interested in preserving and protecting it, and finding a way that it can be shared responsibility. This fair is the first experiment of something that could be done with the house, and was really inspired by the way that Noyes thought about the house when he built it.
How did the history of the home inform the way you chose to exhibit and commission works for the space?
In the 1950s, Noyes did a really interesting spread [of the house] for Look magazine. He brought some of the American furniture collection from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art into the house, taking away the modern chairs and bringing in more traditional furnishings, showing that these pieces also work very well in modern spaces. That’s something we looked at while thinking about this show. And then, certainly, the family had some really interesting pieces—they weren’t collectors, but had a real eclectic use of objects, design, and art in their lives: fiber works by Matisse and Miró, a Picasso vase on the table, all of which was very lovingly cared for. Of course, they were famously friendly with Alexander Calder, who designed one of his first stabile sculptures, “Black Beast,” for their courtyard. Subsequently, it’s been donated to the MoMA collection. Then, there were two mobiles in the living room. Fred has wonderful stories about Calder spending so much time in the house. In the archives, we also saw a photo of Charles Eames in the study.
The house has been a gathering place for creative people from the start. So we built this exhibition on that spirit and kept a lot of the original furnishings as they’ve been there. It’s a real time capsule, with worn pieces showing their age and history. Our art-handling team went in and did a lot of dusting, putting things back in the exactly the right place. And as we were curating the show, we thought about the history of art and design in a space. For example, in the courtyard where Calder’s “Black Beast” was, we have a very significant sculpture by Alma Allen—so we’re also referencing where art used to be. Similarly, next to the dining table, on the same ceiling hook where they once hung a Calder mobile, we have installed a hanging sculpture by Sonia Gomes.
On the design side—which includes functional pieces and decorative pieces—we have on display the typewriter that Noyes famously designed for IBM, and right next to that, a Philippe Malouin telephone, so it all gets mixed together. Throughout, the family also had plants near the long glass walls, to emphasize the indoor-outdoor approach of Modernism, so we’ve placed some sizable Gaetano Pesce vases there, planted with orchids.
With the pandemic causing a rethinking of traditional exhibition models, what do you foresee for the future of art and design fairs?
We’ve only gotten to have one full Object & Thing fair, and what we’ve done here is the same as what we tried to do there: to make a multisensory experience, mixing art and design equally without any separation, as you would in a home. For me, it’s sort of the perfect vision and format for that concept. As we’ve seen, digital formats are becoming more and more important. We’ve also launched digital viewing rooms—which is something we’ve done since our first iteration—to have all the works online and purchasable. There’s a positive direction with greater accessibility that’s happening, and fairs can really take advantage of that right now.
What’s exciting about this moment is the [opportunity] to experiment with new models. In the art world, we've always wanted to be flexible, but there has been a ritual and a routine in what is done. Art will remain critical to New York City, of course, but is coming out to other areas, too—often to places where artists have been living and making their art, and where there’s maybe a greater interaction with nature. I do think these models are here to stay. It’s just a greater expansion of what the art world has always been. The more, the better. Looking at art in many formats helps us all think more broadly. It brings new ideas to the table.