The private homes of mid-century creators are vanishing. As most architects, designers, and artists who worked in the modern design movements of the 1950s and ’60s are reaching their twilight years or have already passed on, the houses in which they explored their personal visions are often broken up and disappear. Leslie Williamson, a San Francisco-based photographer, has been capturing and documenting these homes in a self-funded journey since 2006, publishing Handcrafted Modern: At Home with Mid-century Designers with Rizzoli in 2010. Now she’s turned to the endangered homes of mid-century designers in Europe, currently the focus of a Kickstarter project.
Handcrafted Modern Europe: At Home with Midcentury Designers (the book’s working title) will focus on the homes and studios of 13 designers and architects who lived and worked in Europe. Williamson’s aim is to capture something of their inhabitants’ lives and legacies in their domestic interiors — the designers themselves are physically absent, but remain present in each object and piece of furniture.
“I think of houses as a portrait of the person who lives there,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “I think there’s a value in seeing in how these designers lived themselves.”
She’s already visited the home of Swedish furniture designer and architect Bruno Mathsson, remembered for craft-based works like the woven Eva Chair, which is maintained as it was when he lived there by his family. The project also includes the home of Italian architect and interior designer Gae Aulenti, who worked on the interior of the Musée d’Orsay, and who just recently passed away in 2012. Then there’s the former home of Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto, who cofounded the Artek furniture company with his wife Aino and was prolific in architecture that gave a modernist take on Nordic Classicism, like Finlandia Hall in Helsinki and the KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark. Yet while Aalto’s home is preserved through a museum, Williamson points out that even these museum homes evolve away from what they once were. It’s actually the homes of the designers still growing old, often not high-profile enough for permanent museums, that are most in danger. “It’s what’s disappearing the fastest,” she said. “They pass away or they can’t live on their own any more, and then their houses are dismantled.”
Williamson often gets calls about designers passing away, and that an estate sale is just weeks off. She feels like she is in a race against time to photograph these interiors before they vanish. She has photographed 15 homes so far and still wants to visit more, and Williamson estimates that she’ll publish the European book in spring of 2014. For now, her blog is a beautiful preview, with quiet images of homes that all have a distinctive, creative vision embedded in their interiors. The spaces are a reflection of the mid-century designers who were so influential in guiding the direction of contemporary design, but whose personal spaces are now quickly fading away.
The video for Leslie Williamson’s Kickstarter project (funding through March 14) is below.