Leo Saul Berk Structure and Ornament at the Frye Museum

When most of us think of architecture in and around Chicago, the first name that comes to mind is Frank Lloyd Wright of course. But northern Illinois architecture is so much richer, and the current exhibition at the Frye Museum introduces us to the Ford house, an architectural wonder not far from Chicago that few know about. It is both living space and art object created in the mid-twentieth century by Bruce Goff, artist, architect, musician, and savant.

The Ford House is unlike any other. Dramatic use of light and color, unconventional shapes, and radical use of materials are its hallmarks. Much of its glory has been recreated or reimagined at the Frye by Leo Saul Berk.

Berk came from England with his family as a six-year old and quickly settled into this extraordinary house in Aurora, Illinois, a few miles west of Chicago. There he lived for much of his childhood, immersed in a creative ambiance like no other. He firmly believes this experience heightened his artistic sensibility, honed his imagination, and in many ways shaped the artist and person he is today.

The Frye exhibition consists of Berk’s reproductions of decorative elements in the house, new works based on Berk’s memories of his experience in the house, and videos of many of the iconic architectural components that defined the house.

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This is a building that was not conceived primarily with comfort in mind. Using structural pieces from World War II Quonset huts, it had many limitations. It was blazing hot in the broiling Midwest summers and bitter cold in winters. Berk remembers his family using sleeping bags on top of the rug on the radiant heated floor. In this exhibit, a noteworthy yellow, red, black and white wool carpet is displayed. Fabricated in Nepal its design is the thermograph pattern that Berk made of a segment of that floor. It’s a stunner.

Wind Jangle_Leo Saul Berk-install2-MarkWoodsAnother imposing piece, “Mortar and Marbles,” represents a section of the curved walls of the house. Made of canal coal and mortar, Goff insisted that glass marbles be embedded in the coal to catch and reflect the light. Berk’s to-scale representation traces the mortar and leaves the irregular forms of the uneven bricks vacant. At 142 inches long and 78 inches high, it provides the viewer with a sense of the space within the house.

Goff, as musician as well as architect, drew ornamental “wind jangles”—decorative hangings that played with concepts of light and sound. Though he never installed one at the Ford House, Berk has taken the idea and created one. It is suspended from the elliptical oculus in the Frye rotunda. Goff’s wind jangles were made in the pattern of actual piano rolls. Berk has taken Goff’s piano roll concept and imitated it by inserting large black rounds between smaller aluminum rounds hung on strands of fine fishing line. This overwhelming introductory piece cannot be ignored. It’s a fine announcement of what’s to come.

The Ford house was not a terribly workable home, but what an awesome space! Clearly its influence on artist Leo Saul Berk was profound.

Through Sept. 6 at the Frye Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle, always free and free parking, (206 622-9250 or fryemusum.org).

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