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The Display Artist

Architect Roger Ferris makes contemporary art feel perfectly at home in a 100-year-old Tudor...

The contemporary architect Roger Ferris is accustomed to the reaction most people have when they first catch sight of his home: “It really surprises them that I’m in a turn-of-the-century house, much less a Tudor Revival. But they get it as soon the front door is opened.” The gallery-style entry hall announces right away what is to come in the rest of the house. Ah, now we’re talking.

Visitors are greeted by Xavier Veilhan’s dramatic humanoid sculpture standing guard next to an intricate wooden chair by the Campana Brothers. Just above, on the staircase wall, there is a Donald Sultan painting, opposite a Nathan Coley light box underscored by Chris Howker’s long, sleek stainless-steel bench. The only concession to the past is a 17th-century grandfather clock, a stately piece of antiquity with its own sculptural presence.

“I think what everybody ultimately finds so evocative is this blend of historical and contemporary,” Ferris says. And by that he not only means the startling contrast between the exterior and interior, but what is in the rooms themselves. Every space has been deliberately designed to display his collection of top-notch contemporary art. 

Even Ferris could not have expected how enamored he would become with the house when he came upon it about five years ago. It was the land—15 bosky acres in Weston, Conn.—that initially caught his eye, so he went again and again to look at the property. The house was beautifully sited, and the more he studied it, the more he responded to its aesthetic. “If I can appreciate a structure, whether it’s a glass box or a romantically inspired Tudor, then I can live in it, I can feel a part of it,” he says. “And I came to realize that I could live in this house in a contemporary way.”

His first notion was to gut the interior and modernize it. Previous owners had already compromised its historical integrity—they had ripped out the base and crown moldings, covered up the beams, ruined the bookcases, changed the floors. But then Ferris reconsidered: Wouldn’t it be more fitting and affecting to restore all the details, to honor the intention of the architect who had designed it in 1910? “I decided that I’d rather get out the old drawings and reinstate it in its entirety as an artifact, but everything else—the art, the furnishings—would be of the moment,” he says. “For the most part I put it back together the way it was, and then I did my own thing.”

Once the renovations were complete, Ferris made what might seem to be a counterintuitive gesture: He moved the interior into the 21st century by painting everything flat white, quieting the historical details and creating an ideal backdrop for the significant contemporary art he has been collecting for 25 years.

One of his first major purchases was a set of prints from Andy Warhol’s Cowboys and Indians series. “I grew up in Texas,” Ferris says, “that’s where that came from.” Since then, his collection has grown to more than 100 pieces by an impressive list of established and on-the-rise artists. Among the most prominent are Jennifer Bartlett, Eric Fischl, Jenny Holzer, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, Vera Lutter, Ed Ruscha, and Claes Oldenburg.

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For as long as Ferris can remember, great art has had a profound effect on him. He likens it to great fiction, with plots and subplots and multiple meanings. In a very real sense, he says, it is a mirror, a reflection of ourselves, because we read into it, interpreting those meanings in our own way. “I’ve talked to several artists about works of theirs that I own or that I’ve seen, and very rarely have I been in sync with their intentions—but of course it doesn’t matter.”

Art is displayed in every room of his house, even in the bedrooms of his four young children, and in every room of his large office headquarters in Westport. “It’s hard to for me to imagine inhabiting a room in a house or a building with no art. And it’s nearly impossible for me to design a space and not anticipate art having a place in it. The truth is that most of our clients do have contemporary art, although I don’t think most of them come to me because I know how to design a space for it. But I do think there must be some connection between what draws them to contemporary art and what they see in my architecture.”

The juncture where architecture and art meet is evident not only in Ferris’s own house, but across the wide spectrum of residential and commercial buildings that have won him considerable acclaim, dozens of awards, and an ever-expanding roster of clients with boldface names, blue-chip art collections, and the means to turn their most extravagant fantasies into reality. Case in point: The Bridge, in Bridgehampton, N.Y., owned by commodities trader-turned-collector Robert M. Rubin and one of the priciest golf clubs in the country. The glassy, futuristic clubhouse–cum-museum is “a repository of some of the most exciting contemporary art in America,” says Ferris. “The entire clubhouse is filled with art.”

Four years ago, another commodities trader, Frank Gallipoli, who had just bought Philip Johnson’s modernist Wiley House in New Canaan, Conn., commissioned Ferris to restore the space and to design a private gallery on the property to display his extensive collection of contemporary British art. Ferris is currently designing an underground gallery/museum at the Watermill Center in Southampton, N.Y., to house the contemporary art collection of its founder, Robert Wilson, as well as a townhouse for David Mugrabi, whose family has amassed around 1,000 paintings by Andy Warhol.

Intriguingly, Ferris does not think of himself as a collector, and he resists being called one. Yes, he has a collection, but he never set out to build one. “I guess maybe the word ‘collector’ has gotten contaminated for me—‘Oh, look at me, I’m a collector of art,’ ” he says. “I’ve always thought it’s a misnomer for someone who’s really passionate about art. There are a lot of people who collect big-name artists because they see the value and the import—it’s all about the art market in a sense. That’s not to diminish them, but that’s not what I do in any way, shape, or form. I don’t buy to trade art. I buy it to look at and enjoy and live with it.”

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In the manner of a gallery, Ferris gives the paintings, prints, photographs, and sculptures in his house ample breathing space. When he envisioned which pieces of art he might want to put in his house, he thought he would like to have a high concentration of textual art. “It tends to grab your attention and keep reminding you to look at it. You can’t help but engage with it,” he says. “And the more you do, the more you interpret it in different ways. The meaning deepens. Whereas you might walk by an abstract painting that’s been hanging on the wall for a long time and not even take notice.”

The placement of the art is not random. The illuminated sign in the entry, for example, is like an introduction to the house, a statement and message: “It really resonates for us because our house is our garden.” Ed Ruscha’s Bloated Empire now takes center stage in his reading room, there to remind him not to get carried away by ego or consumed by all his stuff.

There are no missteps in the way Ferris has planned and assembled each room, and no superfluous elements. They are as exacting as a technical drawing, but executed with a keen artistic eye and an instinctive sense of the symbiotic relationship between architecture and the components of an interior. Everything works in concert with everything else. The furnishings have a strong identity that stands up to the art—Ferris has an affinity for sofas and chairs with a sculpted look, most of it by Italian designers for the innovative companies B&B Italia and Edra. The balance of shapes and surfaces—angles and curves, matte and shine, smooth and textured—creates the pleasing harmony of a good painting, inviting you in for a closer look. “When I put things together I’m reading rooms as compositions, so they become artworks unto themselves,” he says.

Take, for example, the dining room. At first glance, it appears simple—table, chairs, rug, light fixture, art—but there is a lot more at play. Ferris arranged a series of photographs by Jeffrey Millstein on rails that traditionally, in a historical home like his, would display fine plates. The images depict the undersides of airplanes, and from an architectural standpoint, they add verticality to the room, making it feel taller because the planes are flying upward. “And in a poetic sense, they give flight to open conversation,” says Ferris. “They create a lighter, more fluid atmosphere.” The light fixture is suggestive of a fuselage, adding to the airplane motif but also relating to the shape of the table. “We have most of our family meals in there, so I wanted chairs that were contemporary but also had an old-fashioned, homey aspect—to me, these look like upside-down brooms.” Again, the placement of the textual art was specific: Robert Indiana’s Hope reflects the general mood of the room, a feeling of buoyancy and optimism.

Wandering back to the entry where the story of the house begins, there is that stunning metallic sculpture reminiscent of a suit of armor. With its shadows and planes, it is both human and architectural. But most of all, says Ferris, “it’s really an embodiment of myself. In a sense, it’s me, standing there watching over everything.”

He integrates contemporary art with his life in a highly personal and intimate way, and the idea of living without it would be akin to living without architecture—too bleak to even consider. Collector or not, Ferris intends to keep adding pieces to his home and office. “I don’t have everything I want yet,” he says, “but for now I’m perfectly happy with what I’ve got.”

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Getting the Hang of It

To own a significant collection of artwork is one thing, but to properly display it is another. Here are some pointers from Roger Ferris, who hangs his artwork in both a precise and subjective way, based on his architectural sensibilities and his artistic eye.

White walls make the best backdrop for contemporary art. I like flat whites, and I only use Donald Kaufman (donaldkaufmancolor.com) whites because they have so much depth and transparency. In my own house, I painted the walls DKC67, a soft white that seems to absorb light instead of bouncing it back.

When I’m hanging art, I consider the floor to be part of the foreground. The amount of space the eye perceives before the floor hits the wall is part of what gives a piece presence. If there isn’t enough, the art isn’t set off. If there’s too much, you lose all sense of scale. The foreground needs to be a solid surface, uninterrupted by an area rug. If there’s a carpet, it should be neutral, not patterned.

I don’t group pieces. It can get confusing to have them all over a wall, like too much background noise. I prefer a sense of singularity, to give each individual artwork the attention and focus it deserves.

To illuminate art, I install lighting in the ceiling, about four to five feet from the wall, using low-voltage MR16 halogen bulbs. You can get fixtures with a variety of beam spreads, but typically the angle of the light should strike the center of the artwork between 30 and 45 degrees.

Art comes alive in natural light. And I happen to like seeing a piece the way the artist saw it when it was being created in a daylit studio. But I would never put a painting or lithograph or photograph in direct light. And I always put UV-resistant glass

on the windows.


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