Elegance in Simplicity


I recently visited Philip Johnson’s Glass House, perhaps one of the two most important private homes in the country (along with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water).  After Johnson died in 2005, the house was donated to the The National Trust for Historic Preservation and opened to the public in 2007. The property includes a dozen or so buildings and 47 acres of land, but I wanted to write just about this iconic house.

The design could not be simpler. It is really a small (65 by 32 feet) glass box. Except for a brick circular column (see the picture above) that houses a fireplace and a tiny bathroom, the space is one big room, which includes kitchen, dining  and sitting areas and Johnson’s bed. That’s it.

This is not a practical house for sure. For example, there’s no air conditioning and no windows. So, on hot summer evenings, Johnson would open all the doors (four, one on each side of the house), turn on floor spotlights in the four corners of the house and turn off all the other lights. He  and his guests would sit in the middle of the  space, in the dark. Bugs would come in, go to the corners, and mostly get burned in the lights. In the morning, the house staff would come in and sweep up the dead bugs. There are probably a few creature comforts each of us would find missing in this house – like windows and screens. Or closets – there are none.

And yet, the space is absolutely beautiful. One gets a feeling of calm, peace and tranquility just being in the building. there is an amazing elegance in the simplicity of the design.  Johnson chose all the furniture very carefully and placed it in a very specific way in the space.


When you are in the house, the whole focus is on the the natural setting you see outside. In some ways, you forget you are inside a building.  I fell in love with the house.

It’s hard to design a very simple building.  Deceptively hard. It’s hard to set up and take a simple portrait photograph. There’s usually something distracting in the background or in the clothing. In my portraits of people, I usually try to reduce everything down to the basics. Keeping the image simple and uncluttered makes for a much more powerful impression on the viewer – and a classic look. Johnson’s house is very modern in design and yet there is a classic and timeless feeling. I’m drawn to the same influences and sensibilities in my photographs of people. 

For more on the Glass House, see this website. You have to buy tickets way ahead to see this house, which is in New Canaan, Connecticut. It’s worth it. This is a very special place.


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June 2009
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