Tour of the James Howell Foundation in New York by Deborah Berke
The James Howell Foundation’s Greenwich Village space is a minimalist tour de force
The James Howell Foundation space by Deborah Berke is an icon of minimalist architecture and a celebration of the meticulous alignment of the life and work of the American abstract painter
The legacy of American minimalist painter James Howell (1935 – 2014) is celebrated this fall with the publication of a new monograph – Infinite array (published by Circa). Howell’s influential portfolio and long career are also continually honored by the James Howell Foundation, a low-key philanthropic organization established in 2017 at the artist’s former base in Greenwich Village, a space designed with impeccable minimalist architecture by the renowned New York architect Deborah Berke. The interior not only represents Berke’s mastery of creating clean, functional and elegant spaces, but also becomes an extension of Howell’s work – the artist was known for his impactful, beautiful and thought-provoking abstraction, often exploring variations infinities of gray color. The building also expresses the zeitgeist of its time – it was completed in the 1990s during the rise of industrial loft and minimalism in New York.
“The most striking thing about our working relationship with James Howell was that Jim was both an architect and a painter. This is of course unusual. This meant that his participation in the design process was both informed and enthusiastic and we, in turn, loved how quickly we could tackle essential discussions of space, light, color and texture. We are struck by the fact that these are some of the themes that Jim has worked on in his artistic life,” says Berke. ‘From the start, we sought perfect sympathy between the loft and Jim’s work, and therefore with the way Jim and [his wife] Joy would dwell there. In the end, we got something much more deeply intertwined than we might have expected.
She continues: “Special qualities? Let us quote the fluid space which separates and connects the spaces of life and work, and the intermediate spaces. One would notice the uniform concrete floor flowing throughout. We paid a lot of attention to light, veiling windows in some places and completely removing others, to achieve the right balance for Jim: painting, showing his paintings, entertaining visitors and living among and at through these activities. »
Maitland Jones is a senior partner and longtime collaborator at Deborah Berke Partners Architects, and he oversaw the Howell Loft project at the time – the transformation of a stable early 20th century building into a minimalist living/ work. “The space is the entire second floor of a former stable – an industrial building in New York’s West Village. It’s about 5,500 square feet but, more importantly, it’s a home, a place to work, and a place to rest. Unconventional in many ways, it combines these three dimensions effortlessly and without borders. And yet, it is neither homogeneous nor without differentiation. It’s more like a concrete expression of the day’s changes. From the days of Jim and Joy. In this way, it’s an updated version of the classic New York Artist’s Live-Work Loft.
Berke and Howell met through mutual friends and “clicked,” Jones recalled. While Howell studied architecture at Stanford University and had direct experience working as an architect and naval architect, he had a unique insight and understanding of spatial needs. This, combined with his meticulous approach to his art, meant that his work and his life merged seamlessly. His personal space, encompassing both home and studio, has become a true collaboration between him and Berke, who shares the artist’s aspiration to perfection and the optimal and most appropriate response to a problem. The project won the AIA NY Design Award in 1997.
Now the James Howell Foundation, established following the artist’s death at his Perry Street life/work base, is open to all by appointment. Visitors not only have the chance to admire and study Howell’s paintings – many of which hang on his walls – but also to experience the artist’s perspective on life and how he worked, being home and enjoying the carefully calculated atmosphere.
And if that’s not enough to make you want to dive deeper into the world of James Howell through the new monograph, there’s even more to discover through a visit to the foundation. ‘[What makes the space special is] light,” Jones says. “And the way it flows encourages a soothing calm and a sense of subtlety, extremely rare in New York.” §