Architecture & Urban Design

Heroes & Antiheroes

Design Miami

On the eve of Design Miami’s screening of Breuer’s Bohemia, filmmaker James Crump offers a glimpse into the lives behind the facades

Later this week, Design Miami will screen James Crump’s latest documentary, Breuer’s Bohemia. We were lucky enough to catch a preview—and if you’re a modernist architecture fan, trust us, you won't want to miss it.

The central focus of the film is a series of postwar modernist homes designed by iconic Hungarian-American architect Marcel Breuer and built in and around Connecticut for life-long patrons of Breuer’s work. More than clients, the residents of these homes were friends who shared a close-knit and sometimes hedonistic social circle that included major artists and thinkers of the day.

While the film contemplates Breuer’s visionary architectural principles, what makes this presentation of Breuer’s work different is the exploration of the lives and culture that surrounded and filled the homes after they were built—for better or worse. By the end, one is left wondering about the unintended consequences of Breuer’s binuclear design theory, in which homes are designed to keep parents and children separate.

Prior to Breuer’s Bohemia, Crump’s documentary subjects have included notable creatives like Robert Mapplethorpe, Antonio Lopez, and Jordan Wolfson. His pivot to architecture was prompted by his acquisition of one of Breuer’s homes in 2016. His personal relationship with the subject resonates throughout his film.

Crump sat down with us to tell us more about his latest documentary and the complex lives sometimes led behind heroic facades.

Theatrical poster for Breuer's Bohemia. James Crump with partner and producer Ronnie Sassoon and Monkey. Photos courtesy of Summitridge Pictures

What was the path that led you to create films about significant artists?

I’m trained as an art historian, and I’ve been fortunate to meet many important artists, their lovers, and others behind the scenes. Their frank, intimate, occasionally off-the-record stories—intriguing, sometimes sexy divulgences—have often struck me as tension-filled and cinematic.

With my first film, Black White + Gray, about Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff, I strove to create a kind of immersive holographic time capsule that no art book could ever touch. Filmmaking offers storytelling tools that transcend received wisdom and the merely academic. This aspect continues to excite me today.

How do you choose your subjects? Is there anything that they all have in common?

Many of the subjects in my films are characters I’ve been obsessed with or drawn to for many years; many of whom were somewhat overlooked and never received the historical credit they deserved. The chief characters in my films tend to share an ethos of defiance, trespassing boundaries in their respective fields. They are all renegades and visionaries to some extent, all trying to expand the language of their chosen disciplines.

Breuer's Stillman House II. Photo courtesy of Summitridge Pictures

What first drew you to Breuer as a subject? And what surprised you most about him as the project progressed?

I’ve been fascinated with Breuer’s life and his prolific output ever since my first visit to his Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in the early 1980s. Then in 2016, my partner Ronnie Sassoon and I were fortunate to acquire Breuer’s Stillman House II in Litchfield, Connecticut—which is what really got this project rolling.

We began to meet other local residents of Breuer-designed houses, which in turn led us to some of the children that grew up in these homes. The wild stories we collected of Breuer and his circle of friends and advocates in Litchfield struck me as right out of Frank Perry’s The Swimmer or Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, both of which were also shot in Connecticut and covered the same period of time explored in our film. These were eccentric, decadent versions of the quintessential affluent American suburban family, but underneath the visage of Breuer’s exacting modernist architecture, real lives were being torn apart in different ways.

Among the most profound realizations were the emotional costs of growing up in these residential properties and the undercurrent of heartache and dysfunction. Breuer’s binuclear designs for these houses, which provided for the physical segregation of the children from their parents, was literally divisive and manifested as emotionally destructive. This conceptual sleight baked into the architecture itself seemed to me to almost reject some of the utopian promises and optimism of modernism. It was a revelation; a sad one, but something I had not considered before. It’s unmistakable when you see the interviews of the grown children in our film.

Breuer patrons, Rufus and Leslie Stillman, in 1953. Photo courtesy of Summitridge Pictures

How do you think about the values expressed in the lives of those who resided in Breuer’s homes—the clients featured in the film—in relation to the values that Breuer expressed in his work? 

The primary clients featured in the film were men returning from World War II. They were disillusioned and envisioned for themselves, their families, and community a better way of life that broke with tradition. In unique ways, each was a bellwether for the socialistic values and hope associated with modernism.

Breuer was older, and having emigrated to the United States in 1938, he too struggled a great deal before meeting these energetic young patrons. Breuer and Stillman—and very possibly Andrew Gagarin—were atheists.

Despite the emergent sexual revolution, which challenged the protagonists’ marriages, I believe for the most part Stillman’s and Gagarin’s moral and social values were in sync with the architect’s. Theirs were progressive and liberal values that were consonant with Breuer’s at that time, expressed in the architect’s pared-down aesthetic allowing only for the essentials of design.

Breuer's Gagarin House II. Photo courtesy of Summitridge Pictures

How would you characterize the politics or political views embodied in those homes in relation to politics today? How have things changed—or not?

Rufus Stillman was a catalyst for change; a formidable partisan for the new. He formed a community of like-minded individuals that coalesced around Democratic politics, local ecological concerns, and the antiwar movement among a myriad of other socially progressive ideas.

Stillman and his wife Leslie hosted Democratic fundraisers and were principal donors and supporters of Congressman Anthony “Toby” Moffett who, in 1970 with Ralph Nader cofounded the Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CGAG), which sought to promote social, economic, and environmental justice.

Andrew Gagarin and his wife Jamie were equally progressive, and their house was also the site of numerous Democratic fundraisers where they hosted the likes of Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the American peace activists, and other countercultural leaders during the Vietnam War era.

Breuer, of course, was a survivor of revolution in Hungary, a former Bauhaus student and teacher. He was a Communist sympathizer whose close friend and fellow Hungarian, the devoted Communist artist Gyorgy Kepes, had been investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the FBI during the government’s effort to purge “subversives” during the dark years of the McCarthy era.

I think for better or worse the Stillmans and the Gagarins each epitomized a pre-woke variety of white, affluent suburban liberal that still exists today. The profile of patrons for experimental architecture has probably changed very little since that time. ◆


For those attending the Basel fair, be sure to catch Breuer’s Bohemia onsite on Thursday September 23rd at 2pm local time. And for those who can’t be there, you can screen it from home Thursday through Sunday (September 23rd - 26th) by registering here.

Crump has authored a companion book of the same name, published by Monacelli Press. The North American Design Miami/ Basel community can receive a 20% discount thanks to the publisher's parent company Phaidon. Head over to Phaidon and enter PHAIDON20 at checkout.