Design Legends

Michael Boyd on the Pioneers of Modernism

Daniella Ohad

Design doyenne Daniella Ohad shares insights into collecting design drawn from her conversations with the world’s premiere design experts

Offered as an online course for the first time, Collecting Design: The Legends seeks to engage architects, interior designers, design lovers, and art collectors in an exploration of the fascinating world of collectible design, presented as one-on-one conversations between Daniella Ohad and leading experts. For Design Miami, Ohad recaps each weekly program (co-sponsored by AIA New York), sharing rare insights into how to enjoy and “read” objects while cultivating a critical eye and elevated discernment.

Michael Boyd. Photo © BoydDesign

“Michael Boyd has been—without a question—one of the most important figures in the 20th-century design market since its inception in the early 1990s,” according to James Zemaitis, Director of Museum Relations at New York's R & Company. He added: “Michael pioneered the concept of the collector-dealer hybrid. Focusing mostly on what the art historian Nicholas Pevsner called The Pioneers of Modernism, Michael's collection of European and American design was originally influenced by legendary dealers Ulrich Fiedler and Barry Friedman. In partnership with his wife Gabrielle, Michael acquired a series of important, modern residential homes by well-known architects and created a new form of gesamtkunstwerk by restoring these residences and then filling them with his collections and stunning libraries.”

You won't find any of his interior projects or vast design collections on Instagram, but collector-designer-dealer Michael Boyd has created some of the most magical interiors in Southern California. His taste for superb modern design (and architecture) is so defined, developed, confident, and sophisticated that his talk this week in my program Collecting Design: The Legends left the audience ecstatic with a great desire to live with iconic pieces from the 20th century.

Helen D. Rich House by William Wurster (1940), restored by Michael Boyd. Photo © BoydDesign

Boyd is arguably the best design mind in his territory: connoisseurship of modernist design. His life's journey of discovering the allure of modernism began when he was just 18 years old. Although he is often identified with California—where he grew up (in Berkeley) and where he has lived for the majority of his life—our conversation started in New York. Because it was in the Big Apple that Boyd's passion for architecture preservation was born, and it was here that he discovered the power of living with an outstanding design collection in a modernist space permeated with excellence and legacy.

Galvanized Steel Armchair by Donald Judd (1993). Photo © BoydDesign

When Boyd and his wife Gabrielle moved to New York in the late 1990s, they purchased the famed triplex penthouse at Beekman Place, home of recently-deceased architect Paul Rudolph, situated on top of a historical brownstone overlooking the East River. The home, completed in 1982, had been the Space Age-inspired testing ground for Rudolph's architectural vision and his ongoing experimentation with materials and lighting effects. The Boyds lived there long before the building became a New York City Landmark. “Restoring this house,” he said, “was a laboratory for how to restore buildings of historical value”—a pursuit with which Boyd has been largely occupied ever since.

“Everything,” he added, “begins and ends with architecture—from building to design, landscape, furniture, and back again.” Whether crafted, or industrially produced, made in plywood, tubular steel, or aluminum, whether carrying provenance or not, Boyd's quest for essence and quality, for the power of the avant-garde, has informed his taste and collecting from the very beginning.

Nordlinger House #1 by A. Quincy Jones (1948), restored by Michael Boyd. Photo © BoydDesign
Nordlinger House #1 by A. Quincy Jones (1948), interior. Photo © BoydDesign

Together we looked at examples of furniture by architects from his extensive collection, made by the pioneers of the modern movement, who experimented with designing furniture as a part of their rationalist oeuvre. Boyd's taste is consistent, with a clear preference for pieces with strong, architectural forms expressed in materials that embody the zeitgeist. Representing 70 years, from the early manifestations of modernism in turn-of-the-century Vienna to the sophisticated sleekness of the 1970s, Boyd’s collection includes no objects that project a decorative quality or feature extraneous ornamentations. Think of the brilliant purism of masters such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gerrit Rietveld, Jean Prouvé, Charles Eames, Carlo Mollino, and others who championed honest, straightforward furniture design.

Strick House by Oscar Niemeyer (1964), restored by Michael Boyd. Photo © BoydDesign

On Oscar Niemeyer's Lounge Chair, which the Brazilian modernist designed later in life with his daughter Anna Maria Niemeyer, Boyd comments that its form summarizes his architectural principles. Niemeyer, a master of sensual, exquisite curves, has left his signature on the chair, “an architecture in small scale,” according to Boyd. The curve, Niemeyer often said, mimics the landscape of Brazil, its rivers and mountains, and, in his words, the “body of the beloved woman.” These monumental chairs can be found in the living room of Boyd's Santa Monica villa, which was designed in 1963 by Niemeyer himself for filmmaker Joseph Strick.

Sadly, Niemeyer never saw the house in person once it was completed, because his support for communism got him banned from visiting the US. Boyd shared, however, that the legendary architect saw the house in photos later and admired Boyd's work on it; Niemeyer sent Boyd a letter that said: It’s nice to finally meet this house. I like the way you have restored it to its 1960s elegance.”

Lounge Chair by Oscar & Anna Maria Niemeyer (1970s). Photo © BoydDesign

When a question from the audience came as to which piece of furniture is at the top of his bucket list, Boyd quickly singled out “an original example of Le Corbusier's Swivel Chair, also known as the LC7. “But every collector,” he said, “should always have a dream piece that is not yet in his collection.” That is all part of the magnetism and excitement that drives every collector. ◆



The public is invited to enroll in Collecting Design: The Legends here. Sponsored by AIA New York, these weekly virtual classes run through December 16, 2020.