Pearlroth Aerial Shot
The Pearlroth house
Construction of the Pearlroth house, Hopi Pueblo Native American tile,
and an early sketch produced by Andrew in the 1930s during a visit to The Brooklyn Museum
The Elkin house
Interior and exterior photographs of the Elkin house and floorplan
Often referred to as the “architect of happiness,” Andrew Geller had the heart and mind of an artist. As a mid-century Modernist, Geller charted his own path, creating a look and feel distinctly his own. In the course of doing so, he established a relatively new building type: the Modern beach cottage. He also designed projects as diverse as the Leisurama development in New York’s Hamptons and the corporate offices for Lever House, which was one of his early assignments when working for Raymond Loewy.
Geller nicknamed his imaginative buildings with whimsy and grace, using Butterfly, the Box Kite, Milk Carton, and Grasshopper to refer to his beauties. A man who followed his own muse, Geller created a distinctly American style that eloquently combines qualities of the classical and the avant-garde. In celebration of his life’s work, his grandson Jake Gorst has authored the definitive illustrative biography: Andrew Geller: Deconstructed, Artist and Architect (Glitterati Incorporated), which will officially release on March 11 at 6:30pm with a book signing and reception at Design Within Reach, 957 Third Avenue, New York. Gorst will be showing a ten-minute segment taken from the full-length feature documentary, Modern Tide: Midcentury Architecture on Long Island. The screening will be followed by a Q&A and a book signing.
For Andrew Geller: Deconstructed, Artist and Architect, Gorst brings together two decades worth of interviews, both formal and informal, as well as many artifacts and treasures culled from Geller’s vast personal collection of never-before-published drawings and personal photographs. Included within are stories and images not only of his now famous beach houses, but also of the many lesser-known buildings and early artworks, making this the definitive volume on this quixotic architectural icon.
Gorst's intent in writing this volume—to share this wealth of information and provide an intimate glimpse into the inner workings of the artist—is here fully actualized, rendering a vivid portrait of a man whose main drive in life was to create beauty in whatever he did. The book also reveals Geller’s personal side through anecdotes, his family history, and Gorst’s relationship with his grandfather, the famed architect. Gorst speaks with The Chic about Andrew Geller.
Gorst recalls, “My grandfather was always very special to me. We lived in a rural area in upstate New York, and summer vacation was all about visiting Long Island and staying at my grandparent's house. He would bring me and my sister to museums, zoos, and often to blueprint shops and building construction sites. We knew that he was loved by many people. But we did not know the full extent of his accomplishments until much later.
“He was very tall and dressed well, often in tweed jackets and caps. Very dapper. His presence commanded attention, but not in an ostentatious way. He was someone that you would be drawn to - that you would want to get to know. He loved children. He did not like loud or obnoxious sounds or environments. Quiet restaurants, classical music (but he also loved jazz and rock and roll). I remember him telling us stories. He loved to draw with us. We knew he was an amazing artist, and we strived to imitate him.
“Modernism was part of our lives growing up, but we didn't realize it. We knew key design-industry people from Raymond Loewy's office and elsewhere, but did not know what they did for a living. They were just Grandma and Papa's friends. As I got older I started to understand, and appreciate it.
“Because he took me to many of his beach homes when I was young, I was familiar with some of his work. I was there at the opening of Alastair Gordon's exhibition at Guild Hall in 1987, where some drawings and models were displayed. I was 17 years old. It wasn't until 1995, when I helped my grandfather pull together a portfolio that I began to realize the amount of work he had produced.”
As Gorst writes in the book, “Over the course of two decades, I had the privilege of interviewing my grandfather numerous times both informally and formally, in front of audio recorders, video cameras, and audiences. I worked closely with him over a number of years, even setting up a workspace in his office in 2003. Generally I was allowed to peruse his files and search through his massive collection of drawings and photographs that documented a lifetime of work.
“But there was one small file cabinet tucked underneath his worktable that he would not let me open. I often wondered what was so private that I was denied a peek. But as his health declined in the later years of his life, he granted me unhindered access to those personal papers. What I discovered, and will discuss later in this book, was a fitting symbol of what drove him, and what haunted him all of his life.
“He was strongly motivated by an insatiable need to create beauty, happiness, and to exercise his strongly inherited artistic gene, but at the same time he was battling deep emotional and, at times crippling, insecurity. In the course of writing this manuscript, previously unknown archival materials have been discovered in crawl spaces and other hiding places in the house that he lived in for nearly sixty years. Prior misconceptions would be enlightened and clarified. Previously unknown Andrew Geller buildings were also discovered.”
Andrew Geller: Deconstructed, Artist and Architect is truly a marvel to behold with its exquisitely researched chronology, the attention to detail, and the ability to bring us right into the thick of things. To give us a snapshot into this world as Gorst writes, “[Around 1947] Andrew pursued and landed his much-desired job interview at Raymond Loewy’s office. ‘I was interviewed by an architect named Julian von der Lancken,’ said Andrew. ‘He was a tall guy, reminded me of my father. He said I was the right guy for the job and he introduced me to two other architects: Alvin Fordyce and Bill Hamby. They were society architects. They knew people who became clients ... General Motors ... the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was a great experience because I had never met people with so much power and position.’
“Von der Lancken instructed Andrew, ‘Nobody gets here before 10 o’clock. We don’t start work until after lunch, and we go home at 5. If you can’t live with that, you don’t belong here.’ ‘That’s the way it was,’ said Andrew. ‘If we had a big job to do we worked till all hours of the night. Saturdays and Sundays. But if there was nothing else to do, we took the day off.’
“Andrew spent that morning being introduced to everyone. He set himself up at a drafting table and produced a drawing for Raymond Loewy’s architectural department head, Bill Snaith, to bring to a client meeting. He was then called into the office of newly appointed Vice President Maury Klay. ‘I expected him to give me an assignment,’ said Andrew. ‘He said “You’re fired!” I thought he was joking. He wasn’t joking. I said “Why?” He said “Because I got fired when I was a young smart alec like you. They fired me, so I’m firing you.”’ It was part of a psychotherapy exercise suggested by Klay’s psychologist. Andrew packed his equipment and supplies and left. But Snaith learned of the injustice and brought Andrew back a few months later. It was the beginning of a thrity-five-year relationship with Raymond Loewy’s office, and the springboard to a lifetime of creativity.”
Following the post-war economic boom, the United States developed a solid middle class that came to define a distinctly American style of consumerism: one which rewarded hard work with vacation homes. As Gorst observes, “American culture was changing rapidly in the 1950s and 60s. When he was not designing commercial work for Raymond Loewy, his clientele were generally creative people from New York City. They were looking to relax, but they also wanted to push the envelope. In the 1950s homes were typically boxy, and he turned that on edge, literally. I find it interesting that he work became much more fractured in appearance after the Kennedy assassination. But even the later work was still firmly rooted in nature, and the love of it.”
As Gorst writes in the book, “Andrew Geller spent most of his life walking a creative tightrope. ‘I was raised to be honest,’ he said. ‘I debated whether to be a bum out there and do exactly what I pleased all day long, or raise this lovely family. I think as far as my work is concerned, I have two faces. One very commercial, that produced the bread that sits on the table, and the other was my own satisfaction being appeased—doing things that I wanted to do.’”
It was this balance that has made Geller’s work so distinctive, for he was able to move fluidly between the confines of commerce and explore the possibilities of art. As Alan Hess writes in the book’s foreword, “His hand could design the elegant corporate offices of Lever House as easily as the unpretentious ease of the Reese beach cottage. That’s a range few other Modern architects could boast. For possessing this multi-faceted talent through a multi-faceted career, Geller was both blessed and cursed.
“For us today, his career was a blessing. The weight of Modern orthodoxy never squashed Andrew Geller. When he carved out a relatively new building type—the simple Modern beach cottage—we see perhaps the full wit, curiosity, creativity, and joy of a true unfettered Modern architect. The topsy-turvy Pearlroth house has caused cars to screech to a halt in the road in front of it since 1959, and it still causes us to turn the page back for another look when we encounter it in a book.”
And perhaps it is in this way that Andrew Geller embodies Jake Gorst’s definition of chic. Gorst observes, “Chic is the state of beauty in design which separates an object from the norm. It is what elevates something common to something wonderful.
"’Architect of Happiness’ was the title of the obituary that historian Alastair Gordon wrote for my grandfather. I believe that he was spot on with that. That was what his work was all about, whether it was a building or a painting. He wanted to give people happiness. He wanted to convey humor and wonder through his work. I think he accomplished this so successfully because he never lost the connection to his childhood, the little boy never went away. And I think he was seeking approval as well. There is great degree of validation in making people happy.
“I loved my grandfather so much. Being able to work with him in 2003-04 in his tiny office, I was able to watch his process and understood the whimsy of it. He was inspired by everyday things: sailboats, natural formations, found objects. I recorded audio and video interviews with him from the late 1990s through 2007, and reviewing those now, it feels like he is still here.”
Posing for publicity shots at the Phil George House, Sagaponack, New York, 1963
The Levinson house
A rare color image of the Betty Reese house,
when beach grass and potato fields dominated the landscape.