Berkshires Moderne: Inside the Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio

The Massachusetts home and studio of a nearly forgotten midcentury power couple—artists, collectors, socialites, and rebels both—stands as a reminder of modernism’s daring origins.

John Mark Hall
OF 4

The airy studio that the artist, writer, and collector George L. K. Morris built in 1931 on his family’s 46-acre estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, looked nothing like the mansion he grew up in. His family’s resplendent 1908 “Berkshire cottage,” known as Brookhurst, was typical of Belle Epoque country retreats. Morris, a native New Yorker from a storied American family—his ancestor Lewis Morris signed the Declaration of Independence—had returned from studying art in Paris with the abstract painter Fernand Léger in 1929 and been privy to work in the Le Corbusier–designed studio of Cubist Amédée Ozenfant. The City of Light set him in a new direction with his art, which became strictly abstract, and influenced his personal aesthetic when it came time to build his own studio and dream house.

In life Morris followed his own path along with his wife and kindred spirit, Suzy Frelinghuysen—the pair married in 1935—and unlike his two brothers, who went into public service, he committed himself to the arts. “George and Suzy were part of a generation that were raised with incredible privilege,” says John Stuart Gordon, an associate curator of American decorative arts at Yale, “and they used that privilege to push forward art, to practice philanthropy, and to celebrate a modern way of living.” Privileged, yes, but by no means dilettantes.

His painter’s studio, designed with the help of his former Yale classmate George Sanderson, stood out in the landscape that Morris had explored as a youth. The studio had a white stucco exterior with a double-notched skylight and a wide-open interior with a graphic tiled floor and plenty of natural light pouring in through large windows. The artwork Morris created there was his own interpretation of Cubism, a movement he propelled at home when he became a founding member of the influential organization American Abstract Artists in 1936. “George and Suzy were committed to the Geometric Abstract art of the 1930s,” says Kinney Frelinghuysen, Suzy’s nephew and director of the Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio, as the home is known today. “When we went up to visit, we stayed in the guesthouse, and when we came over to the house we’d sit in the living room in a circle—that was the idea of Gilbert Rohde—to place the furniture in a way so as to promote conversation. Even as children, we were expected to contribute to discussion. Suzy was always Aunt Suzy to me, very affectionate and thoughtful. She always made us feel important, not like kids.”

While Morris’s work didn’t have a large market in his lifetime, he was also a writer and served as an editor and art critic for the politically charged journal Partisan Review. And he enjoyed an active social life, immersed in New York’s avant-garde scene. He and Frelinghuysen had an apartment on Sutton Place in New York, as well as a townhouse in Paris on Rue Desbordes-Valmore. In 1941 they enlisted John Butler Swann, a local architect who shared their modern aesthetic, to design their two-story country retreat, to be attached to the original studio and a garage. The property has been open to the public since 1998 and remains for many an undiscovered modernist jewel.

What makes this so unusual,” notes James Zemaitis, director of museum relations at the lauded R & Company gallery in New York, “is that I would say that 90 percent of the great American modern interiors of the 1930s were in apartments. And because they were in apartments, they’re all gone. It’s unique in possessing a collection that is keyed into European modernism, as well as American pieces.” The collection has works by midcentury giants such as Rohde, Donald Deskey, Alvar Aalto, and Paul Frankl, as well as paintings, including three Picassos, three Joan Mirós, and a large Paul Klee. Kinney had spoken with Frelinghuysen about leaving the property as a house museum, a wish she stated in her will in 1984. She died in 1988. Morris was killed in a car accident in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1975.

Frelinghuysen was a force in her own right. She too came from a patrician family vested in politics: Her grandfather had served as secretary of state under Chester A. Arthur. And she shared Morris’s passion for the arts and music; her soprano voice landed her roles with the New York City Opera from 1947 to 1951. “She had lots of energy,” recalls Kinney. Case in point: Even though she had no formal training, Frelinghuysen also became an accomplished abstract artist. One of her paintings was added to the permanent collection of A. E. Gallatin’s Gallery of Living Art in 1938, and today her work resides in the permanent collections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Mark McDonald, a dealer of midcentury furniture and art based in Hudson, New York, has been a major champion in identifying the estate’s trove of American and European furniture. McDonald and his team of craftsmen were also diligent in restoring pieces that had been worn over the years. “We found a tubular steel Gilbert Rohde chair that had been stored in the barn, that needed to be replated and reupholstered,” McDonald says. “It’s now in the studio.”

Today, the home reminds visitors of modernism’s enduring quality as a platform for experimentation and delight. “It’s an extraordinary time capsule containing the aesthetic visions and objects of two passionately creative people,” says Gordon. “There’s something surprising to be in the woods of the Berkshires and suddenly come across a crystalline set of white cubes that startles you out of your expectations.”

The Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio is at 92 Hawthorne Street, Lenox, Massachusetts; 413-637-0166; frelinghuysen.org.

Click through the slideshow to see the interiors of the Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio »

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