On November 3, 2018, the Menil Drawing Institute will open in Houston on the campus shared with spaces including the Menil Collection, the Rothko Chapel, and a site-specific Dan Flavin installation at Richmond Hall. But how did this corner of Houston become an international destination for art? It’s all thanks to John and Dominique de Menil, the late, French-born arts patrons who relocated to Texas and brought their impeccable taste and desire to give back with them.
In the spring of 1933, the 25-year-old Dominique de Menil sat in the salon of her Paris apartment in the Faubourg St. Germain. It had been two years since Dominique Schlumberger, to use her nom de jeune fille, had married the Baron Jean de Menil, an investment banker from a family that had been ennobled by Napoleon.
That afternoon she wore a long-sleeve dress in white jersey, and her light brown hair, parted on the side, was cut in a fashionable bob. She was positioned on a low banquette, which was upholstered in white. The walls were white. The rug was white. The curtains looking out on the adjacent garden were white. Contrasting flashes came from a pillow and throw in matching zebra and a box of red butterflies, from the taxidermist Deyrolle on nearby Rue de Bac, that had been set into the wall.
The living room had historic wooden flooring (parquet de Versailles) and a mid-19th-century marble fireplace. In one corner, over a pair of low bookcases in light oak, were two paintings: a 16th-century Russian Orthodox icon of St. George slaying the dragon and Othello (1931), by the contemporary artist Christian Bérard. The de Menils had already established a singular style: a pure vision of modernism combined with respect for the past and a collection of art that spanned the centuries. It was an aesthetic they would hone for the next six decades.
The de Menil style would be displayed in their homes in Europe and the United States, in projects ranging from a small village church in the French Alps, completed in 1940, to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, built in 1971 (and pictured top), and the Menil Collection, the museum built in 1987 to house their 15,000 works of art, designed by Renzo Piano. With its quiet modernism, clarity of light, and absolute empowerment of the art, the Menil Collection is one of the most universally praised museum buildings of recent decades.
And as both a piece of architecture and a way of thinking about art, it continues to inspire. In 2009 the Whitney Museum of Art began plans for a new building in New York City’s Meatpacking District. A search committee asked architects to name their favorite museums. After repeatedly hearing the Menil Collection, the Whitney’s director, Adam D. Weinberg, finally asked, “Well then, why aren’t we talking to Renzo Piano?” The spectacular new Whitney, designed by Piano, opened in 2015.
Meanwhile, in Houston, the Menil Drawing Institute is expected to open later this year, designed by Los Angeles firm Johnston Marklee with a sensitive modernism very much in the spirit of the founders. Perhaps the most important characteristic of the de Menil aesthetic was a bold mixture of periods, a dense combination of art, objects, and furnishings that remains influential.
Dominique was once asked what the works she and her husband had acquired could possibly have in common. “Don’t we all have a great variety of books on our shelves?” she asked rhetorically. “Books on ancient Egypt, books on Picasso, books on astronomy-what connection do we make between them? They are all stepping stones, leading us to understand our world, understand ourselves… forcing us out of our comfortable little niches.”
Another element of their style was attention to detail; it seemed that nothing was too minor for their concern. “Someone once said that Charles James had brought in some bibelot,” Marguerite Barnes, a friend of the couple, says of the interior of their Houston home. “Well, nobody ever brought in any bibelot on Dominique. Any house she ever did, you could walk in and say, ‘Dominique’s been here.’”
The idea for the design of the de Menils’ Paris apartment, one of Dominique’s early projects, came in 1931, when they visited an estate in Alsace, the Château de Kolbsheim, owned by Dominique’s cousin Antoinette Schlumberger and her husband. It’s a magnificent property not far from Strasbourg, a three-story 18th-century structure in pink stucco with a red tile roof, looking out over 30 acres of garden. Its owners had hired a young Paris architect, Pierre Barbe, to refashion the interior, which had been carved up over the years. Barbe’s work was striking, restoring the original sense of grandeur to the rooms and bringing the house into the present.
The de Menils were so taken with Kolbsheim that they hired Barbe to work on their place in Paris, upstairs from where Dominique had been raised and her parents still lived. Although Barbe had been doing bold International Style projects, his work with the de Menils was more measured. At the entrance he covered carved wooden double doors with simple sheets of plywood, painted gray, and placed horizontal windows on either side with frosted glass to let in daylight from the courtyard. The decorative ceiling moldings in the long entrance hall were stripped out and replaced with soft white vaults. Doorplates and handles throughout were done in stainless steel. And the de Menils made sure to incorporate many antiques, including a Boulle commode that was a wedding gift from Jean’s father.
The couple went on to work with Barbe on a series of projects, including designs for a sacred art center, the renovation of several rooms in the Schlumberger château in Normandy, and a mountainside chapel in Alpe d’Huez. In fact, Barbe became something of a house architect for Dominique’s branch of the Schlumberger family.
The architect, although largely forgotten today, played a clear role in the evolution of the de Menils’ style-and their social circle. It was thanks to him that they met such artists as Max Ernst and Christian Bérard. He also understood the sense of restraint that was so important to Dominique and her clan. As he once quipped, “Cost is not particularly important to the Schlumberger family as long as you can make silk that manages to look like burlap.”
The de Menils made their way to America during World War II and settled in Houston, the American headquarters for Schlumberger Limited, the oil services company founded by Dominique’s father and uncle. Once in Texas, the Baron de Menil, who had joined the family firm, dropped the title-it was far too pretentious for the New World-and Americanized his name.
By the late ’40s, Dominique and John had become art collectors in earnest and very soon embarked on a mission to bring the world of great art and big ideas to their shockingly young new hometown. One key element of that mission was their decision to build a modernist house by a significant architect. They acquired a leafy property in River Oaks and hired a young Philip Johnson, who was just then building his Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, to design the project.
Completed in 1950, Johnson’s house for the de Menils was a long, low, flat-roofed structure, with a façade that was mainly light red brick and a back elevation that consisted primarily of steel and glass. At that time the architect was fully committed to Mies van der Rohe, and his ideas for the interior were as rigorous as the architecture. The clients, however, wanted more than a complete modernist statement.
With that in mind, John suggested hiring Charles James, who had been designing evening gowns and day suits for Dominique, to help with the interior. Notoriously difficult-Daniel Day-Lewis’s character in Phantom Thread was inspired, in part, by James-he swept into Houston with exquisite fabrics, exuberant antiques, and a desire to cause trouble.
Into the straight lines and discipline of Johnson’s International Style, James introduced a sense of history and voluptuousness. He insisted that the ceilings be raised about 10 inches, to give the rooms more noble proportions. Dominique had chosen simple Mexican tiles for the floors, which she had stained black; James placed on them such extravagant pieces as an 18th-century Venetian sofa covered with green silk and Victorian Belter chairs in layers of dark wood and covered in burnished leather. The designer also created new pieces for the de Menils, including the Lips sofa in fawn wool, which was inspired by the Man Ray painting Observatory Time: The Lovers (1934).
The de Menils also added their incomparable collection of artworks. The entrance hall often featured a large 17th-century canvas of a cathedral nave by François de Nomé, two paintings of pigeons by Luis Fernández, and, covering the big wall entirely, a monumental painting by Yves Klein, People Begin to Fly (1961). In the living room one might see René Magritte’s huge canvas of a boulder floating above a range of mountains, The Glass Key (1959); a still life by Georges Braque, Large Interior with Palette (1942); or the first great Rothko purchased by the de Menils, in yellow with a bright orange rectangle, The Green Stripe (1955).
In front of a glass atrium containing a tropical garden, a table held African statues and artifacts. Around the fireplace in the living room was an 18th-century Spanish screen, a 15th-century Italian sculpture, a major canvas by Giorgio di Chirico, and a floor lamp by Alberto Giacometti.
The combination of the modernist architecture, elegant interior design, and layered collection of art made the de Menils’ Houston house one of the most distinctive of the 20th century. “It has a grace to it, a moral structure,” decorator Andrée Putman said, on a visit in 2004. “It has a kind of magnificent simplicity.” New York designer Billy Cotton has often studied photos of the de Menil interior and agrees. “Total perfection,” he says. Looking at the main wall in the living room, hung with the Rothko, Cotton continues, “That’s the shot that gets me every time: the gray wall, the Rothko-insanity!”
Even Philip Johnson came around to the significance of the project. He was livid when the de Menils decided to have Charles James work on the interior and for decades refused to include the house in surveys of his work. But in January 1998, back at the house for a reception that followed Dominique’s funeral, he cast an approving eye around the salon. “And she didn’t change a thing for 50 years,” Johnson said. “It’s like Balenciaga in here: She knew she had something that was perfect.”
The aesthetic empire of Dominique and John de Menil was not limited to Paris and Texas. In the 1950s, in a village north of Paris, they hired Pierre Barbe to restore a 17th-century manor house. The interior had buff stone walls, red tile floors, and dark wood beams. They filled the rooms with sleek new sofas designed by Barbe, 18th-century French tables, and modern paintings by Picasso, Léger, Magritte, Matta, and Rothko. The result was so pure as to be monastic, yet it was also contemporary.
Their home in New York, beginning in 1961, was a five-story townhouse at 111 East 73rd Street, which was freshened up for them by Howard Barnstone, a modernist architect from Houston. The garden was filled with bronze sculptures by Max Ernst, and rooms were dotted with African sculptures, while the walls were hung with paintings by Rauschenberg, Johns, Warhol, and Rothko. The townhouse was the family’s base in Manhattan until 1996, when it was sold by Dominique and incorporated into the Buckley School next door.
What the de Menil houses had in common, in addition to an aesthetic continuity, was that they were designed for work as much as for living. The couple certainly entertained; each of their houses had its own staff, and Dominique paid tremendous attention to the art of receiving. But she and John were focused on their work as patrons and collectors, and most events had a professional justification.
Their Paris apartment was where Dominique received European historians and curators; a constant stream of New York artists passed through their 73rd Street townhouse; and the garage of the Houston house was converted into a “collection room” where the first registrars were busily at work and John sat in his study, cataloging the burgeoning collection.
Though their art holdings kept multiplying, when it came to acquiring a new piece of art, Dominique always felt somewhat guilty, whereas John threw himself into the act. In April 1964, at Houston’s University of St. Thomas, Dominique and John delivered a talk they called “The Delight and the Dilemma of Collecting.”
“I feel like I am with friends, trading fond recollections, and, as one often does, I am telling you how we got drunk,” John began. “Because that’s what it is. Art is intoxicating. It is not a rarefied nicety-it’s hard liquor.”
After John’s death, in 1973, Dominique set out to build the museum they had envisioned. In 1980 she hired the 43-year-old Renzo Piano, even though she disliked the Pompidou Center-too industrial, she thought-which he had co-designed with Richard Rogers, and he had never built anything in the U.S. After years of reflection and intense collaboration with the architect, in June 1987, Dominique opened the Menil Collection, a long, low structure of steel and glass that was clad in gray cypress.
Piano’s design was directly inspired by the Houston house: The wooden floors were black, walls of glass allowed light to flow in, and galleries were built around tropical gardens. Perhaps one of the most important elements transmitted to the museum was a sense of modesty. “Whenever I flew to Houston, I would arrive in the evening and usually go straight to the house,” Piano recalls. “Sometimes there would be someone working in the kitchen, but sometimes Dominique de Menil would cook something, and we had dinner on a table in the kitchen with a little sculpture in the garden and a fantastic painting on the wall. The essence of all of this was simplicity.”
For the museum Piano added a high-tech component: In order to tame the relentless Texas sun, he and his engineers crafted a ceiling structure of 300 white forms, which the architect called leaves, each 40 feet long, lined up pointing north. The poetic forms blocked 99.5 percent of the light while allowing for the viewing experience the de Menils had always had at home. The light from above gave the galleries a feeling that was almost sacred.
After the museum was up and running, Dominique was often sought for her opinions on the world of art. Once she was asked about other contemporary collectors who inspired her. Her answer, deceptively simple, was a distillation of the ethos she and John had established over the years. “I admire anyone,” she replied, “who buys for love.”
William Middleton is the author of Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil.
This story appears in April 2018 issue of Town & Country. Subscribe Today
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