What do a Viennese interior designer and architect, an SOM designer of corporate office towers, and a firm specializing in train stations have in common?
While that might seem like the beginning of a nerdy architecture joke, the truth is a bit more surprising. All three are collections here at Avery Drawings & Archives; collections that, over the last three months, have been placed in my hands.
I am the third HP student to work as a Primary Source Intern at Avery in the last three years; my colleagues’ well-written accounts you can read on this website by simply typing “Avery” into the search box. For that reason however, I am going to limit my post to the most interesting and surprising aspects of my internship so far.
What we do:
Under the direction of Janet Parks (curator) and Shelley Hayreh (head archivist), interns approach cataloging in three stages, which I have given the following informal, unscientific names):
This is my favorite part. This is where you look through everything in the collection to see what exactly is there. If you are the first person to crack open the box since it was brought to the archive, you get to be an explorer of sorts. You look. You get to touch. You think about how you will reorganize.
Second: Plan of Attack.
Now you get to create an organization scheme and have your supervisor approve it. You must respect the golden rules of archival practice and ensure that your actions will not ruin original order or affect provenance, but no collection is the same, and there is no clear guide for you to follow. Remember what I said about being an explorer? After that, you reorganize.
Third: Write, organize, label.
Here, you follow your planned approach; reorganizing when you find that one pesky record that doesn’t fit within any of your nice, clean categories. You rehouse, relabel, re-roll, and package everything to await the next researcher.
The Viennese architect:
My first collection was the professional and personal papers of the Viennese architect and interior designer Felix Augenfeld (1893-1984). While relatively unknown in the scale of Avery’s holdings, his claim to fame is the design of Sigmund Freud’s office chair, on display at the Freud Museum in London.
Felix’s story is a touching one, involving life-long friends, a near brush with the Gestapo, his immigration to London and then New York, and his late-in-life marriage to another Viennese designer, Anna de Carmel. His collection was also extremely diverse in the media represented, allowing me to learn conservation standards for everything from photographs and drawings, to hand-painted fabric samples and autobiographical short-stories.
Of particular interest was the story of his friendship with Muriel Morris Gardiner Buttinger, who helped him, as well as many others, escape the Nazis during the Second World War. Their friendship would last the rest of their lives and Augenfeld later designed the Buttingers’ home and research library on East 87th Street here in New York, with associate architect Jan Hird Pokorny.
The SOM designer:
This was none other than Gordon Bunshaft (1909-1990), the man who acted as lead designer for a number of Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s key commissions, including Lever House. I had the privilege to work on integrating a later acquisition with the first collection; a process that was always a puzzle and occasionally a headache.
In an interesting turn of events, a large portion of this second collection documented the private art collection of Gordon and Nina Bunshaft, an art collection that was filled with the work of such leading modern artists such as Jean Dubuffet, Joan Miró, Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, and Helen Frankenthaler. Much of this art collection can be seen today at the Museum of Modern Art.
The collection that I have just started (still on step one…) consists of the remaining material from WASA. WASA was originally Reed & Stem, then Fellheimer & Wagner, then Wank Adams Slavin Associates, then known as ‘WASA,’ and today, is WASA Studio.
If you are a knowledgeable New Yorker, the name Reed & Stem should have conjured an image of Grand Central in your mind. If you are now thinking “NO, Warren & Wetmore!,” you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but I urge you to look it up.
Due to a number of unfortunate incidents, much of the WASA archives have been lost over the last century, and through the interest of one of our program’s distinguished alumni, the remaining holdings have recently come to Avery. This collection, while small, will be challenging because so much of the story is missing.
This internship has been interesting, challenging, and always thought-provoking. While I don’t plan to pursue an MLS and work in the archival fields, I do however believe that this internship has only reinforced my skills as a researcher, a skill that will be invaluable in my professional career. Additionally, being given the responsibility to look deeply into someone’s personal papers to evaluate and understand them has also been a humbling experience. No person’s life is the same, neither is their archive, nor their best work.
Just think, if Gordon Bunshaft spent New Year’s Eve in Spain at the age of 26 and could not stay awake until midnight, who says you have to? He still won a Pritzker.