At former Schlumberger site in Ridgefield, exhibit presents an ‘axis of fine art and design’

Photo of Alyssa Seidman

RIDGEFIELD — After a yearslong effort to acquire a historic building at the former Schlumberger property in town, Craig Bassam and Scott Fellows restored the structure to its original glory.

The public can now see the result of their efforts in an exhibit titled “Modern in Your Life: Design and Art at The Schlumberger Administration Building,” on display through Sept. 4.

Bassam and Fellows founded their eponymous design firm, BassamFellows, in 2003. The brand encompasses architectural projects and interiors as well as handcrafted furniture, lifestyle objects and personal accessories, according to its website.

The Ridgefield-based practice is located just southwest of A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut inside the first commercial building Philip Johnson ever built. Constructed in 1952, it is considered by architects as one of the most significant modernist buildings in North America.

“It initially served as an executive office building for PhDs in the suburbs, which was a new concept back then,” Fellows said.

Johnson also designed The Glass House in New Canaan, the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center and Pittsburgh’s PPG Place.

Bassam and Fellows first came across the Ridgefield building in 2010 but “finally got the keys” in 2016, Fellows said. They spent two years reinstating many of the architectural features from Johnson’s original design, including restoring the interior ceiling plain, hand-sanding the original woodwork and refinishing its original steel features.

“It was empty for 10 years before we got it,” Fellows recalled. “All the basic services were cut, there was significant deterioration, so we brought it back to life.”

The building functions as an office, a showroom and now a museum-like gallery. Curated in collaboration with R & Company Curator James Zemaitis and field expert Erica Barrish, “Modern in Your Life” presents an “axis of fine art and design,” Fellows explained.

The exhibit includes historical furnishings and art pieces that are contemporaneous with the building, drawing a relevant line between earlier modernist works and BassamFellows’ current collections.

“It’s a history lesson in important modernist design,” Fellows said.

Among the items are a grasshopper floor lamp that reportedly belonged to Andy Warhol, one of the earliest experimentations in bent plywood by Harvard Five designer Marcel Breuer — who lived in New Canaan — and a striking mixed media collage by Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy.

“It’s one of the very few Moholy-Nagy pieces in private hands,” Fellows said.

The show is partially inspired by the Good Design exhibitions at MoMA curated by Johnson in the early 1950s, which showcased a design pedigree that is ingrained within the region, according to a release.

“Connecticut played a significant role in the promotion of modernism and the international style in the United States,” Zemaitis said in the release. “From the Bauhaus interiors assembled by Wadsworth director Chick Austin in his Hartford residence in the early 1930s, to the postwar buildings of the Harvard Five.”

Bassam’s favorite pieces are a Breuer lounge chair and side table produced during the early 20th century. “Before this, I’ve only seen them in history books,” he said.

Fellows favors the slightly ominous, forest green monolith positioned toward the end of the west walkway. It was designed by minimalist artist John McCracken in 2005. “To have one here without a security guard is amazing,” he said.

Bassam said the exhibit offers a more dimensional view of history to Ridgefield’s cultural district designation. And since the Schlumbergers were avid art collectors, Fellows said, it allows another full circle to be drawn.

“Modern in Your Life” is open to the public through Sept. 4 by appointment only. To make a reservation, click here.