A paradoxical serenity of linearity pervades “Carl Safe: The Architecture of Buildings, Furniture and Photographs,” on display at The Sheldon Concert Hall & Art Galleries through Feb. 17.
That free exhibition, which opened Oct. 6 in The Sheldon’s Bernoudy Gallery of Architecture, presents a career-to-date retrospective of the work of Safe, who serves both as professor emeritus with the Sam Fox School of Design & Art at Washington University in St. Louis (where he has taught since 1970) and as principal at University City’s Carl Safe Design Consultants.
The paradox implicit in the exhibition derives from the degree to which its simplicity of presentation as a product, for want of a better phrase, belies the complexity of the process underlying that product from baseline heuristics onward.
“This exhibit grew out of a conversation in which I was asked if my architectural design work, my furniture design and my photography had any relationship to one another, whether or not they informed each other, and if so, how,” Safe relates in a short meditation both online and on-site. “It was a good question for which I had no clear response. Curating this exhibit was a way of discovering an answer for myself.”
That mission notwithstanding, the professor’s modesty might incline him to reticence – but for his telling personal history.
“I don’t really know,” Safe admits when asked what sparked his interest in architecture enough to make it a lifetime career, adding that he came of age in rural Wisconsin under “formally uneducated” parents.
“As a child, I never met an architect, but from a very young age, I started drawing buildings, and I guess I just never stopped. I can’t remember a time that I didn’t want to do that, even before I knew what an architect and architecture were.
“At some point, I did hear about Frank Lloyd Wright, whose studio, Taliesen, was in southern Wisconsin. [He was] ‘the architect that everyone knew.’ At some point, I became aware that designing buildings was something people did for a living, and I started figuring out how I could go about doing it. Even today, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Visitors to The Sheldon’s tripartite retrospective should give thanks for that, starting with the exhibition’s architectural component.
Examples of Safe’s expertise in that area range from a 1994 birdhouse (no, really) of red and white oak, conceived and crafted for a charity auction, to a 1980 backyard fence of 1½-inch-diameter steel pipe in seven doubly curved segments.
Intriguingly, a conceptual drawing accompanying the fence display reads, in red, “REJECTED IDEA,” before continuing in a scarlet scrawl, “Sometimes you just make really bad proposals – with luck you have the self-discipline to set them aside and move on.”
Other examples of Safe’s architectural expertise focus, copiously, on a St. Louis County home that bloomed from an unrealized 1972 Lake St. Louis project. Called Residence K, that home’s Sheldon display involves five mini floor plans, almost two dozen photographs and a 2- by 2½-foot detail sheet, a grid comprising 72 finish details. It also looks, to an admittedly amateur eye, Miesian – reflecting, perhaps, the International Style aesthetic of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
The photos just mentioned document Residence K’s development – mostly utilitarian stuff. Beyond practical applications attendant on architectural projects, though, Safe’s photographic works “are informed by his sensibilities as an architect,” states a plaque near the entrance to the exhibition. Half a dozen or so larger photos, printed with archival inks on 100 percent cotton paper and hung at the front and the rear of the gallery, corroborate that statement.
The professor himself cites a photographic goal of “capturing some instance [or] moment of human interaction in the built environment. Photographs can tell stories, and I look for that possibility in what I shoot.”
A humanitarian aesthetic similar to that embodied in his photography characterizes Safe’s work with furniture, which he calls “the most intimate architecture.” Further, that in the Sheldon exhibition largely comprises one particular type of furniture: the table.
An online brief for a furniture design class the professor has taught at the Sam Fox School suggests the rationale for that: “The course focuses on tables specifically because, intrinsically, so few demands are placed on them. Almost anything is, or can be, a table. Any horizontal surface held up by some support can qualify as a ‘table.’ If that’s the case, the issue of ‘designing a table’ precipitates the demand of exploring ‘why’ or ‘what table.’ What does ‘table’ mean? What makes the table matter? Is the table site-specific or generic, use-specific or general?”
Appropriately, one of the most striking examples of Safe’s tabular work involves a bit of architectural history. A 2010 piece titled Cicero “resulted from a demolition in the process of working on the expansion of [University City’s] Blueberry Hill into the space previously occupied by Cicero’s,” explains a plaque in the gallery. “Workers removed sections of marble that were part of the old street façade and threw them into a dumpster. I selected one of the broken, irregular sections and asked a fabricator to cut the largest square possible from it.”
To support that gorgeous piece of stone, Safe then fashioned a base of chromed stainless steel, each of whose legs differs from the others – with one cylindrical, the second a rectangular solid, the third an inverted triangular construct and the fourth an arboreal irregularity with a quintet of thin “branches” rising from a central “trunk.”
Given his comment about “the most intimate architecture,” Safe provides one final surprise. When asked to identify a favorite furnishing from his own home, the professor, funnily and sweetly, goes with … something other than a table. “It’s a traditional, beautiful glass curio cabinet with curved glass corners that was my mother’s,” Safe says. “It’s a sentimental treasure.”
The Sheldon Concert Hall & Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Blvd., St. Louis, 314-533-9900, thesheldon.org