The Philip Johnson Glass House

Brand Identity, Interiors & Architecture

Identity, interior and print material design for Philip Johnson's iconic residence in New Canaan, Connecticut, now part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, is an iconic example of modernist architecture that served as the architect’s home for over fifty years. After Johnson’s death in 2005, the house, as well as the 47-acre landscaped site complete with fourteen structures and a major collection of contemporary art, was left to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

When the National Trust proposed to open the Glass House site for public tours, the town of New Canaan agreed, but would not allow parking at the site. As a solution, all tours begin and end at the Visitors Center in downtown New Canaan. The center, a renovated 2,000-square-foot former truck loading dock conveniently located across from the town train station, accommodates an exhibition, on-site ticketing and a museum shop. Through the exhibition, visitors learn about Philip Johnson and the Glass House site before they take a short shuttle ride to the site where they embark on a 90-minute guided tour. After the tour, visitors return to the center where they can re-experience the exhibition with new insight.

The design of the Visitors Center was an endeavor to express the nature of Johnson’s work without resorting to mimicry or adulation. Working with an existing storefront in poor condition, the Visitors Center was transformed into a clean modern space in spite of its low ceiling and lack of natural light. The Center is both a nod to Johnson’s Miesian beginnings and to the materials and forms on the Johnson site. Any direct quotes or re-creations of the work were avoided (after all, you will see, or have just seen, the real thing) and instead a sympathetic environment is offered for a chance to reflect on the experience.

The Visitors Center's emblematic design statement is the double layer sheet glass facade that replaced the building’s original garage doors. Etched on the glass, once in positive and once in negative, is the Glass House graphic identity also designed by Pentagram.

Once inside, monitors built into a custom exhibition wall are the focus of the space. The exhibition comprises 24 different "portraits" of Philip Johnson and his art all told through a series of slowly evolving computerized loops created with media designer Steve Brosnahan. Each focuses on an aspect of Johnson, the Glass House or David Whitney, and together they attempt to illuminate the complexity, the depth and the range of the Johnson legacy.

The Visitors Center is temporary and may be moved in the coming years, requiring that as many elements as possible be adaptable to a new space, including the storage cabinets that line the wall and serve as display cases for the books in the museum shop. (This portability has served the Center well; as a recent flood necessitated the rapid relocation of retails cases.)

The shop sells a small, well-edited collection of objects either inspired by, or in the spirit of, Philip Johnson and David Whitney. On the wall behind each object is a statement explaining its connection to Johnson and the site. Part museum and part retail, the store is an expression of Johnson’s influence, while the exhibition is an impressionistic collage of his life and work.

New York
Michael Bierut
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