Few of us will ever see inside the homes of some of the Pacific Northwest’s major art collectors. But this fall we get a glimpse when the Museum of Art at Washington State University hosts an exhibit of internationally-known architect Jim Olson’s houses built for art.

Olson’s clients collect works by Alexander Calder, Edward Hopper, and Henri Matisse, and they seek out modern sculpture, pre-Columbian artifacts, and antique Southeast Asian artworks. Some of them are sharing images of their homes, as well as art from their own collections, with WSU.

Architect Jim Olson’s work featured at the WSU Museum of Art
Architect Jim Olson’s work is featured at the WSU Museum of Art (Photo Zach Mazur)

With large photographs dominating the gallery space, it will be almost as if you are standing in a doorway looking into the room of a Jim Olson-designed house, says Chris Bruce, the director of the WSU Museum of Art who thought of creating this exhibit as a way to showcase not only great works of art, but the internationally-known architect who builds to suit them, their owners, and the natural landscape of the sites.

“For me it’s a great opportunity to work with somebody I’ve admired for such a long time,” says Bruce, who encountered Olson through other Northwest art collectors and patrons. While the Northwest is blessed with a very talented pool of architects, “there are only a handful that really focus on what art does in a space and what a space does for art,” says Bruce.

It’s something that art lovers will enjoy, but also that students of both art and architecture can learn from, says Bruce. A shelf runs throughout the gallery, displaying ephemera—sketches, photographs, letters to and from the clients, and objects Olson collected at the sites, providing a sense of the architect’s process and experiences. “I always study the art and think about where it came from,” says Olson. He then works elements of that into his designs.

The exhibit came together with help from Olson and his team in the Pioneer Square offices of Olson Kundig Architects, particularly associate William Franklin.

Olson made waves in the Seattle architecture scene in the 1980s with a mixed-use residential project at Pike Place Market. It was there, visiting the Hillclimb Court condominiums, that the first major art collector client met Olson and commissioned him to design a home with the collection in mind. “In some way, they are the most important clients I’ve ever had,” says Olson of the owners of their home, Gallery House. “Your first break is really important,” he says, adding that is one of the messages he hopes to convey to students visiting the exhibit. Another is to follow your instincts—his was for both art and architecture. “The decisions you make as a student are very important for your entire life.”

While art is dominant in his latest work, the other key character on Olson’s canvas is nature. In the home where he grew up, as with many Northwest homes, there was a picture window with a view to Mount Rainier, which Olson calls “our big monument.” He learned early to include the natural surroundings in his designs. “The interior, art, architecture, and landscape can be all one continuous thing,” he says.

The exhibit is a retrospective of five decades of Olson’s work, referencing 30 different projects (a few of which have been featured in Architectural Digest), and featuring large-scale exhibits of four residences of major collectors, three from the Seattle area. Those clients are loaning artworks from their personal collections to show alongside the displays in the museum. They include a Spanish Colonial portrait, a Malcolm Morley painting, a John Chamberlain sculpture of a crumpled car, a mural by Seattle’s Mary Ann Peters, and pieces from Olson’s own collection.

The exhibit also features Olson’s two residences where he has explored and experimented as an architect: his downtown Seattle apartment and his cabin tucked into the trees on Puget Sound. The cabin is one of his first projects, which he started in 1959 while still an architecture student and updated and improved through 2003.

Selecting the projects and digging out the notes, drawings, and materials he once used has been an education in itself, says Olson as he flips through one of the old notebooks crammed full with his writing and sketches. “This has given me an opportunity to look back on my life and think about what really did happen and how did one thing influence the other.”

The exhibit in Pullman runs through December 10. Then in the fall of 2012 it moves to Bellingham’s Lightcatcher Museum, a fitting site since Olson designed it as well.


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