It’s a word typically reserved for the rarest of objects, those fortuitous finds that captivate once in a lifetime, like an exquisitely cut diamond or an elegant bridal gown worn to perfection. And while the term is seldom applied to private residences, visitors to Lewis and Sue Nerman’s home are hard-pressed to find an adjective that’s more acutely apropos. A near-flawless marriage between contemporary art and architecture, the couple’s Hallbrook home is more than a locale to be admired, it’s a destination to be experienced.
Admittedly, aesthetic expectations are high when your last name is Nerman. It’s a name that’s synonymous—nearly iconic, really—with contemporary art; one need look no further than Johnson County’s Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art or the Nerman gallery in the Nelson-Atkins Museum to find undeniable proof.
But the stunning residence created by Lewis and Sue Nerman isn’t just another feather in the family’s artistic cap; rather, it’s a beloved refuge for the discriminating couple and a visual feast for novice and collector alike.
Surprisingly, long-time collector Lewis Nerman didn’t initially build the home to suit specific pieces of art.
“We had no preconceived ideas about what would go where,” he says of the building project he embarked on over 20 years ago. “We just knew we needed a lot of big walls.”
To find an architect worthy of the task, Lewis interviewed candidates from around the country, including Powell Gardens’ cathedral designer Faye Jones. In the end, local talent Ted Seligson won out.
“He’s an architect’s architect,” says Lewis, who asked Seligson to design a home in the style of Louis Kahn, a famed architect whose works emanate sophisticated simplicity and flow. After months of collaboration with Lewis, Seligson submitted a home design to the then-fledgling Hallbrook architectural committee for approval. It was soundly rejected.
Whether out of frustration or desperation, Seligson’s response to Lewis’ request for a second design was pointed: “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” he told his client. But the next time Seligson did call, he presented Lewis with a house plan as unforgettable as his curt response, and the rest is (art and architectural) history.
Seligson’s architecture creates drama with an artful balance of positive and negative space, seen nowhere more masterfully employed than in the home’s entry gallery. A high-gloss black granite floor reflects art within its reach and extends continuously from inside to outside the home; inside, it runs the length of the gallery, then transforms into an outside wall that complements a geometrically-manicured lawn. Opposing the granite’s inky blackness but also flowing through the gallery is pure, natural light; as it emanates from circular ceiling cutouts and overarching windows, it bounces happily off pristine white walls and moldings.
The effect? A dramatic, vision-refining backdrop for the star of the show: the couple’s art collection.
“Lewis has an excellent eye for design and doesn’t forget anything he sees. He never forgets a piece of art,” says Lewis’ wife Sue, who’s also a lifelong lover of art and a docent at the Nerman. Indeed, Lewis’ discerning aesthetic eye has earned him a reputation as a kind of Warren Buffett of contemporary art. Ever since his first acquisition in 1979 of a little-known artist named Frank Stella, the straight-shooting art collector has built a track record for picking winners. While he’s at times demure about his abilities, Lewis—who’s also a financier with an executive MBA from Harvard—admits that contemporary art has been his best investment.
But more precious than any valuation is the joy of art for art’s sake, and the Nermans’ deep appreciation for their collection means they never sell what they acquire. Asking them to choose a favorite piece is like asking a parent to choose between children. Still, you can’t help but zero in on some of the greats on their gallery wall, like Chuck Close’s vibrant photo-reminiscent portrait made from hundreds of bold abstract rectangles, or the muted Jasper Johns’ work in which the numbers zero through nine seem to surface and then recede magically before a viewer’s very eyes.
To the right of the entry gallery more treasures wait, this time in an outsize living room fit for entertaining the hundreds of aesthetes the Nermans are known to host. Once again positive and negative spaces intertwine, with rectangles of inky black carpet and parallelogram-shaped black lacquered dining tables dotting a bleached white maple floor expanse. Virtually seamless, undulating floor-to-ceiling windows afford a light-filled second-story view of mature trees and a pool outside, while a similarly wave-like 18-foot-long black leather sofa snakes its way across the inside sitting area. Save for a few vibrant leather chairs, color is reserved for the art, and Lewis points fondly to a towering yet graceful Martin Puryear sculpture on the wall that’s reminiscent of a woman’s leg or perhaps a graceful exclamation mark. “I remember visiting the artist in Chicago over 25 years ago,” he remarks.
Indeed it’s the memories and stories surrounding each piece of art—about 150 total in this residence alone—that make the museum-like house a home. Take the 150-pound black wax light bulb sculpture by Ugo Rondinone suspended in the entry to the kitchen: both its heft and perishable nature required the Nermans to commission a cargo jet to carry it from Zurich. Or note Cindy, the nude woman sculpture perched on a chair in the Nermans’ lower level; she is so lifelike that police responding to a false alarm at the empty house began roping off the area for a homicide investigation before a neighbor intervened.
Both the art and architecture of the home reflect a love for the contemporary that’s matched only by Lewis’ boundless energy for locating the next big thing.
“I like to be in the moment of what’s happening now rather than in the past,” says the collector, who’s been known to eschew meals or a good night’s sleep to acquire a rare find from the Basel Art Fair or a Manhattan gallery.
“Art is like a drug for Lewis,” jokes Sue, whose assenting opinion Nerman seeks before any purchase.
Fueling the addiction is the enduring pleasure that most pieces provide. Decades after its acquisition, a two-story kinetic sculpture by George Rickey still thrills; its placement just off the Nerman’s sleek South Beach-style balcony terrace makes the spot a favorite for morning coffee.
“One of the best things about collecting is that you get to live with art every day,” says Lewis.
Yet what sets the Nermans apart from other collectors is an unusual willingness to share what they love. It’s a mission begun by Lewis’ parents Jerry and Margaret (the pair recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary) and carried on by Lewis and Sue, who continue to open heart and home to art aficionados from around the world.
And even as he busily prepares to host a group from Washington’s National Gallery of Art, Lewis can’t help but pause to see and share art wherever he finds it. As he opens his mail on the sleek black granite of a kitchen island that’s art-worthy itself, a smile slowly spreads across his face.
From an envelope he pulls a sheet of typing paper that bears a single figure, smudged from its folding with black crayon. It’s a piece of artwork made by his 6-year-old godson.
“Isn’t this great?” he asks, holding it up for all to see.
Master Class: Lewis & Sue Nerman on Collecting Art
We asked the collector who’s lectured on the subject at the Smithsonian Art Institute for a few tips on choosing art. Here’s a sampling of what Lewis and his wife Sue had to say:
Start where you are. Don’t let a tight budget deter you from starting out. The Nermans’ love for collecting began with a few inexpensive prints sent home from Paris by then-soldier Jerry Nerman during World War II, and blossomed from there.
Buy what you love. “Buy what appeals and speaks to you,” says Lewis, who appreciates that no two people experience a work in exactly the same way. Fortunately, “Sue and I agree most of the time,” Lewis happily adds.
Choose the best you can afford. When considering several works from the same artist, buy the best piece available.
Go with your gut. Occasionally a work will evoke a visceral reaction, so go ahead and buy. “Without knowing anything about the artist, we once made a decision to buy an airplane sculpture within five minutes of spotting it,” says Lewis, who still counts the piece above the fireplace in the Nerman’s Florida home as a favorite.
Don’t get paralyzed by fear of making a mistake. While the Nermans stand by most of the art they’ve acquired, they admit their tastes have changed over time. “But that’s just part of the process,” says Lewis, who wouldn’t trade a moment of his artistic odyssey for anything.