For Art's Sake
Architect Ralph Rapson creates a modern masterpiece in Edina
Even well into his eighties, only the breadth and depth of Rapson’s work betrayed his age. Still rakish with his tousled white hair and handlebar mustache, he continued to accept accolades and acceded to a biography, Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design (Afton Historical Society Press, 2000). Still, he didn’t rest on his laurels, which he’d earned the right to do in his self-designed Rapson Rapid Rocker (circa 1945 and re-released in 2003, now available for a limited time on www.rapsonarchitects.com).
Instead, Rapson kept working—in fact, at 92, he’s still at it. He shows up nearly every day at his well-worn office on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota, which he shares with his son Toby and a small staff, often including a grandchild or two. He has slowed down a bit. His left arm (his drawing arm; he lost his right arm as a child) is showing wear from years at the drafting table—and his lifelong passion for throwing everything from horseshoes to bowling balls. But he continues to take jobs and to enter design contests, including the recent Dwell Home Design International.
Photo By eric moore
She was stunned when he accepted her offer (on the condition that the home’s original architect, Jack Schmuckler, approved). Peterson, who had far more exuberance than experience, gave Rapson free rein and a hefty budget to use at his discretion.
The result is vintage Rapson, from the endless windows, reminiscent of his famous Wisconsin 25-foot glass cube vacation home, to the “floating” glass stair railings. Rapson also designed the bronze-screen water wall in the 20-foot foyer, the rooftop terrace made from the clear redwood siding that originally clad the house, a breathtaking 16-foot-long glass-rock and masonry fireplace, the massive dining room table, and the front doors. When Rapson sketched a number of ideas for the doors, most of them geometrical, Peterson asked him to make the final selection. He opted for a flowing tree design, which connects the outdoor spaces to those inside, and later framed his conceptual drawings as a keepsake.
The home is now an 11,000-square-foot showcase of Rapson’s work, complete with an art gallery of the large abstract paintings he created. The residence is well beyond the family home Peterson had originally planned, she admits. “It got to the point where we had to decide, are we creating our home or a work of art?”
She opted for the latter and ended up selling the house shortly after it was completed. But Rapson was no temperamental artiste while the project was underway. He had no argument with Peterson’s use of a Paolo Pininfarina (of the Italian carmaker Ferrari) family kitchen, Pinifarina’s first in the United States. The kitchen, a massive space that includes two fully-equipped cooking spaces, goes beyond modern to a sleek twenty-first-century look, with seamless stainless and aluminum curvilinear lines.
Though Rapson acknowledges his earlier reputation as a rather arrogant, gifted creative—he famously locked horns with Tyrone Guthrie, among others—he has mellowed. Like his articulate but loose sketches, Rapson now seems both aware of the gravity of his accomplishments, and largely unimpressed with himself.
Photo by Landmark
Photography and Design
Working with Rapson, she says, was “truly watching a genius in motion.” When she explained to him that she wanted the home’s original garage to “disappear,” he “picked up his pencil and started to draw and draw and draw,” she says. “It was like he couldn’t get it on paper fast enough.”
Rapson grew to respect her work, too. “When she first started the project, there were things she shouldn’t have been doing,” he says. “But now, I’d say she’s a top-notch contractor.”
In fact, he seems to prefer talking about the people he’s worked with rather than himself. Like Finnish architect Alvar Aalto perseverating over prodigious amounts of alcohol: “He’d be jabbering on,” says Rapson. “But even though he was drinking, he did the most beautiful drawings.” Or the way Frank Lloyd Wright memorably bombarded Rapson and fellow apprentices with design theory challenges at Wright’s Taliesen West home. “We sort of slunk out of there,” he says.
But Peterson and many others consider Rapson himself to be the most influential modernist architect. She’s hired him to work on the design of her new home. “I just want to keep him working while he still can,” she says.
Peterson feels a sense of urgency to capture the final genius of a legend. He has already outlasted some of his most notable work, including the Guthrie and the sprawling Pillsbury house on Lake Minnetonka, both of which were razed—to his and many others’ dismay.
If Peterson has anything to say about it, however, Rapson’s work isn’t done yet. “He still has an extraordinary amount of mental energy,” says his son and colleague, Toby Rapson. “I just love the work,” says Rapson senior. So for now, he intends to keep on drawing.
Andrea Grazzini Walstrom is a Burnsville freelance writer.
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