Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien on Paul Evans

1/5: Paul Evans (1931–87), Sideboard (Wavy-Front), ca. 1966. Welded and patinated steel, colored pigments, gold leaf, and slate top; 21 x 80 x 20 inches. Signed: “PE.” Collection of Dorsey Reading. Photo by Jason Wierzbicki.
2/5: Paul Evans (1931–87), Cabinet (Skyline Cabinet), ca. 1966. Welded and patinated steel, colored pigments, and brass; 30 1/4 x 75 x 18 5/8 inches. Conn Family Trust. Photo by Jason Wierzbicki.
3/5: Paul Evans (1931–87) and Phillip Lloyd Powell (1919–2008), Bar Cabinet, ca. 1963. Welded and perforated steel, copper, bronze, pewter, colored pigments, 23-karat gold leaf, electrical components, and felt; 81 3/4 x 60 x 23 inches. Cafesjian Museum Foundation Collection. Photo courtesy of Wright.
4/5: Paul Evans (1931–87), Cabinet (Cityscape II, Faceted) (PE 370), 1973. Chrome-plated steel and wood with fiberglass top; 23 x 94 x 24 inches. Collection of Dorsey Reading. Photo by Jason Wierzbicki.
5/5: Paul Evans (1931–87) and Phillip Lloyd Powell (1919-2008), Cabinet, ca. 1962. Welded and patinated steel, colored pigments, wood, 23-karat gold leaf; 32 1/4 x 46 1/8 x 24 1/4 inches. Collection of Merrill Wright. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have distinguished themselves in the field for their attention to materials, surfaces, tactility, and craft. You can see it most clearly in their hand-treated façade for the soon-to-be demolished American Folk Art Museum in New York City, or the interior courtyard of the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Given the nature of their work, we thought of the pair recently when viewing a Center-funded retrospective of art-furniture designer Paul Evans at the James A. Michener Art Museum. Perhaps—just perhaps—Williams and Tsien are aware of Evans’ work? We asked them, and indeed they are.


What do you think of when you look at Paul Evans’ art-furniture, with its patterned, textured, and often deliberately overwrought surfaces?

To us the work is fascinating because it takes us out of our comfort zone.

Is there an architectural equivalent for this type of surface treatment?

Not really. It seems to fly in the face of architectural protocol—in the face of design as it used to be taught, in fact, and how it still is both taught and practiced. But as our definitions of society and propriety have been challenged, so too has architecture.

No one comes to mind?

Well, it recalls the experimentation and freedom in Paul Rudolph’s later work: from his School of Architecture at Yale to his own home in New York, with its theatrical mirrored mylar and glass. This was work for which he was much admired and roundly criticized. Also Philip Johnson’s follies and much of the work of Bruce Goff; these are architects whose career trajectories, like Evans’, sometimes seemed to veer out of control, without a direction or sense of rigor.

We might also look at the way Philip Guston’s work developed. It moved so dramatically from abstraction to brute forms and cartoon figures of the Ku Klux Klan.

Also very much out of the mainstream are the great window dressers who must come up with bold concepts seemingly overnight and on a shoestring budget. Robert Currie comes to mind. We were always excited to see his windows at the old Henri Bendel store on 57th Street.

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Photo by Jason Smith.

Do you think Evans would have made a good architect?

His interests were so widespread; we think he would have been far happier with interiors and homes. He needed a patron with incredibly strong convictions, who might have supported his eclectic tastes.

Architecture, by contrast, is very much a collaborative profession. And Evans seems to have never cared for context; he wanted to control the entire panorama.

For you, is Evans a proto-postmodernist, a regional modernist, or something else entirely?

We never like to classify designers, though we are sure we have. And Evans, we think, is particularly unclassifiable. In fact, were he alive and classified, he would flee your classifications.

We like the description of him wandering the edge of a volcano. He was neither conscious of the safety of set standards, nor of the danger of being a slave to fashion.

Are there any labels that have been applied to your own work that you have found fitting?

We are also architects who don’t want to be classified. We are attracted to many things and many materials and are always attempting to be connective—bold in our choices but sensitive in our use. We are on a rigorous search for the heart in all we do.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art co-organized a multifaceted exhibition devoted to the art of Michelangelo Pistoletto, influential founder of the Arte Povera movement.

Grants & Grantees

Basekamp is a loose collective of artists and attenuated artist networks that produces, manages, and stewards projects outside of the art market and established arts institutions.

Grants & Grantees

Named for Doylestown’s most famous son, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer James A. Michener, this museum was founded in 1988 with a regional focus, housing a collection of Pennsylvania impressionist paintings.

Grants & Grantees

Journalism and first-person storytelling will intersect in a multi-media project featuring a series of public radio broadcasts and podcasts, presented in collaboration with First Person Arts.

The Morris Arboretum is home to more than 12,000 labeled plants of approximately 2,500 types, several historic buildings, and a collection of historic and contemporary sculpture.

Created by artist duo Mendi + Keith Obadike, the sound installation plays shifting musical harmonies that are triggered by sunlight at Tindley Temple United Methodist Church.

Grants & Grantees

Working with colored thread and thousands upon thousands of knots, 2007 Pew Fellow Ed Bing Lee transforms a simple material and a common technique into a unique form of contemporary fiber art.

The Happy Show, presented at the Institute of Contemporary Art, focused on Stefan Sagmeister’s 10-year exploration of happiness and was conceived as a series of interactive investigations on the subject.

Collaborators & Colleagues

Cathy Stanton is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at Tufts University and an active public historian. She served as a 2015 LOI panelist in Exhibitions & Public Interpretation.

Grants & Grantees

Painted Bride Art Center presented the seminal duets of Bill T. Jones and the late Arnie Zane—challenging works that remain some of the most significant examples of postmodern dance to date.

Pew Fellow and Philadelphia Poet Laureate Yolanda Wisher leads a poetry workshop and story circle in Historic Germantown.

Les escailles de la memoire (The Scales of Memory), a dance collaboration that explores African-American and African cultures, was presented by Bryn Mawr College’s Performing Arts Series.