Gary Matson is Columbia’s Modernist man. Along with his wife, Liisa, six-year-old son Ethan, five-year-old daughter Emma, and bulldog Woobie, Gary lives in one of Columbia’s most noticeable homes – and that’s not just because of the robots that preside on their upstairs balcony.
An interior decorator, photographer, furniture maker, painter, musician, and owner of Metro Design with his brother and Liisa, Gary is an expert on all things Modernist. As a product of his passion, he purchased iconic 3004 Forest Drive ten years ago. In the decade since, he and his wife have completely renovated this 3800-square foot International Style/Modern home to museum quality. Lived-in museum quality, that is.
“My mother used to shop at Richland Mall, so we used to drive by this house all the time when I was in school,” Gary said recently over lunch in his anything-but-private kitchen. “I remember seeing this house and thinking: ‘Oh, that’s so cool!’ I never in a million years thought all of this would happen.”
During the renovations, passersby on Forest Drive have watched the Matsons live their lives through the gaping windows that expose the inner-workings of their kitchen. Tourists in their own town, Columbians slow their cars down, stop to ask questions, and even take pictures of the stark white, flat-roofed home that does look more like it belongs in a futuristic film than seated among its traditional-style neighbors.
“Many people look at the architecture and think it’s so cool, but they have no idea what it’s like to live in a space like this,” Liisa said.
Another family may soon find out what it means to inhabit Modernist Art. After toiling to re-create architectural history, the Matsons are selling 3004 Forest Drive to build their own Modernist home from scratch. That, however, is another story.
Contractor George Price, who lived directly next door, built 3004 Forest Drive in 1952. The Price house, while similar in appearance to the Matsons’, was built in 1939, which predates the International Style/Modern of 3004 Forest Drive. There are two other houses in Columbia of the same era.
Price constructed 3004 Forest Drive as a gift for his son, who was in architecture school at Clemson. The son, Ray Price, lived there for a short while, but ultimately had no interest in staying, Gary said. After that, it changed the hands of a long line of renters, including a fraternity.
None of the tenants, however, attempted what Gary has: fashioning the inside of the house to match the artistic history that the outside represents. He and Liisa have done so with such precision, in fact, that 3004 Forest Drive is now on the National Register of Historic Places in South Carolina.
The consideration the Matsons have put into renovating the home makes it particularly important to Columbia’s landscape, said Columbia architect Tom Savory, who recently co-presented a lecture with Gary and Clemson Professor Emeritus of Architecture John Jacques at the Columbia Museum of Art.
“Because of the care Gary has taken with the house, many people are able to see the potential of contemporary design, which is very important in a cultural environment that tends to strongly favor traditional residential design,” he said. “Another important aspect is the fact that they have imbued the house with a great deal of warmth in their choices of color and materials and landscaping, so people are able to see that more modern buildings can also be very warm, something that is often not recognized by the general public. I think it’s also a fortunate thing that we have this type of residential architectural statement so visibly sited on a major artery since it is much more common for modern residences to be sequestered in nature, hidden from view.”
The inside of 3004 Forest Drive is just as remarkable, designed in a very carefully planned, simple style, true to Modernist Art. Yet it is functional enough for everyday living.
“If you go further back to the Gropius Period and the Bauhaus Movement in Germany before the Nazis took over, the whole Modernism movement was about being a machine for living, which sounds pretty severe,” Gary said. “I don’t think anyone wants to live in a machine but somehow that got coined and whether the media took it too far with it and it was never intended to be, it stuck. Everything was rectilinear.”
The efficiency and the lack of clutter draw keen attention to the house and the interior design. Every piece of furniture has a purpose, from the Eames lounge chair and ottoman and the leather Lignet Roset Togo couch in the living room to the AGA cooker in the kitchen.
“I think it’s more about form,” Gary said. “Think about the Baroque Period when everything is gilded and everything is curvy and frou-frou, lots and lots of textures about it. This is the antithesis of all that and yet the understatement, to me, makes it just as bold and as powerful.”
The attention to detail invites not only multitudes of built-in conversations in every room, but also an education about other Modernist creations worldwide. The best way to appreciate its intricacies is to have Gary and Liisa – who studied interior design at the Rhode Island School of Design before moving to Columbia – explain the significance of each room, step by step.
The tour starts on the first floor in the kitchen. Alive with yellow walls and nothing but a large photo canvas of red apples (that Gary produced from one of his own photos) as a bold focal point, this is where the family spends the majority of their time. The room is full of surprises. An apothecary opens from what looked like just part of the cabinetry. A speakeasy rolls out from behind the white, Sub Zero refrigerator.
“Liisa and I, during the planning for the renovation, decided to keep everything as it was designed except removing the center island area dividing the original kitchen/breakfast areas,” Gary said. “We used everything original as an inspiration for the new design. Being purveyors of design ourselves, we had to research our own project for accuracy in the design, as we would do for any of our clients in our own design business.”
It’s easy to want to stay and enjoy the light and the effect the colors have on the food served for lunch. Red strawberries somehow look even redder and larger when eaten off of a stark-white counter brightened with the mid-morning sun.
“The kitchen is really the heart,” Liisa said. “We do so much design here.”
In the dining room, next to the kitchen, is a white Drexel table, “Profile,” that Gary inherited from his mother. He credits her with inspiring his interest in Modernism. Above the table hangs a matching reproduction Nelson bubble lamp. What looks like a bank of mirrors decorates the wall facing the backyard windows, but they open to reveal dish storage space. One of Gary’s own versions of a Jackson Pollock – the artist Gary credits as a great Modernist – adds complexity and history to the simple decor.
The dark, parquet floored living room – noticeably without a television set, which hides in the adjacent audio-visual playroom – opens to a dreamlike porch with flowing sheer panels, reminiscent of Philippe Starck’s “Indoor/Outdoor Lobby” at the Hotel Delano on Miami Beach. Beyond those waving sheets is an expansive backyard, unseen from Forest Drive, with rock gardens against the walls and a pool – Gary says it’s shaped like a profile of a Barbie Doll’s hair – that coolly blends in with the surrounding green grass.
Adjacent to the pool is a guesthouse, or cabana, renovated first to accommodate the growing Matson family while Gary and Liisa worked on the main house. The exterior matches the style of the main residence, but has even more of a resort feel, almost like an old beach motel. Inside is one large room, divided into a kitchen/bedroom and living area by a large bookcase.
Back inside the main house and up the dark granite stairs are three solidly colored bedrooms, two bathrooms, a studio, and “attic space” (because of the flat roof, there is no traditional attic). The master bedroom has a bedroom-sized walk-in closet that used to be a nursery, centered by an Eero Saarinen tulip table that Gary reproduced. The bedroom leads to a stark white laundry room – again, with integrated appliances – and the studio with wide windows and endless inspiration.
The upstairs also opens to two balconies – one facing Forest Drive and the other facing the backyard. The robots, “Tobor I” and “Tobor I, too” (read: “robot” backwards), live on the balcony facing the street. Salvaged from a field, these 1950s “robots,” complete with eight-track tapes and circuit boards, were once used for marketing. Often dressed in lights for holidays, the Matsons realize that they have become synonymous with 3004 Forest Drive.
Yes, they are included in the upcoming sale of the house.
The most fascinating part of 3004 Forest Drive is Gary’s encyclopedic knowledge of Modernism. He lists names of artists from the period and their works with deep appreciation and understanding, almost as if he knew them personally. Frank Lloyd Wright – or FLW, as Gary calls him – is one of his favorites to discuss.
“Frank Lloyd Wright was really a genius,” he said. “The things he did were so extraordinary. He dropped Fallingwater (in Mill Run, Pennsylvania) in on a landscape on top of a stream. It’s just incredible.”
From his library of architecture books in his living room, he pulled down Taschen’s International Style – Modernist Architecture from 1925 to 1965 by Hasan-Uddin Khan and narrated each page. He recognized not only the significance of the buildings the photographs catalogued, but particularly the talent of the handful of photographers who the architects entrusted to capture their work.
“Look at how the contour of the plane matches the Kennedy Airport,” he said, noticing how the photographer of the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York thought to juxtapose the wing of the plane with the structure to emphasize Finnish architect Eero Saarinen’s curving design.
Flipping through further pages, he simultaneously pointed to photographs he took of Columbia’s Modernist buildings and posted on his own web site, www.gmatsonphoto.com. From Capstone to Adluh Flour, many of these historic structures were envisioned by some of the same famous architects featured in Kahn’s book. The Thomas Cooper Library on the University of South Carolina campus, for example, references the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. Internationally renowned architect Edward Durell Stone designed both. Seeing Gary’s picture next to the photograph of Stone’s work in India made the connection – which most might take for granted – very clear.
Not only appreciating Modernist Art, but also taking the financial and physical risk of re-creating its products is what drives Gary to continue working on his passion.
“It fascinates me how people stay with what’s comfortable,” he said. “We’re missing out on our lives if we aren’t open to new things and embrace them when we find affinity for them.”
Like any piece of artwork, it’s important to conserve the integrity of homes like 3004 Forest Drive and other Modernist structures in Columbia as an educational legacy for future generations, Gary said. He hopes his love for Modernist Art will spread so that the new owners of 3004 Forest Drive and others will also work to keep it alive.
“Preservation in general is vitally important,” he said. “Preserving Modern, specifically, is equally important because there is so little of it to preserve. Most people don’t understand Modern design – whether it is furniture, art, clothing… because it represents something ‘unfamiliar’ to them.”
Like any piece of artwork, it’s important to conserve the integrity of homes like 3004 Forest Drive and other Modernist structures in Columbia as an educational legacy for future generations, Gary said.
“The idea behind preserving Modern is in its educational opportunity, that there is something in Modern that piques one’s interest,” he said. “Preserving them means that, in another period of time, there was ‘movement’ in design toward something new and different…. Some of us (thankfully) keep looking at things differently and want to make things better both functionally and aesthetically; or, perhaps, just aesthetically.”