Each generation produces visionary collectors who seek to capture the zeitgeist of their art and their age in their personal environments, and who have called upon like-minded designers or architects to help them achieve that goal. The residences created by Le Corbusier and the Stein family, Parish Hadley and the Paleys, and Charles James and the de Menils attest to the transcendent surroundings that can be achieved through these partnerships. In A Museum of One’s Own, Anne Higonnet writes, “If we care about the social resonance of art objects, and if we care about the history of visuality, then surely we should care about the immediate visual context in which art objects are perceived.” Chara Schreyer and designer Gary Hutton, by forging a distinctive approach that reflected both a conceptual aesthetic and twenty-first century ideas of interconnectedness, adaptability, mobility, and freedom, provided a singular, insightful perspective on our time. “It’s not about sleeping in so many different places,” Schreyer said of her legacy. “It is about collecting work by people who have positively changed the course of history.”
Walls lined with black industrial brushes; white epoxy floors. An AstroTurf rug in the living room; a steel prison toilet in the bath. This domestic conceptualism, a living system that merges art and interior design, was the product of the over forty-year collaboration of Schreyer and Hutton. Beginning in 1978, the creative partners and friends worked side by side to design homes that were both materially and intellectually empathetic with Schreyer’s historic collection of modern and contemporary art. Conceptual in focus, the collection’s six hundred works take shape in materials like paint and Celotex, video and neon, and span from Dada to minimalism, process art to new media. Incorporating rigorous modernism, nontraditional materials, installation, and even the performative, Schreyer and Hutton’s interiors channeled the formal qualities of these works as well as their intelligence, unconventionality, humor, and audacity.
“My idea of contemporary art starts with Duchamp,” said Schreyer. “With his work, art became conceptual. I think that’s where things overlap between Gary and me—we both have an educated eye for those things that are new, revolutionary, subversive.” Schreyer channeled that philosophy into building one of the world’s great private collections, rarely deaccessioning a piece or consigning any to storage. Instead, driven by ongoing study, research, and an indefatigable curiosity, she was continually at her intimate work of refining the collection, exploring juxtapositions and deepening dialogues until her installations sang.
Schreyer and Hutton brought the same critical eye to the design of her five residences. Ranging from a San Francisco high rise to a Los Angeles estate, her homes were, above all, homes for art. There were few concessions to traditional domesticity. Spare and reductive but full of soul and presence, these residences eschewed the decorative, and, on occasion, like the Duchampian tradition they honored, blurred the boundary between environment and artwork.
Schreyer’s fearlessness can be traced in part to her family’s history. She was the daughter of Holocaust survivors, a member of a family that emigrated from Germany to the U.S. when she was five. Her father, Max Webb, who lived to age 101, built a highly successful real estate development company and remained a guiding presence in her life. Schreyer noted, “There is a saying that the first generation makes the money so that the second generation can be scholars and philanthropists and the third generation can be artists and poets. I was second generation, so I’ve had the luxury of being able to follow my passion, but I grew up feeling like an outsider—English was my third language. So a lot of the sensibility I have is about seeing the world from an outsider’s point of view.”
While the family’s life in America was financially comfortable, the past was a constant presence in their home. Schreyer’s mother, Sala, never completely recovered from her Holocaust experiences and would awaken every night, screaming. “My sister, Rose, and I would make sure our homework was done, and we would go to bed early to get enough sleep,” said Schreyer. “You live a life you actually didn’t live, but you live it through their fears.”
Though her mother was emotionally frail, she taught Schreyer and her sister that they were not to default into traditional female roles, encouraging them to become doctors or lawyers. It was Schreyer’s lifelong dream to go to the University of California, Berkeley, and she arrived on campus in 1965, at the height of the San Francisco counterculture and of political unrest. “My parents said, ‘If we see you on TV, you’re coming home,’” she said. They needn’t have worried. “My sister says that I was not a child of the Sixties, and she was right,” said Schreyer. “I didn’t do drugs or alcohol or smoke. I wore Villager dresses that I hand-washed and ironed myself, and I frequently scrubbed the floors on my hands and knees to keep my room clean because my roommate smoked. I would go to bed at eight p.m. and then go to the architecture library at five a.m. to study.”
It was art that would prove the radical influence on Schreyer. Assigned to write a paper on Matisse’s Femme au chapeau (1905), she made a pivotal visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “It was revolutionary,” she said. “That painting was the beginning of the collection at SFMOMA, and it was the beginning of my understanding. It was as much an eye-opener for me as it was for the 1905 Salon d’Automne, where it was originally exhibited.” She went on to major in art history, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in the subject and writing her master’s thesis on Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell’s artistic collaboration.
Schreyer’s own defining creative partnership would begin ten years later. In 1978, she walked into a new San Francisco restaurant called Today’s. “It was one of those ‘aha’ moments in life,” she said. “I was just blown away by how well it was done, and I asked for the name of the interior designer.” They told her—Gary Hutton. At the time, Schreyer and her then-husband were building a home in Sonoma, and she knew she had found her designer. “When I met Gary, I remember opening the front door, and he was such a lovely man, and so easy, not judgmental,” said Schreyer. Hutton recalls of their initial meeting, “I was really intimidated on that first visit! I grew up on a farm in Watsonville, California—I was still picking hay out of my ears.” He had, in fact, graduated with a degree in fine arts from the University of California, Davis, where he had studied during the heyday of its groundbreaking arts department with artists Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, and Manuel Neri, and had earned an honors degree in environmental design from California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts). The Schreyer project would be the twenty-eight-year-old’s very first residential commission.
Though Schreyer and her husband had not yet begun collecting seriously, they had an artful vision for the home and had commissioned noted architecture firm Jennings and Stout. “They wanted something suitable for the house, which was based on Bauhaus and international style modernism,” says Hutton. “That was where we started. I drew and redrew patterns for a floor based on Kandinsky’s paintings for a year and a half.”
Schreyer also hired Hutton to work on the couple’s primary home in Marin. They collaborated first on a few improvements to the space, to be followed several years later by a comprehensive redesign. “We developed a vocabulary that’s about textural changes and richness, a kind of materiality that’s maybe a little different,” says Hutton. “In art school I was a sculpture major. I was doing metal casting, working with plastics and clay. That gave me an understanding of, and a lust for, materiality.” Schreyer, the daughter of a real estate developer, had been imprinted by the architecture and building process and shared Hutton’s sensibility. Their program for the house—environments that honored the art and which provided adaptive backdrops for ever-evolving installations—would establish a template for all of their future work.
Beginning with the Sonoma home and concluding with the Los Angeles residence, Schreyer and Hutton would ultimately design the interiors of six homes together. “Each was conceived and exactingly designed according to the art program,” says Hutton. “The shifts were in the art, as Chara acquired new work and curated new installations. These were not the kind of places where you put the Goya over the sofa and decorated the room around it. We understood that nothing was ever going to stay in the same place; the art was always going to evolve.”