Inside the Ford Foundation with Sheila Hicks

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By Kelsey Keith / Published by Dwell
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Textile artist Sheila Hicks returns to New York City's Ford Foundation to replace a series of sublimely modernist wall hangings.

In 1967, Nebraska-born, Paris-based fiber artist Sheila Hicks designed and fabricated two linen-and-silk wall panels for the Ford Foundation headquarters in New York City. Hicks worked in collaboration with Warren Platner, who had been hired to gussy up the interiors of the 12-story modernist landmark by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates. Hicks's two giant wall panels, which comprise orderly rows of simplified rosettes threaded around metal discs, were heavily damaged by a wayward attempt at fire retardation in the 1980s. The one in the conference room was left unbuffered against the rolling Eames executive chairs, while the panel hung in the neighborhing auditorium had to contend with additional cigarette smoke damage. The Foundation's current president, Darren Walker, who was appointed in 2013, recognized the importance of replacing the fabric murals if restoration wasn't on the menu, so he engaged Hicks, who took on the commission with no artist's fee attached. 

We got a sneak peek at the re-installation of Sheila Hicks's 1967 pieces for the Ford Foundation in New York City when Hicks was in town to oversee the installation in August 2014.

The reprisal of the Ford Foundation pieces—which were the first in a long series of corporate art-and-architecture collaborations for Hicks—comes at an appropriate time. Her reputation has experienced a revival in 2014, between several other large-scale public commissions (including a yearlong exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris) and a renewal of popular interest in weaving as an art form.

Enrico Martignoni, the chief installer along with project leader Dominique Pastor, explained that instead of one massive wall panel, the modern tapestry was woven in smaller modules to make for easier replacement in case any one should get damaged. And suffice it to say, the silk thread won't ever be fire-proofed with caustic chemicals. The piece is also slightly more cost-effective thanks to a silk-blend thread and plastic discs in place of the original metal.

Watch a video on the architectural background of the Ford Foundation, starring Kevin Roche, and see the foundation's video interview with Sheila Hicks right here on Dwell.com.

Opulent modernist Warren Platner didn't shy away from using bold metallics for his interiors; in fact, he embraced all manners of flash, glitz, and bling—applied in an architecturally appropriate way, of course. Here, the floor-to-ceiling doors leading into the subterranean auditorium are plated in gold.

Modernist landscape designer Dan Kiley is renowned for his work on the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana, and for immense civic projects like the St. Louis Arch, also with Eero Saarinen. He created the lush indoor urban garden for Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo's first architectural project, the Ford Foundation. after inheriting Saarinen's practice.

Architects Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo designed the headquarters for the philanthropic organization the Ford Foundation with the worker in mind, inverting the layout of a typical skyscraper so that every office had exterior views or views onto an indoor park in the ten-story glass atrium.

Skylights at the top of the soaring atrium let in natural daylight; the entire atrium is framed in Cor-Ten steel.

Charles and Ray Eames modified their executive chair with brown leather upholstery and brass accents (to match all that Platner flair). Note the intact pull-out ashtrays.