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A Swarthmore College exhibition personifies the concealed life of Edith Farnsworth

A Redacted History

A Swarthmore College exhibition personifies the concealed life of Edith Farnsworth

Installation view, Edith: An Architectural History, An Installation by Nora Wendl, January 19–February 25, 2023, List Gallery, Swarthmore College. (Joe Painter)

Edith: An Architectural History
Swarthmore College List Gallery
Parrish Hall Road
Swarthmore, PA 19081
Through February 25

For architecture buffs, a mention of the Edith Farnsworth House conjures up an image of a glassy residence in Plano, Illinois by architect Mies van der Rohe. The building is famous, but its namesake resident is often forgotten. She was Edith Farnsworth, a physician who commissioned the Modernist architect to design a weekend retreat.

Farnsworth is the subject of Edith: An Architectural History, an exhibition at Swarthmore College’s List Gallery. Put on by architect and writer Nora Wendl, the show comprises three distinct bodies of work. The first is a photo series that depicts Wendl occupying the house as Farnsworth would have lived, the second is a film that documents a project that replicated the decor and arrangement of Farnsworth’s home, and the third recounts the veiled history of the lawsuit between architect and homeowner with redacted pages from the case’s 4,000-page transcript.

Installation view, Edith: An Architectural History, An Installation by Nora Wendl, January 19–February 25, 2023, List Gallery, Swarthmore College. (Joe Painter)

Through Edith: An Architectural History, Wendl draws attention away from the architect to focus instead on the inhabitant who is often excluded from architectural histories. The Edith Farnsworth House, formerly known as the Farnsworth House, was renamed to recognize the role Edith played in its design.

In the first set of photographs, I Listened (2017), Wendl is captured in the Edith Farnsworth House taking part in the domesticity of Farnsworth’s life. She lays on the bed, takes a seat at the coffee table, and visits the kitchen.

These images do not just hang on the gallery wall in a frame. They are mounted on four ten-foot-long semitransparent panels staged alongside a white plywood staircase to allow visitors to immerse themselves in an environment that replicates the house. Wendl’s profile is blurred to give the impression that she may be Farnsworth. (One element not obscured are the blue booties given to visitors at the residence.) Wendl furthers this idea with Pony Coat, a series in which she dons a pony coat to recall Farnsworth’s silhouette. (Van der Rohe’s biographer Franz Schulze described Farnsworth as “rather equine in features.”)

Installation view, Edith: An Architectural Histor, An Installation by Nora Wendl, January 19–February 25, 2023, List Gallery, Swarthmore College. Photo: Joe Painter

The second part of the show, This is also a glass house (2022), is a film that documents the installation Edith Farnsworth, Reconsidered that ran from March 2020 to December 2021. In that project, the house was furnished with reproductions of Farnsworth’s material objects, taking away the pieces from its second owner Peter Palumbo typically on view. Through historical research that involved looking at old photographs of Farnsworth occupying the residence, Wendl, alongside Farnsworth House Executive Director Scott Mehaffey and Rob Kleinschmidt, identified and sourced pieces including chaise lounge chairs, a dining set, a daybed, and decorations that were then installed in the residence.

Installation view, Edith: An Architectural History, An Installation by Nora Wendl, January 19–February 25, 2023, List Gallery, Swarthmore College. (Joe Painter)

Following the house’s design and construction, which went way over budget, van der Rohe sued Farnsworth to pay the additional fees. She countersued, citing design issues with the residence. Van der Rohe v. Farnsworth was recorded in a lengthy trial transcript; the documented exchange is not public. Wendl had to appeal to its owner, an unnamed architect, several times before gaining access to the documents with the condition that she would not share their contents. I do not remember conversations with the moon is a series of scanned pages from the transcript coated in black to reveal only glimpses of the text. Along the same lines, Guard Everything Appropriately and All Will Be Well is a film that shows Wendl blacking out the transcripts. These works are displayed on walls and tables within the gallery space.

Edith: An Architectural History is on view at the List Gallery at Swarthmore College through February 25.

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