By Jason Lee
A new book by the grandson of the famed architect and designer Andrew Geller, who lived in Northport for five decades, revisits the life of Geller and the history of his pivotal modernist work.
“Andrew Geller: Deconstructed,” by Jake Gorst, relives the circumstances and inspirations behind iconic designs that can be found in as close to home as Long Island and as far away as Israel.
One interior design for a traditional affordable American house was featured in Moscow and famously became the setting for a disagreement between Vice President Nixon and Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev.
Geller moved to Northport in 1951 and lived there for the nearly 50 years. He died in December 2011. The design studio he created in his Northport house is where many of the well-known Long Island and New Jersey beach houses were conceived.
Gorst and his wife, Tracey, currently maintain a production company in that same house.
Gorst started compiling the featured sketches, photos and documents for the book in 1995. He also interviewed Geller about his old or untouched project ideas and design experiences dating back to the end of his World War II service in the ‘40s.
Geller’s most recognizable work is his imaginative beach houses on Long Island and Massachusetts. The unusual roof designs and floor plans perplex and amaze architecture critics to this day.
The beach houses were a product of creative problem solving and a need for individuality in design, according to Gorst. The Hunt house on Fire Island, which looks like a fallen milk carton balanced on its edge, was specifically designed to fit on its narrow plot.
The famous Pearlroth house in Westhampton Beach, also known as the Double Diamond house, was also designed with the intention of fitting the foundation on difficult terrain.
“He [Geller] told me once regarding the Hunt house on Fire Island; the plot was really small, narrow and interesting,” Gorst said.
The foundation for the building is incredibly thin, but the structure expands outwards and hangs over the sand dunes, where the foundation is not allowed to be. Gorst said that the design confused zoning officials at first, but they eventually conceded that the unconventional structure’s integrity was sound.
Gorst compared his grandfather to an abstract painter who started with a blotched or water-damaged canvas. “The more difficult the plot, the more challenging it was and the more interesting the architecture became. He looked at these difficult lots and figured out how to make it right. But he also wanted to make it something fun,” Gorst said.
A lot of Geller’s designs were inspired by real-world geometry. “If he found something interesting, he’d take note of it and it would come out later in some design.”
Sketches by Geller were typically studies of simple shapes in various orientations. When Geller moved to Northport in 1951, he became fixated on the sails he observed while spending time on a friend’s boat in Northport Harbor.
“He tried to make friends with everybody,” Gorst said. “He felt that was the best way to give them what they really wanted. He would get to know them and little things he would observe would come out in the design.”
As a designer, Geller preferred more individualized house designs, but he sometimes designed tracks, which were lines of mass-produced homes. “He really didn’t like doing that kind of work,” said Gorst.
Geller tracted homes include the Leisurama development in Montauk and the Huber developments in Dallas and Houston.
Illuminating the life and work of Geller is one of the more personal tasks that Gorst has undertaken, but it isn’t his only focus.
Gorst and his wife began Mainspring Pictures, a graphic design and production company, in 1998. It was first known as Jonamac Productions.
Mainspring is currently working on a film that will feature Antonio Corsi, an Italian model who’s the subject of many famous paintings, including works shown in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Institute and the Boston Public Library.
“All his work is out there, but nobody has put it together that it is all the same guy,” said Gorst, who wants to compile all of Corsi’s work and tell the model’s overlooked story.
Gorst eventually wants to finish telling the story of his grandfather. Many of his interviews with Geller, his colleagues and friends are taped or recorded. Gorst said he’ll use that material to create a film about Geller’s life. He’s in the process of raising production funds. “Sometimes the things you’re closest to take the longest to do,” Gorst said.
In the meantime, he’s going to have a book signing at the Nassau Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor on Sept. 26. And on Oct. 27, Gorst will present a 2012 film he directed, “Modern Tide, Midcentury Architecture on Long Island,” at the New York Institute of Technology in Manhattan.