Modern Love

Devoted to living with—and inside of—midcentury-design icons, Michael and Gabrielle Boyd are pushing their passion for modernism to the max.

Photographer: Adrian Gaut

It takes some chutzpah for a couple to extoll the virtues of restraint and minimalism while surrounded by their collection of 1,000 pieces of modern design, 10,000 art books, and roughly three dozen vintage leather jackets. But if you really listen to Michael and Gabrielle Boyd as they recount their obsessive, decades-long quest for top-quality 20th-­century design, it all starts to make sense.

For the past 25 years, the Boyds have employed a unique blend of design-geek purism and California-style ease to build an extraordinary collection of modern furniture. Along the way, they’ve acquired and restored several iconic buildings, including their current house in Santa Monica—the only U.S. residential project by the legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer—and one of Jean Prouvé’s rare demountable schoolhouses, which they recently found in France and shipped home. In fact, the Boyds have organized their entire lives around their shared passion: Twice they’ve uprooted their two children and moved across the country because an architecturally irresistible property suddenly hit the market. Meanwhile, through their company, BoydDesign, they advise clients on the restoration of houses, consult for museums, and design furniture, rugs, and gardens. As wide-ranging as their endeavors may seem, they’re all grounded in timeless, pared-down principles.

“A real modernist object is straightforward—there’s an honesty about its materials,” Gabrielle says. “It’s not pretending to be something it isn’t, which is a good philosophy for people as well as objects. And each piece is a manifestation of a brilliant idea that you can rediscover on a daily basis.”

Michael and Gabrielle met and married in 1989, when Michael, then 30, was developing a career as a successful composer, working on commercial music for brands like Nike and Coca-Cola. The son of two Berkeley professors, he had already rebelled against what he describes as “the Bob Newhart, festival-of-brown” aesthetic that reigned throughout his childhood. He was the only person in his crowd who knew what a Case Study House was; he was also the only guy at the monthly ­Alameda Point flea market piling Arne Jacobsen Swan chairs into his car. He nabbed them for $25 each.

In 2000, after he and Gabrielle had finished restoring a Clarence Mayhew house near Oakland, they learned that the renowned architect Paul Rudolph’s nine-story residence-cum-laboratory on Manhattan’s Beekman Place—a severe steel-and-glass structure atop a brick town house, with a ­Lucite bathtub serving as a skylight over the kitchen—was for sale. Before they knew it, the Boyds had moved to New York with their young sons and begun a chaotic restoration. Low points included three electrical fires and one dramatic injury: ­Gabrielle’s father fell from one floor to another after workers temporarily removed a transparent Plexiglas floor. He wasn’t gravely hurt, but the apartment’s vertiginous floating staircases and byzantine layout taught the Boyds some vital lessons about balancing theory with livability. (Wes Anderson later used the building in The Royal Tenenbaums, as Chas ­Tenenbaum’s too-dangerous-for-children penthouse.) “Even though that house is a really impressive achievement, it was ultimately kind of a nightmare for us,” Michael admits. “We’re attracted to radicalism and pushing things as far as they will go—but too complicated is too complicated.”

Their next purchase was a 1965 Thornton Ladd home in Santa Barbara, but they’d barely settled in when they got a tip about the little known Niemeyer house, about a mile inland from Santa Monica Beach. It had been commissioned in 1963 by the filmmaker Joseph Strick and his wife, Anne, after they’d been wowed by Niemeyer’s work during a trip to Brazil. (Since the architect was an outspoken communist and a friend of ­Fidel Castro’s, he was barred from entering the United States and never visited the site.) After a developer bought the lot and revealed plans to tear it down, preservationists began mobilizing to save it, and the Boyds stepped in.

Niemeyer’s pure-but-sexy brand of modernism perfectly suited the Boyds, whose lifestyle is equal parts avant-garde and laissez-faire, and who are almost as likely to take home a find from a Dumpster as they are to pay top dollar for it at Sotheby’s. Even the tropical plants in their fabulous garden (designed by Michael) turn out to be pre-owned—salvaged from an auto-repair shop in Altadena that the couple happened to spot from their car. “You already know what a nursery-grown tree is going to look like, because it’s stayed in that box for its whole life,” Michael says. Gabrielle adds that much like a rescue dog that needs extra care at first but turns out to be hardier and more charismatic than a purebred, a secondhand tree has “a wonderful story, its own personality.”

The same can be said for the furniture inside the house, which includes a pair of Robert Mallet-Stevens chairs, two of Prouvé’s Visiteur lounge chairs, and a 1929 steel-and-­rubber Sandows chair by René Herbst that was the designer’s own. There are even rarer pieces that have been known to get connoisseurs salivating, such as a 1951 Gabetti e Isola drafting stool, one of only four ever produced. Overflow goes into the Boyds’ Santa Monica warehouse and office space, a sort of improvised museum of chairs, where you’ll find, for example, all the variations from Arne Jacobsen’s 3100 stackable series.

Roman Alonso, a cofounder of the hot Los Angeles design firm Commune, says he knows of nobody with a deeper commitment than the Boyds to living with good design—inconveniences and all. “Some people upgrade houses by bringing them up to date or by putting in a fancy bathtub. Michael and Gabrielle do it by making the house what it was to begin with—or what it should have been, if it wasn’t finished properly.”

Though the Boyds acknowledge the irony in amassing what Gabrielle calls “tons and tons of minimalism,” they prefer to view collecting as a form of recycling. “In a way, we’re just custodians of all this stuff,” she says. “Each piece had a life before us, and it will have a life after us. As I tell Michael, the difference between a collector and a hoarder is that a collector actually gets rid of stuff now and then, which we do! And sometimes that’s almost as fun as finding stuff—paring down to make room for more.” Do the Boyds ever buy anything that wasn’t pre-owned? “Only underwear and socks,” Michael says, though when pressed, he admits to also having a few pairs of new A.P.C. jeans, and an iPhone.

Gabrielle grew up on a sprawling ranch near Santa Barbara that has been in her family for six generations. Her hippie parents taught her how to forage for watercress in the local creeks, and that talent has translated into spotting treasures in places where few others are looking. That’s how she and ­Michael recently found the prefab Prouvé schoolhouse, whose boomerang-shape steel beams, covered in a faded yellow lacquer, were unglamorously stacked in the corner of a warehouse of a Parisian dealer. “We saw it and were like, Is that what we think it is?” Michael remembers. After asking about its provenance, they called a good friend at a major auction house and exclaimed excitedly, “ ‘There’s a Prouvé house here!’ ” ­Gabrielle recalls. “He said, ‘No, there isn’t!’ We said, ‘Yes, there is!’ ”

The building, it turned out, was one of four that Prouvé had designed in 1952 and was used as a school in Nancy, a town in northeastern France; the dealer’s wife had purchased it at auction and made sure that the sale included an export license but then left it in storage. The French now consider the Prouvé structures too important to leave the country, so the Boyds’ schoolhouse will likely be the last one released to a foreign buyer. (The couple is currently debating whether to install it on their property.) As for the question of whether the midcentury look has become too popular for its own good in the past two decades, the Boyds say they remain more determined than ever to steer clear of fads. “I understand that people get tired of an Eames chair when they see it in every single ad,” Gabrielle says. “And I understand that kids, when they get older, are not going to want to have the same icons that their parents had. But the whole modernist movement was about innovation, and this stuff works with everything. You can take an Eames chair and put it in a 15th-century castle—in fact, that’s almost the best spot for it, because it’s unexpected.”

Of course, for anyone who wants to recontextualize a mix of pieces in a savvy and satisfying way, there’s no substitute for spending countless hours in the field, looking around. The Boyds’ credentials on that front are evident on the Sunday morning I join them on their monthly trip to the famed Rose Bowl flea market, in Pasadena, where they appear to have a long-standing relationship with every vendor who has good taste. Michael, focused and intense, moves from booth to booth with the cool confidence of a shark out for blood, while ­Gabrielle chats warmly with everyone, inquiring about their kids and vacation plans. Even at well-trodden places like the Rose Bowl, there are often surprising finds: Not long ago, ­Michael nabbed a Prouvé stool for $40 and promptly sold it for $7,000. Still, he says, it’s almost always a mistake to make price the main priority. “In our house, we’ll definitely have stuff that has really gone up in value next to something that hasn’t, and we don’t care—we’ll leave them right next to each other, to irritate certain people,” he says, chuckling. The Boyds finish the day with several inexpensive scores: a stash of Japanese charms (they cost less than $1 each, and some turn out to be made of sterling silver); a $30 vintage fiberglass kayak for their new home in Malibu (it’s possibly not seaworthy, but the Boyds like the sleek form and the turquoise color); and a pair of $15 vintage Vans sneakers that Michael doesn’t even need to try on, because he has several of the same style at home.

Though the couple rarely disagree on matters of aesthetics, their yin-yang roles at work reflect their complementary personalities: Michael is the impassioned creative dynamo, Gabrielle the laid-back realist who runs the business side. (“Together,” Michael jokes, “we make one semi-competent person.”) Michael also designs his own line, PLANEfurniture, which includes pieces commissioned by Commune, along with one-offs built out of wood salvaged from Neutra, Lautner, and Schindler houses. An exhibition in November at JF Chen, in Los Angeles, will include past and present works as well as rugs from a series Boyd designed for Christopher Farr. “It’s so interesting to see how the collecting is really informing Michael’s new work as a designer, completing the circle,” says Brooke Hodge, the deputy director of New York’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. “So it’s not just collecting for the sake of collecting, because everything Michael is looking at is going to manifest itself in larger ways.”

For a client in Malibu, he teamed with the designer ­Laurel Broughton to create his first building, a glass-and-concrete beach house, now nearing completion. He still writes music and can philosophize endlessly on the similarities between composing a score and designing a room: Both involve the interplay of harmony and dissonance, of visible and invisible grids. “I remember once my father said to me, ‘Michael, I love your music, but I can’t always tell when it’s on,’ ” he says. “I thought that was a pretty good compliment.”

That sort of light touch is no doubt crucial in the delicate task of advising clients on restorations. “We had one couple with a Neutra house,” Michael recalls. “And they had just gone to Italy and were inspired by Tuscany, so they painted the walls mustard yellow. I almost had a heart attack!” Gently, the Boyds explained why it might be a good idea to honor Neutra’s intentions and finally convinced the clients to repaint in the original shade of white. Michael says that architectural preservationists are still thanking him for that, years later.

Whatever the project, the Boyds’ ultimate goal, Michael says, is to remain “almost invisible”—to eliminate any extraneous additions or unnecessary complications in order to highlight precisely what a building, or a chair, or a tree, was meant to be. “That’s the ninja trick,” he says. “To do as little as possible, on an emergency-basis only. And to try to weave it into the existing flow of traffic, so that it appears as if you were really never there.”

Photos: Modern Love

The patio outside the master bedroom, with concrete stools by Willy Guhl and chairs by Van Keppel-Green. Sittings editor: Jessica de Ruiter.

Photographer: Adrian Gaut

Michael and Gabrielle Boyd in their living room in Santa Monica. The black leather chairs are by Oscar Niemeyer; the bookshelf is by Charlotte Perriand.

Photographer: Adrian Gaut

The library in the Paul Rudolph town house in New York. Photograph by Scott Frances.

BoydDesign worked on the restoration of Craig Ellwood’s 1956 Steinman House, in Malibu. Photograph by Richard Powers.

In the library of the Santa Monica house are an Alvar Aalto chair and, next to it, a Pierre Jeanneret side table from Chandigarh.

Photographer: Adrian Gaut

The master bedroom is furnished with George Nelson Coconut chairs and a Charles and Ray Eames cabinet.

Photographer: Adrian Gaut

In the dining room, a table and chairs by Jean Prouvé, a Serge Mouille pendant, and Donald Judd’s Untitled, 1987, above a Gerrit Rietveld cabinet. Wall art courtesy of Judd Foundation. licensed by Vaga, New York, NY.

Photographer: Adrian Gaut

Burgoyne Diller’s First Theme, 1959–1960, hangs above a George Nelson cabinet and an André Bloc chair in the dining room.

Photographer: Adrian Gaut

A piece from the PLANEfurniture series. Photograph by Hans Eckardt.

A piece from the PLANEfurniture series.

Michael Boyd’s rug for Christopher Farr, which debut this fall. Photograph by Hans Eckardt.

Michael Boyd’s rug for Christopher Farr, which debut this fall. Photograph by Hans Eckardt.

Michael Boyd’s rug for Christopher Farr, which debut this fall. Photograph by Hans Eckardt.

The couple with their vintage collection at the BoydDesign Studio.

Photographer: Adrian Gaut

Hair by Alex Polillo for Davines at Forward Artists; Makeup by Debra Ferullo for Lancome at Tracey Mattingly.