Change and Continuity

Change and Continuity

Claire Kahn’s Santa Fe oasis offers room to live, work, and contemplate in sublime surroundings.
Claire Kahn Paper Cuts

Desert light filters through three Kahn papercuts — two pattern studies and Campidoglio (right). The brilliance of the sun with the play of sky and shadow has been one of her favorite New Mexico discoveries. 

Peter Ogilvie

Many people call Claire Kahn a generalist; she’s known around the world for her fountain design, crocheted bead jewelry, and papercuts.

Those disciplines may seem disparate, but the elements of pattern, color, texture, and progression all come into play, whether in the water jets dancing in Las Vegas’ Fountains of Bellagio, which she helped design, the prismatic beadwork in her necklaces, or the geometric lines of her papercuts.

The same elements suffuse her Santa Fe sanctuary. The longtime Bay Area resident moved near her gallery, Patina, in 2016. She settled in the high desert after finding a place to accommodate “a formidable library, a great studio, and great space” for both the treasures her parents amassed and those she and her late husband collected. 

You recently moved to New Mexico from San Francisco, and your home is in a rural area. How has the transition away from the bustling city been for you?
It’s quite different from living in the city, but there are a lot of wonderful things about it. It’s quiet and tranquil, a great place to work. It’s beautiful here, and I find that there’s just as much drama. It’s just not urban drama; it’s animal drama and weather drama. There’s just as much stuff going on, but with a very different character.

Tell me a little bit about this house and why you chose it. 
The architect was a woman named Mary Reeves. She built it for herself about 16 years ago and lived in it. All of the materials and the bones and the architecture are hers, and I moved into it. I made some changes, but not a whole lot.

I grew up in a house [in Stanford, California] that was designed by an architect named A. Quincy Jones, who worked for a developer named Joseph Eichler. Eichler and my parents worked together, and in 1959, they built a very special Eichler home with Jones. It was really beautiful and very modern. 

My house here in Santa Fe has that same feel to me. It’s very simple, but the materials are of this area. The house is like a quilt of wood and glass and clay and steel. It’s a great mix of all these different things.

I’m always struck by the quality of light in New Mexico. Sunrises and sunsets seem more vivid here. Do you notice that?
There are a few things that have been really exciting to me here because they’re different from other places I’ve been, and the light is one of them. There’s this thing that happens with the turbulent weather that you don’t get other places. Even with the big clouds and the dark slate sky, you’ll still have daylight; you’ll still have sunlight hitting the rocks, hitting the grass in the pasture, hitting the trees. Everything around will have this beautiful, vibrant color and light on it, but it’ll be against a dark slate background. That is spectacular.

Also, when the moon is up, it’s so bright you can see your shadow, and you can even see color. It’s amazing.

How has the environment around your new home affected your work?
I love geometry, and then I come here and there is no real geometry. It’s all a much softer, more ambiguous, more mysterious world. 

Not that my work is changing. But I’m adding new patterns to the repertoire that have that quality. 

You have some remarkable art and objects on display. Did you inherit these, or are they your own collections? 
My father, Matt Kahn, was a fabulous collector. He collected African, pre-Columbian, American, and Asian art. Some examples of these are his African heddle pulleys. They’re used by tribal cultures in their weaving. My mother, Lyda, was a weaver, so they have a special kind of significance. 

My father taught art and design at Stanford, and he was also a painter. He would say that in tribal cultures, the word for “art” often didn’t exist because it was a marriage of spiritual, creative, and utilitarian life. The heddle pulleys are perfect examples of that; they’re completely utilitarian objects imbued with this kind of powerful, artistic quality.

Do you find inspiration in the collections you’ve inherited, or are they more about surrounding yourself with mementos of your loved ones?
It’s a combination of being really proud to have them because I think they’re beautiful and the fact that they’re also examples of things that my father and mother loved. And, of course, with many of them, I grew up with them, so there is a really strong attachment based on my memory of looking at them all my childhood.

How do you think that growing up with such artistic parents influenced you as you’ve settled into your home?
Growing up with these two people was an incredible experience. I can’t even begin to describe how blessed we were, my brother and I. They were incredible. Beauty was really important, [as was] the way the house looked and the things in it, the way we traveled – which we did extensively – the search for beauty, and the exploration. My brother would describe life with them as being like a treasure hunt. It was always searching out fabulous craft, fabulous design.

I can’t help but notice the array of boxes and chests around your home, especially in your studio. 
Those are Japanese tansu, or portable merchant chests. They’re made of a very light wood, and they’re always specialized for the trade. The boxes look different depending on what the person was doing, whether they sold swords or fabrics or shoes. They’re meant to be very portable, and, often, they’ll have handles on the sides. My husband and I collected them, and there are more than 100 in the house. Some of them are quite small.

I think one of the things that started the whole beadwork thing for me was that it was a justification for collecting fabulous chests that then had great boxes inside them that then had great gems inside them. It’s about boxes with beautiful stuff inside them. 

You have an artistic way of grouping items. Do you organize them by theme?For me, it’s more about visual composition. I wouldn’t put things together that had a chronological relationship. There’s a poetic relationship about the way things relate to each other, and that’s how I judge how they should go together. That’s purely the result of the way I grew up; that’s the way my family did it. 

I believe in that – that if things look beautiful together, that’s justification enough. The harmony of contrast is much more interesting and exciting to me than conformity.

Watch a video interview with Claire in her studio.