I studied landscape architecture at Kansas State University’s College of Architecture and Design. Among others, we studied the work of architect I.M. Pei. His recent passing gave me a moment to pause and reflect on his work and influence.
I.M. Pei was a world-renowned architect who gifted us enduring architectural wonders. He designed iconic structures from the Louvre’s ‘glass pyramid’ to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was a contemporary of one of my favorite architects, Frank Lloyd Wright. While both of them worked in glass and concrete, I.M. Pei designs are very distinctive, and the scale of his creations differed significantly from that of Frank Lloyd Wright. To be perfectly honest, as a student, I had no appreciation for I.M. Pei’s style. To my eye, his work seemed chunky, almost industrial, which was an aesthetic to which I could not relate. I did not understand the appeal.
Several years after college, in 2000, I visited the National Gallery’s east wing for the first time. This building primarily displays modern art but houses the showcase space for traveling exhibits as well. The east wing, like many museum spaces, also happens to have been designed by I.M. Pei.
I was prepared to be unimpressed by the building but was looking forward to seeing the 1900 Paris exhibition on art nouveau. The east wing appears from the exterior to be a large series of blocky structures with few windows, except along the east wall and above the main entry. It is entirely composed of concrete and glass, which I expected to be dull, lifeless, dark, and uncomfortable. I could not have been more wrong.
Only after stepping inside the National Gallery’s east wing, did I finally understand the genius of IMP Pei. The dimly lit entry draws you gently forward into a sweeping, airy, light-filled space. The soaring skylights encourage you to raise your eyes heaven-ward, taking in the vastness of the space surrounding you along with the enormous modern art sculptures reaching up from the ground and dangling from the ceiling. The space highlights the art perfectly. It simultaneously reminds you how small you are while making you feel as if you, too, can reach great heights.
It is a brilliantly created space and does exactly what great art does—inspires. That 1900 Paris exhibit, showcased in I.M. Pe’s architectural wonder, is what inspired me to pursue making furniture. For me, that day was full of inspiration and insight. I am now forever grateful to I.M. Pei for the enduring impression he made on my life and the lives of architects and artists the world over. I hope that my designs someday inspire the same sense of awe and wonder as the spaces that he created.