On a discreet block of Brooklyn Heights, overlooking pre-Civil War townhouses linked by Greek Revival columns, sits a Mid-Century Modern masterpiece. Take a look at the treasures inside, and learn about the artist and his wife who collected them.
Ronald Clyne’s 50-year career in graphic artwork for the independent Folkways Records label has been presented at MoMA and preserved by the Smithsonian. But he started out in a very different genre: illustrating science fiction and fantasy book covers. Born in 1925 in Chicago, Ronald showed a prodigious talent for drawing early on, and he sold his first cartoon to a publisher at the age of fifteen. After his parents moved to Beverly Hills, he continued to develop his skills, contributing artwork to L.A.’s Science Fantasy Society.
But it wasn’t until Folkways Records founder Moses Asch reached out to him that Ronald’s career turned towards graphic design. While Asch gave him total artistic license to create the cover art, he was limited by the low budget constraints of the serious-minded little record label. Using earthy, monotone or two-tone colors, he pulled together typography, simple shapes, and photography from the public domain so the visual design could convey the sound of each record. The authentic look resonated with the lo-fi recordings, and became the face of Folkways Records.
To appreciate Ronald Clyne’s artwork means understanding the impact of Folkways Records, which was the precursor to the Folk wave of the early ’60s. Asch boldly represented musicians that bigger labels wouldn’t pick up, such as Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie. The progressive-minded Folkways sought to document the music as honestly as possible—music which was for the people, by the people—instead of profiting from the polished brass-band moneymakers popular in the 1940s. With the groundbreaking belief that all sound is created equal, Asch delivered sounds to the American homescape that changed the way we heard the world. Step into a hipster café in Brooklyn today, and you’re sure to hear a track from Folkways playing in the background, zapping you into the past while you sip your latte.
Folkways’ repertoire extended beyond banjos and harmonicas to include world music and indigenous songs. Ronald’s fascination with the Oceanic art of New Guinea factored in to the respectful cover art he did for these albums. He and his wife, Hortense, had even started acquiring a collection spanning from the volcanic islands of Vanuatu to the East Sepik River province, including masks which were decorated with feathers and painted with rich pigments, carved wood shields, and woven headdresses.
Collaborating with local preservationists Joseph and Mary Merz of Merz Architects in 1965, Ronald and Hortense relocated to a townhouse on the historic “Willowtown” block of Brooklyn Heights. Upon an empty lot, the mid-century house was built by the Merz team using the highest standards for contemporary housing. Part domain, part studio, part art gallery, Ronald and Hortense made a home for their Oceanic collection, of which Ronald explained was the people’s attempt to capture what was sacred. He showcased these tribal relics against the minimalist mid-century interior to appreciate the primal and universal expression of humankind.
The organic shapes and textures of their Oceanic collection were strikingly juxtaposed against the smooth graphic lines of modern art by John Loveless, Power Boothe, and Ronald himself. The artwork from two vastly different cultures complemented each other side by side, while the sheer expanse of the modern works emphasized the sweeping loft-like architecture. Fitting right into the minimalist style, Ronald and Hortense furnished their home with mid-century classics such as black leather sofas by Danish designers Jørgen Kastholm and Preben Fabricius, and a glass-topped, chrome-plated coffee table by Poul Kjærholm.
The collection of Ronald and Hortense Clyne is now available on Sotheby’s Home, and we couldn’t be more honored to share these one-of-a-kind pieces with you. Every item is imbued with story, cultivated from lives well-lived.