Art Market

This Collecting Couple Lives with a Rotating Cast of Craft Masterpieces

Casey Lesser
Apr 24, 2020 9:08PM

Portrait of Lou and Sandy Grotta outside their Richard Meier home. Photo by Tom Grotta. Courtesy of browngrotta arts.

Atop a hill in Morris County, New Jersey, there’s a bright-white modernist house that’s no ordinary living space. The Richard Meier–designed, sundial-shaped structure is a jewel box of ceramics, tapestries, basketry, wood carvings, and other handmade gems. Through floor-to-ceiling windows, exemplary works by esteemed artists and designers abound—from Viola Frey and Peter Voulkos to Françoise Grossen, Sheila Hicks, and Lenore Tawney.

This the home of Lou and Sandy Grotta, who have been amassing a collection of modern craft masterworks for over six decades. But when you ask them about it, they’re quick to reject the premise that they’re “collectors.”

“It’s orchestrating your home,” Lou Grotta explained on a Tuesday morning in late February. “You orchestrate your place—don’t you?”

View of the Grottas’s living room with works by Thomas Hucker, Sheila Hicks, Helena Hernmarck, Maija Grotell, Toshiko Takaezu, Wayne Higby, Kenneth Ferguson, John McQueen, and more. Photo by Tom Grotta. Courtesy of browngrotta arts.


The word “collector,” for him, lacks the discernment and thoughtfulness that he and his wife have embraced while acquiring pieces and giving them pride of place in their home. The term glosses over the deep relationship-building involved; the ability to recognize timelessness and hone a cohesive aesthetic; and the gift of thoughtfully arranging objects and giving them space to breathe.

“People have 150 pairs of sneakers, they’re collectors; people collect bubblegum cards, they’re collectors. And just the work of it—they get a great kick out of it,” Lou said. “Everybody has a home that they’re going to do. The question is the quality of how you do it and how fair you are to the objects.” For the Grottas, building an art collection has gone hand in hand with building a life.

Chance encounters

View of the Grottas’s kitchen with works by Bill Sax, Ineke Hans, Jonathan Glick, Lonny van Ryswyck and Nadine Sterk, Adrian Saxe, Los Castillo, Jeff Oestreich, Robert Winokur, and more. Photo by Tom Grotta. Courtesy of browngrotta arts.

The octogenarian couple met and began dating as students at the University of Michigan in 1953; Lou was a junior, Sandy a sophomore. Together, they enrolled in art history courses that would incite a lifelong passion for art and design. They married in the mid-1950s and had two children.

While Sandy pursued a career as an interior designer, Lou worked his way up at Paige Electric, a global electronics and technology company headquartered in New Jersey, eventually becoming its president. Later, their son, Tom Grotta, would contribute his expertise to the collection—he opened his own textile-focused gallery, browngrotta arts, 30 years ago and helped his parents add important woven pieces to the collection. In the late 1980s, the Grottas dreamt up their current house with their objects in mind. Meier, the house’s architect, was a childhood friend of Lou’s (they went to sleepaway camp together), and its chief curator was Sandy. The couple moved into the house in 1989.

The collection began decades earlier, after a fateful moment in the early 1960s. The couple was leaving the Museum of Modern Art when they were struck by the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (a precursor to the present-day Museum of Arts and Design) next door. The museum’s shop was selling the smooth, hand-hewn walnut works of Edgar and Joyce Anderson. “I fell in love with the wood,” Sandy recalled. And over the next three decades, the Grottas would commission dozens of works by the couple—from their dining room table to a whimsical grandfather clock shaped after Edgar’s arm. The couple also crafted a surrealistic high chair that the children used with arms carved after Sandy’s. The Grottas quickly became the Andersons’ greatest patrons.

Close connections

Installation view of works by Edgar and Joyce Anderson, and William Wyman. Photo by Tom Grotta. Courtesy of browngrotta arts.

From the start, collecting was a personal affair; it often meant meeting artists or writing them letters. In some cases, it meant befriending them and supporting their work over the course of decades. That was the case with the Andersons as well as other artists the Grottas met through the wood-carving couple, like ceramicists Toshiko Takaezu and William Wyman and weaver Tawney.

At times, Lou recalled, they discovered artists in books or magazines, then wrote them letters. Sandy wrote the Native American jewelry designer Charles Loloma after seeing his work in the Smithsonian’s historic “Objects U.S.A.” exhibition in 1969. She tracked him down and asked if he had any work available. Two weeks later, a box arrived in the mail with a bracelet inside. Lou recalled that Loloma had written, “If you don’t like it, send it back.” Sandy kept it.

The Canadian weaver Mariette Rousseau-Vermette also received a cold letter in the mail, but she lost it. Six months later, the Grottas received a reply and went on to collect several of her works. Two of her tapestries, commissioned for the house, hang prominently. One, in the dining room, is a lush mix of deep blues and purples with cream and periwinkle; the other, in the den, cleverly hides the television thanks to a special remote-controlled mechanism. (“It’s an unfortunate reality of today’s world where the flat screen TV is ruining a lot of major walls,” Tom Grotta said.)

Tom recalled that Rousseau-Vermette became like family. “She made ties for everybody in my wedding,” he said. And while she and many other artists that are integral to the collection have since passed, their friendships linger in the Grotta home.

No “stuff,” just art

View of the Grottas’s dining room with works by Helena Hernmarck, Sheila Hicks, Mariette Rousseau-Vermette, Chief Don Lelooska, Richard Devore, Dorothy Gill Barnes, Gyöngy Laky, Campana Brothers, and more. Photo by Tom Grotta. Courtesy of browngrotta arts.

Even on a gray February morning, natural light floods the pristine white-and-glass house; from every vantage, there are myriad tempting works to ogle. Aside from the focus on craft techniques that unites the collection, there’s a harmonizing color palette, chosen by Sandy, of neutral hues and deep, jewel-toned blues, with infrequent hints of yellow. Lou quipped that the emphasis on blue is an ode to their alma mater (“Go Blue!”), but Sandy said she just loves the color. It was always important for the objects to “stand up” over time.

“There’s a quality of looking at stuff and appreciating it and saying, ‘I wonder if 20 years from now I’m going to still look at that,’” Lou said. “The average thing here is probably 40-some-odd years old.” And half of them, he estimated, are pieces commissioned for the couple.

Installation view of works by Lenore Tawney, Toshiko Takaezu, Edgar and Joyce Anderson, and Andreas Christensen. Photo by Tom Grotta. Courtesy of browngrotta arts.

Notably, there’s no typical “stuff” at the Grotta home—no piles of mail or magazines; no electronics or appliances; there aren’t even plants. Instead, there’s a smattering of basketry by John McQueen and Dorothy Gill Barnes beckoning you into the sunken living room, and an anthropomorphic bowl by Chief Don Lelooska filled with Hicks’s multicolored yarn “memory stones.” In the den, there’s a stunningly serene Tawney tapestry hanging above the most perfect, minimalist upright piano by Andreas Christensen. Nearby, there’s a ceramic figure made collaboratively by Frey and Betty Woodman, and several weighty round slabs by Voulkos hang across the far wall.

In the dining room, several of Wyman’s geometric vessels sit on a sleek floating Hans Wegner shelf. In the kitchen, two rows of enviable teapots stand alert below the cabinets, while an enticing spread of nuts, dried fruits, and red-hot candies is artfully arranged in wooden bowls by Markku Kosonen and David Pye.

Even the bathrooms are impressive showrooms. The downstairs powder room is graced with a Ken Ferguson ceramic rabbit plate that greets you while using the commode; the upstairs washroom is filled with over two dozen of Takaezu’s pots, glazed in rich cobalts, perched around the bathtub and the sink. Everything appears to be placed just so—but it’s actually in a constant state of flux.

Heavy rotation

Installation view of works by Jack Earle, Mariette Rousseau-Vermette, Kiff Slemmons, Thomas Hucker, and more. Photo by Tom Grotta. Courtesy of browngrotta arts.

Installation view of works by Wendy Ramshaw. Photo by Tom Grotta. Courtesy of browngrotta arts.

In the evenings, after Sandy goes to bed, Lou tends to his objects. While taking laps around the house, he might move some baskets or refresh a vessel-filled niche near the entryway. He’s always on the lookout for new ways to do justice to his wares. Lou noted that he’d moved a large totem by Lelooska and many other pieces since the publication of the book The Grotta Home by Richard Meier (2019), which is filled with images of the house and collection; all of the photographs were taken by Tom. “It looks better here,” Lou said of the totem.

In both the upstairs and the downstairs bedrooms, Sandy’s jewelry collection is the main art form. Some necklaces—like a thin gold swoop featuring a reproduction of Michelangelo’s Adam and two intertwined, wire-sculpted fish by Christina Smith—are hung on blank canvases on the wall, while dozens of rings and bracelets are deftly arranged on jewelry trees by Thomas Hucker, another woodworker the Grottas have supported for many years. On a bedside table, a striking woven bust of Sandy by Norma Minkowitz is wearing a necklace and earrings adorned with tiny household cleaning supplies by Laurie Hall. And in Sandy’s closet, a vanity that might typically feature beauty products and perfumes is bedecked with the work of Wendy Ramshaw, whose pieces perch on dainty glass and metallic stands that rival the jewelry itself.

Nearby is a literal chest of drawers—a jewelry box in the shape of a woman’s torso by the Andersons. The piece was intended for a book on woodworking techniques, but it took so long to make that the original commission fell through, and Sandy scooped it up. Given her penchant for keeping her jewelry on display, few objects are actually kept in the chest, but it’s a sculpture in its own right and is situated as such on one side of the bedroom.

Installation view of a walnut jewelry chest by Edgar and Joyce Anderson. Photo by Tom Grotta. Courtesy of browngrotta arts.

Installation view of works by Toshiko Takaezu. Photo by Tom Grotta. Courtesy of browngrotta arts.

Lou’s aware that some of the artists they’ve championed the most (like the Andersons, Wyman, and Rousseau-Vermette) have not yet gotten their due in art and design spheres—and he’s thinking about that in considering the future of the collection. While he noted that his children can take their pick, certain works will go to institutions in order to help build the legacies of those artists. “I want to find a home for their stuff; I know they deserve the recognition,” he said. For the time being, those works are still the “stuff” of the Grottas’ lives.

“It’s all over the place—it’s foreground, middle ground, background,” Lou said while gesturing toward objects on every surface in the upstairs bedroom.

His main advice to aspiring collectors is “do your homework.” He recalled that someone once told him you have to see 50 works by an artist before you can start to understand what’s good. Thanks to the internet, that’s much easier today than it was when he and Sandy started out. “Don’t fall in love with the latest stuff,” he warned. “Decide who you like and what you like.”

“This has been our life, and obviously we’re still excited about it, but it deserves working at it,” Lou continued. “And the important thing is what you like—right?”

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.