Andrew Michael Geller, who died on December 25th at age 87, was artist, designer, architect, and my grandfather. He had a glimmer in his eyes and a whimsical sense of humor right down to his last conscious moments. That whimsy characterized so much of his life and work.
The son of Russian emigrants, Joseph and Olga Geller, Andrew grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Early in his life, his father, an artist, implored him to “look and see,” meaning to study the world around him and produce beautiful things that would celebrate life and make the world a better place.
Andrew attended Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art, and later studied architecture and fine art at the Cooper Union under Robert Gwathmey, father of the architect Charles Gwathmey. It was while recovering from exposure to mustard gas in an Army training exercise that he read an article about industrial designer Raymond Loewy, and became determined to work for him once the war was over. Before returning to civilian life, he designed Liberty Ship interiors as a Naval architect for the United States Maritime Commission, and also served in the U.S. Corp of Engineers.
While attending Cooper Union he met Shirley Morris, the fine arts student whom he married in 1944. The two spent a brief time living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania while Andrew worked for industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague, designing retail floor configurations and shelving for Macy’s Herald Square, and the “True Value Homes,” a simple tract housing concept.
He was then hired to work for Raymond Loewy Associates in 1947, and immediately went to work designing Lord & Taylor stores, Matson Line cruise ship interiors, and midtown Manhattan restaurants. In 1951, he was given the assignment of designing the top-floor office interiors of the Lever House, for Lever Brothers president Charles Luckman. During conception of the Lever House sculpture garden, he also served as a consultant to artist Isamu Noguchi. That same year, the Geller family (now including two children) moved to the Long Island harbor town of Northport.
My grandfather’s first freelance residential house commission was in 1953. It was a somewhat conventional looking L-shaped ranch structure in Great Neck, New York. The following year he produced another home for a neighbor in Northport. Elizabeth Reese, director of public relations for Loewy, then asked Andrew to design a beach house for a small parcel of land she had acquired in the then-sparsely populated oceanfront village of Sagaponack, New York. With very little money to work with, he decided on a simple A-frame structure that would have the structural integrity to hold up to hurricane-force winds, and would emulate the esthetics of local potato barns.
Reese loved the plans and built the house in 1955. She immediately started using it as a backdrop for Loewy client advertising, including a magazine ad for DuPont, and a fashion shoot in Vogue. Photographs of the house appeared on the cover of the real estate section of the New York Times in May 1957. Although the house was not the first A-frame, this was the first time a wide slice of the population had ever seen such a radical structure that was also low cost. My grandfather’s phone rang incessantly for weeks.
Over the next three years, he would design 15 more unique beach houses for the Hamptons, Fire Island, and Long Beach Island in New Jersey. These structures included the Pearlroth House (Westhampton Beach, 1958), considered to be one of the most influential pieces of modern architecture of the period, and the Hunt House (Ocean Bay Park, Fire Island, 1958), which was featured by the U.S. State Department in a magazine promoting the lifestyle of the average American worked and distributed throughout the Soviet Union. Many of his houses garnered nicknames for their unusual geometric shapes, such as “The Box Kite,” “The Double Diamond,” and “The Reclining Picasso.”
In 1959, Andrew reconfigured a tract house model for Loewy-client All State Properties in order to accommodate large crowds of people at the American National Exhibition in Moscow. The house sparked the famous “Kitchen Debate” between Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Riding the wave of publicity from that event, All State Properties again hired the Loewy office in 1963 to design a community of vacation houses called “Leisurama.” The task fell to my grandfather. Two hundred units were sold and built in Montauk, New York. The following year, Andrew was appointed vice president of the Loewy department of Housing and Home Products where he developed thousands of tract houses to be built throughout the U.S. He continued to design housing, office buildings and department stores until he retired from the Loewy office in 1974. Even after his retirement, he worked as a sub-contractor for various architectural firms, designing restaurants in New York’s World Trade Center, Sbarros restaurants in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and countless other structures in the United States and abroad.
In recent years, my grandfather turned back to traditional art, creating hundreds of paintings and sketches. Due to failing health, both of my grandparents moved in 2010 to Spencer, New York, to live with my mother, Jamie Geller Dutra, and stepfather Paul Dutra. Shirley passed away suddenly in July, 2010.
Andrew Geller was larger than life. He had a hand in shaping mid-century American residential architecture as smart, affordable and animated. But it was his endless creativity and curiosity about the world and its potential that were his most inspiring qualities.