‘We couldn’t invent a more appropriate setting,” says Jimmy Clark, director of Peters Valley, a residential artists’ community in Sussex County. On Sunday, June 3, internationally-acclaimed photographer Ernestine Ruben and her husband, Herbert, a former Merrill Lynch executive who retired in 1992, will hold a dinner and reception to benefit Peters Valley at their Princeton home, which is featured in the book, “The Perfect Home.” “Like the Rubens’ home and gardens, much of what goes on in our workshops and studios is all about being creative and using of good design — working well with balance, scale, space, and color,” says Clark.
Peters Valley is the only residential center for the study of fine crafts in the Middle Atlantic region and one of the few residential artist communities in this country where students can live and work with masters in their fields — weavers, photographers, fine metal workers, ceramic artists, and blacksmiths — who come from all over the world. Many of the teachers, past and present, have works in major American museum collections. Among this year’s faculty, works by silversmith Michael Banner’s can be seen in the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art; Smithsonian Institution textile artist Joan Morris, who made the fabrics for the costumes in the Broadway production of “The Lion King,” has work in Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum of the Smithsonian and the Wadsworth Athenaeum; and basket weaver JoAnne Russo’s works are in the collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Peters Valley was established in 1970, a joint effort by a group of citizens in Sussex County and the National Park Service, after the Corps of Engineers abandoned its plan to build a flood control dam on the Delaware River. Nineteenth-century historic buildings that would have otherwise been drowned by the Tocks Island project were given new life. Today they house well-equipped studios, dormitories, a crafts shop and gallery, and meeting halls.
Every summer over 800 students come to Peters Valley from across the country to live and study at workshops that run for two to six days. In addition, there are fall and winter residency programs for emerging artists. The organization also provides scholarships for undergraduate students.
Peters Valley director Jimmy Clark says that the Ruben’s home, filled with art collections and furniture of 20th century masters and the expansive gardens are an especially appropriate setting for an event focusing on Peters Valley, where life is all about teaching crafts and the production of beautiful objects.
According to Ernestine Ruben, the design for the light-filled interior of their rambling dwelling — where almost every room is filled with art and has a sweeping view of the grounds — was developed with the landscape in mind, as a working dialogue between nature and the domain. The same is true for the layout of the gardens, where contour and color are frequently graphic extensions of life indoors. As an example, Ruben says that the gardens outside the entry gallery are filled, in season, with blue and white flowers that echo the colors of a rug, designed by Pablo Picasso, that hangs on the wall. Her husband, Herbert, says that the sweeping curvilinear forms that mark contours and beds in the rolling landscape are an extension of one of his wife’s primary aesthetic concerns. “Curves are an important element here,” he says, “just as they are in Ernie’s work.”
The three-acre property didn’t always look like this. According to Herbert, when they bought their house in 1990 — originally a two-bedroom home — the grounds were not very interesting. Like much of Princeton’s Cherry Hill woodland, the terrain was almost flat with no significant landmarks. Passionate about gardening, Herbert set about remaking the landscape — a Herculean task. With the help of Dennis Hickock, a landscape architect instrumental in the design of the gardens of the new J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, he reconfigured the contours of the land, added a burbling brook, waterfall, and tranquil, shaded pond, and designed and then developed both formal and woodland gardens.
Carefully landscaped wooded areas now accentuate the entire property. And seven individual gardens are the settings for native azaleas, varieties of ferns and moss, roses, grand allees (technically a walkway lined with trees but Ernestine describes an allee as an “axis relating the land to the house”), and assorted architectural elements including a centuries-old fountain discovered at Paris flea market. One tapered allee, which dominates the view from the garden room, is bordered by evergreen magnolias. And Herbert is currently working on a “hedge in the sky,” he says, by reconfiguring the branches of four young sycamore trees that form the corners of a paved square.
The interior of the house is an equally complex mix of personal style and important art and objects. Works by some of the great artists of the last century serve as background for an eclectic mix of notable furniture and decorative arts. The mix includes contemporary and antique pieces, among them a hand-crafted bedroom suite and objects of glass designed by Ernestine, and other works made and collected by members of her family. A generous sampling Ernestine’s much-acclaimed photography can also be seen. A noteworthy array of furniture ranges in style from put-your-feet-up comfortable to such historically significant objects as Tiffany lamps, Thonet side tables, and an English mid-19th century partners desk. Among the important 20th century pieces are Italian Futurist chairs, circa 1920; bedroom furniture designed by world-famous Eero Saarinen; side tables by Philippe Stark; and chairs by Hans Wegner.
In the garden room, a sculpture by Jean Arp adds artistic drama to the view. In a lighter architectural vein there is a brightly colored dormitory and play area designed as a happy space for the Ruben’s seven grandchildren.
Ernestine, born in 1931, is internationally known through exhibitions, books, and workshops. Her work, which includes extensive studies of the human body, is included in many major museums and private collections. Most of her life has been focused on arts and she continues to experiment with diverse concepts and techniques as they relate to photography. This summer she will teach two courses at Peters Valley. In July she will teach “More Than Seeing,” described as “a workshop for artists who seek (re)discovery of their creative juices through the use of photography in a perfect setting.” In August she will co-lead another workshop, with photographer Bruce Chalifour, the former editor of AfterImage Magazine, called “Contemporary Issues in Photography: Questioning Our Identity as Photographers,” in which the changing boundaries of photography and the context in which photography is used will be examined.
The June 3 dinner will be catered by Creative Edge Parties in New York, a leading caterer whose clients include Vogue, Glamour, and In Style magazines; Lalique; Miramax Films; MTV; and HBO. Its president and co-owner is Carla Ruben, Ernestine’s daughter.
Ernestine sees the garden as a perfect metaphor for the event: “The garden for us is a living art form — the very philosophy of Peters Valley.”
Peters Valley Benefit Garden Party, Sunday, June 3, 5 to 9 p.m., at the Princeton home of Ernestine and Herbert Ruben. $250 ($200 is tax-deductible). 973-948-5200, weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.