Ruth Shuman

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Ruth Shuman lives in one of the most singular apartments in New York, in part because her long-time friend, the well-known Italian designer Gaetano Pesce, gradually filled the space with his intensely original and seriously playful work. The apartment is also a visual essay in the uses of color, fittingly so because Ruth is the founder of Publicolor, an organization that runs a number of educational programs including its original program, which involves students in revitalizing their schools by painting stairwells, cafeterias and corridors in carefully considered color progressions.

In her twenties, she studied art history and architecture and went on to train as a designer at Pratt although she says she always wanted to work with underprivileged kids. Passionate and a born teacher, she is clearly driven by a determination not to squander all the potential she sees in the students who participate in the various clubs and after school programs offered by Publicolor– “As a country we are sitting on gold and we’re wasting it!”

The front door.

You grew up in Canada—are you still officially Canadian?

I’m actually American—I decided to become an American citizen as well so that I could vote. My friends had convinced me that trying to change the vote of taxi cab drivers was not enough—I had to do more!

And what about art—had that always been in your life?

I grew up around good art—beautiful art. But actually I was always interested in architecture.

Did that come from your family background? Your family [the Bronfmans] built the Sears Tower in Chicago, didn’t they?

No. It came from Atlas Shrugged [by Ayn Rand] … I was in love with Howard Roark! No … no, not Atlas Shrugged, I mean The Fountainhead.

Oh, are you still in love with Howard Roark? I was in love with those books when I was sixteen but you’re supposed to grow out of them.

They absolutely captured my imagination for architecture and that has never left me.
Architecture is word—and I learned this from Gaetano [Pesce]—that you attribute to three-dimensional functional works of art in which people live and work. And there aren’t many. That was my love but my first love was working with—and in those days we called them “delinquent”—teenagers. And my father talked me out of it because he thought I would be such a pushover for these kids. He was right.

A view into the living room. To the left, leaning against the wall are Ruth’s color studies for use in schools. The Art Deco floor lamps came from her grandparents.
Bamboo is resting atop ‘Sunset Over New York’, a couch by Gaetano Pesce. On the far wall a work by Milton Avery hangs above red ‘Sleeping Man’ cabinet out of papier maché. The lamp is by Achille Castiglione for Flos.
Gaetano Pesce’s chair is designed with ‘still life’ apples out of resin.
Looking across the living room. Bamboo is perched atop Gaetano Pesce’s Number 2 prototype for his ‘Feltri’ chair. The coffee table is by Sewell and Charity. In the far corner the ‘Airport Lamp’ stands atop the ‘Copper Cabinet.’
All of the apartment floors are painted to indicate the purpose of the room. The living room where guests and family congregate has a floor that incorporates the faces of people.

Because you’re a softie?

Yes. But I don’t come across that way. And I’ve learned from my [Publicolor] colleagues that I’ve got to honor the boundaries that they set and I can never undo them and I do respect that. And I’m very happy that they set the boundaries because it would be very hard for me. In the first years [of Publicolor] it was hard not to want to open my home to the kids.

Now I know that you were initially involved in the beginnings of The Big Apple Circus—what did you like about the circus?

It’s a non-elitist art form. I loved it! I met the two guys who started it, Paul Binder and Richard Levy, and I thought, these guys have ideals but they’re not starry-eyed idealists who are not going to make this happen—they’re going to make it happen. I love when people do.

Gaetano Pesce’s oversized Rag Chair fills a corner of the living room. On the far wall drawings by Agnes Denes hang above the ‘Sunset Over New York’ couch.
Another view Gaetano Pesce’s 1972 ‘Rag Chair’.
Bamboo relaxes in Gaetano Pesce’s lime and red resin chair.

Art books and a bronze sculpture by French artist, Antoine Bourdelle, are arranged atop a coffee table by Sewell and Charity.
A pair of gilt wood Chippendale mirrors belonged to Ruth’s mother.

Gaetano Pesce designed the living room ‘Circus Sofa’ to capture Ruth’s involvement in the development of The Big Apple Circus. To the right of the sofa is a table by Shiro Kuramata and a floor lamp by Achille Castiglioni.
Reflections of the living room from a Chippendale mirror.
‘Airport Lamp’ stands atop of a copper wall cabinet, both by Gaetano Pesce.
The back of the ‘Feltri Chair’.
Bamboo on the ‘Feltri Chair.’
Family photos.

What were their ideals?

They had a vision of a European-style one ring circus which relied heavily on all kinds of creativity and superb technique. The acts played on your imagination—no props, no sets, no lavish costumes.

[Sian] It was where all us Jews went with the kids on Christmas Day—The Big Apple Circus.

[Laughs] I didn’t know that! That’s hysterical!

Can you talk a bit about the beginnings of Publicolor?

The Circus had an arts and education program and I was very interested in that so I went out to visit some schools and I was just astonished. They were so prison-like!

L. to r.: A fresh orchid flourishes in Ruth’s light-filled living room.;Views over the Central Park reservoir from the apartment terrace.

Ruth’s golden retriever, Sky, relaxes in the foyer.
Red and Sky in the foyer. Behind Red, a mirrored map of New York By Gaetano Pesce displays the location of Ruth’s building. On the right, a painting by Alan Shields and light by Ingo Maurer flank the copper front door.
L. to r.: Gaetano Pesce’s ‘Suspension’ cabinet spans the foyer wall.; The ‘coat’ closet.
Light streams into the foyer through the door to the study.

I know people might defend those drab colors as practical but I can’t help thinking they’re there to impose authority.

Oh, no question.

I mean we don’t paint prisons bright colors, do we? It seems deliberate in some way.

There is a school of thought that absolutely believes what you just said but I don’t know if it’s deliberate or if custodians can just get these horrible paints for very cheap.

There seems to be a fear of frivolity, a fear of conveying a sense that it is a place that doesn’t take things sufficiently seriously.

I just saw that there was a major disconnect between this very disrespectful environment and our expectations of excellence from teachers and students. Being a typical Aquarian, I live in the future and I thought, we’re going to be a third-world country if we don’t capture these kids. I wanted to put a paint brush in the hands of disaffected students, let them paint their schools and, first of all, their schools will look beautiful, second of all they’ll develop a sense of pride in ownership and they will start showing up.

A port hole glimpse into the study.

Paintings by New York artist Toby Kahn hang above Gaetano Pesce’s ‘Canareggio’ sofa. The red chair is by Ron Arad. The coffee table, also by Gaetano Pesce, is made out of resin and fabric.
The study bookcase walls are filled with art books, photos and color block studies by Ruth. On the far right is a cardboard chair by Frank Gehry.

Gaetano Pesce designed this vivid colored door to Ruth’s study.
A pair of Ingo Maurer lights floats in the space above the study seating area.

What are your ideas about color?

I think of color as music. If you’re going to do a school you want to do it in a visually stimulating and not at all in an aggressive way. I didn’t want it to look harsh. When we go into a school now, I always have a color workshop as my introduction to Publicolor and I teach the kids about color as visual language. I made up this game where they connect words with colors and they explain. Then I give them hundreds of color chips and we challenge them to put these colors together to create what I call “color chords” – harmonious color chords. And I will show them examples of what works and what doesn’t work.

Are there favorite colors? Does everyone always want red?

First of all I don’t use red—it’s too aggressive. I will use a pinky-red but I won’t use a fire-engine red, no. In Newark, which was the second school we ever did, I used this beautiful yellow-green, which I adore and a lot of the kids hated it—hated it! So I had to change it.

They just told you?

Yes! Are you kidding?! They said, “What are you doing to our school?!” There’s this blue, which is kind of a lavender-y blue and they looove it! Now with that I can put this yellow-green but they’ve got to get this blue.

A sideboard and table are by Sewell and Charity, the dining chairs by Mies Van der Rohe and the ceiling fixture by Edison Price.
Hanging above the sideboard is a winter scene by French painter Maurice de Vlaminck. Standing nearby is a maquette for Gaetano Pesce’s ‘Do You Still Love Me?’.
Ruth sat across from this painting of a domestic scene by Hugh Cameron every Friday night dinner at her grandparents’ home in Canada. When they passed away Ruth purchased the painting from their estate.
A lamp by Isamu Noguchi and chairs by Gaetano Pesce stand near ‘Skin’, a drawing of the ‘Rag Chair’ in Ruth’s living room.
Three prints by James Turrell hang above Ruth’s teapot collection. A sculpture of a dress by Vadis Turner stands atop a cabinet by Gaetano Pesce.

On the far wall an intriguing wall sculpture by Vadis Turner is made out of Q-tips and tissue.

So you negotiate like this with every school? Do they all have strong opinions?

I’d say they do. Which is wonderful. I negotiate … but they’re getting better. The members of the Paint Club take a vote and we vote for the eight to ten most favorite combinations. And then we take a school-wide vote.

[Lesley] I once worked at the Oslo Peace Research Institute—bear in mind that it was an organization dedicated to conflict resolution—and they had been fighting for five years about what color to paint the exterior building, a grim, grey building—I still don’t think it has been painted.

That’s interesting. When I was in the schools full-time they’d stop me in the halls and say, “Miss, what are you putting all those f—ing colors in our school for?” And I would say, “Do you know how much that company that owns Skittles pays to do a market research to figure the colors with the highest eye-appeal? I bet they pay $50 000!” And they would say “Wow!” That was what convinced them. At one point they were really going at it and I got a little preachy. I said, “Look guys, did you participate in the Paint Club?” And they said no, so I said, “Well, without responsibility, you don’t get privilege. So you gotta keep that [mouth] shut.”

Stunning west and north views can be seen from the bedroom and kitchen.

In the kitchen Gaetano Pesce’s ‘Full of Energy’ chandelier hangs above a table and chairs by Eero Saarinen.

Looking across the kitchen table.
L. to r.: The guest bath cabinets, floor and walls are al by Gaetano Pesce.;Guest towels hang from sun, moon and star hooks.

Perfume bottles line the windowsill of the master bath.

It is very telling that they have these responses—it shows how much effect color has on people.

I love it! Love it! You have no idea how many letters we’ve gotten from principles saying “You’ve just changed the whole tone here! And we love how you created community! My school feels safer.”

What have you learned from your long relationship and friendship with [the Italian designer] Gaetano Pesce?

Oh my God … so much. I really know to put my actions where my heart is. I learned that from my mother and I also learned that from him. He deepened my belief in the power of color to transform attitudes and behavior. He has a much more sophisticated sense of color than I do – or maybe it’s just different. I don’t know. He reinforced what I knew about using color as a visual language.

Looking down the bedroom hall. The floor is painted with arrows pointing to the direction of the different bedrooms.
Hanging on the left corner is a work Canadian artist and a cousin of Ruth, Lily Freiman. Ruth made a decision in the 1970s to purchase the art of female artists not being shown actively in galleries. Included in her collection are Sylvia Sleigh, Joyce Kozloff, Michelle Stuart and Dottie Attie.
The master headboard is a profile of Ruth’s face. Both the headboard and wall cabinets are by Gaetano Pesce.
The pillow topped bed.
Bedtime reading.
Gaetano Pesce’s red pepper necklace and a beaded Masai warrior necklace stand atop a bedside storage drawers.

A TV stand ‘Feminine Shaped Cabinet’ by Gaetano Pesce was designed in the shape of a woman’s body. The crescent moon wall light is also by Gaetano Pesce.

Ruth’s work table is filled with colored pencils and paints.

‘Strawberry Bed’ by Gaetano Pesce hangs above color boards by Ruth. The nude drawing by Pellegrino was purchased by Ruth on a trip to Italy was she was twelve years old.

Do you have the energy for this work every day? You’re so passionate about it.

I have to take breaks. I really go on empty. At the end of August I was on major empty—major. But … I don’t’ know … I feel my energy coming back now.

What do you do for a break?

I go out to Colorado and I hike and I paint. And I love my dinner parties. I love having friends over. I love mixing them up. To me it’s like mixing colors.

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