Cedric Hartman is in perpetual pursuit of perfection.
His muse, the luminaire.
His life as artist-inventor-designer, a series of odd, fortuitous, accidental meetings. And lucky interludes.
“I seem to have this sort of weird serendipity in my life,” Hartman imparts, reflecting on his 85 years.
It’s a rare public revelation. His life is not an open book.
“I’m publicity averse,” he offers as partial explanation. “I hate the self-promotion, or even the implied self-promotion.”
And its distraction.
“I like not being noticed.”
Here, the Omaha artist sheds light on the profound influences and lucky interludes that led him to be the designer of lighting fixtures collected the world over.
A ‘BIFURCATED’ LIFE
“One side was pushing hard to the theater, the other side was pushing hard toward design,” Hartman says, reflecting on the profound influences in "this bifurcated life – of loving architecture and design.”
His mother, Bonnelynn, was a serious artist and an intellectual, and Hartman idol.
His younger sister, Mary Emily, was a serious artist, too, who studied in Paris as a Fulbright scholar.
Aunt Floy Smith Turner (Cedric's mother's sister) coached drama at Omaha Central High School in the 1920s, and was friends with “Doe” Brando, a founder of the Omaha Community Playhouse.
Through them and others, Hartman discovered English playwrights and became “fully infected with classical theater” in his youth.
He read – a lot (and has a fair-sized library today), and learned to play the piano (Bach became a lifelong addiction).
Cedric’s father, Cecil Leroy “Sed," would lay a foundation on the design side.
A star athlete at the University of Nebraska, the senior Hartman spent nearly 15 years as a coach and educator at the former Omaha University before serving as a naval officer in World War II. After the war, he started a new career in Omaha in construction and real estate.
His son's architectural sensibility began to reveal itself in the mid-1940s on visits to construction sites. Young Cedric would watch the workers and anticipate errors and problems. He taught himself how to draw in order to show his father what he thought they could do better. Soon, he was taking on more ambitious ventures.
A defining moment came in the late 1940s, when Louis Skinner, the youngest son of the founder of the famed raisin bran, spaghetti and macaroni company, needed help completing a house.
The foundation was in but the design had been canned, so Cedric launched a plan that ultimately would have given Skinner one of the first modern residences in Omaha.
“And there was my father, watching with mixed horror and delight” as Cedric sold Skinner on the concept of a flat-roof design with high ceilings and skylights – avant-garde features at the time. “For Omaha, then, it was daring.”
But the Korean War broke out and Uncle Sam came knocking.
The Skinner project was only three-quarters done when the Skinners moved in and Hartman headed off the service. Skinner died in a plane crash no long afterward and that effectively ended the house project for Hartman. He last saw the interior in mid-1951. The dwelling went on to have a number of distinguished owners over the decades, Hartman notes with a hint of personal satisfaction.
“In a way, it proved a lucky interlude for me," serendipity continuing to be at play.
Hartman served his Korean War time as an officer at Fifth Army Headquarters in Chicago, working as aide-de-camp for the chief of staff, Gen. Joe Twitty.
The general’s daughter helped Hartman get an apartment near the headquarters area so he could attend night school at the Armory Institute. At the time, it was populated with expatriates from the Bauhaus school of design in Germany.
"Another influential period."
Military service complete in 1953, Hartman headed to New York City to try his luck in classical theater.
He found an agent and got small acting jobs right off, but television, more than stage, was hot.
He joined the Actors Guild, but then started to have misgivings.
“The ‘meat rack’ aspect of television and theater at the time was not for me. It was going to be a long and uncertain wait for the kind of classical theater that I imagined.”
A family crisis hastened his return to Omaha. His sister had fallen ill – in what would turn out to be, as he describes it, a ruinous 40-year illness.
"And that’s what changed my life," he says, explaining that he felt compelled to stay in Omaha. “We were pulled together as a family.”
For income, he began accepting small design jobs as architect, sans portfolio.
With his father, they explored possibilities for larger-scale projects. Among them: rejuvenation of warehouse buildings in what became the Old Market.
Hartman, in the 1960s, would first put the idea for a bohemian district of shops, galleries and restaurants in the head of Sam Mercer, whose family company owned some of the warehouses in the area.
Hartman brought his own design aesthetic to some of those early businesses, most notably the French Café.
A turning point in Hartman's career came in 1963 when he and Judy Youngman Wigton opened The Afternoon, a upscale gallery-boutique specializing in well-designed items (the current shop of the same name in Midtown Crossing has no connection). Hartman and Youngman eventually sold to new owners. “We were long on taste and short on business acumen,” Hartman concedes, but the store had its influence.
As Hartman continued to entertain design projects, he found himself needing furnishings that didn’t seem to exist. He solved the dilemma by designing his own tables and hardware pieces - even upholstered furniture. It also was a way to enjoy components of architecture without needing to interact with a lot of people.
As he took commissions and helped clients here and in New York, where he still had connections, he recognized that there were problems with lighting, especially in high-rises with glass walls.
“People were buying standing lamps and trying to make them work in the nighttime hours. But they made white walls very, very bright, and turned glass walls into black mirrors.
“And in the daytime, the lamps just stood there kind of quarreling with each other...”
Down lighting, which was just coming into vogue, provided a partial solution by casting genial fill light where it was needed most – in the lower one-third of a room.
“I noticed how well it worked. It gave a very nice quality of light to these interior spaces, but it was so rigid ... and it took surgery (to install)."
“I thought to myself, why not get that kind of light from a portable device that emits the light at or beneath your seated eye level so you’re never looking at the bulb? And where the path of light is washing across the upholstery, the pillows, the books, the flowers on the table, the food you’re eating, the people sitting across from you …"
He set on a course to make lighting that didn't call attention to itself until needed. "And then, when you pull it over, I want it to be admirably well done so that you take pleasure in handling it. Like a nicely designed wristwatch might give you a certain amount of satisfaction in its workmanship.”
By decade's end, Cedric Hartman Studio was firmly established, and two of his floor lamps had found their way into permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.
"I had already been selling to design-conscious people through exclusive galleries in Chicago," Hartman recalls. With MoMA's exposure, New York followed, and soon Hartman had an exclusive clientele worldwide.
And an equally exclusive brand. None of Harman's works are mass-produce. "We have no inventory," he says. Only small editions, made to order, have ever been produced.
A self-admitted failing: "I didn’t care about pricing my stuff … I wasn’t doing many of the right things, like advertising, marketing."
If something started selling especially well, he'd take it out of production.
"I seemed to feel that making it ... succeeding with something … having a winner . . . would somehow cripple me and I’d have to stop moving ahead and focus on just that. I wanted to stay small and limber. Be more about trying new things.”
Today, his client list that reads like a who's who of the world. Flip through a luxury interiors magazine and play "I Spy." His lamps are there, peeking over the arm of a chair, or standing quietly next to a sofa.
“Most lamps look like other lamps," Hartman said. "I didn’t want any of that.'' His finishes are shiny, to reflect the colors of the room and go virtually unnoticed.
Adrian Smith, designer of the world's tallest buildings, ranks Hartman among the greats of modern industrial design. "Cedric has no equal; he's one of a kind," Smith says.
His personal collection includes early Hartman floor lamps and a commissioned fixture for his kitchen that's represented in the KANEKO exhibition.
"They're incredibly beautiful," Smith says of the pieces in his home. "I marvel at them everyday."
Hartman remains in perpetual pursuit of perfection. In his exacting nature, no detail is left to chance, no element is too trivial to agonize over.
Every component of every design is meticulously computer-rendered by Hartman and crafted by a loyal 15-person staff that includes craftsman Louis Kologenski, who has been Hartman's right-hand man for 40 years, and longtime studio manager Jim Franksen, who along with his sister, Carol, oversees operations. (Accountant Maurice Barrett has been with the studio since its incorporation in 1971.)
“These are people I care about,” Hartman says. “They’re my family.”
And each lamp, a child?
“In a way, yes. Yes.”
Does Cedric Hartman Studio go on after he’s gone?
“I hope so. I hope that I have people in place who will stay.”
But first, there’s work to be done.
The advancement of LED technology has presented an opportunity for Hartman to take his minimalist ideal even further.
“I think there will be something better soon … I don’t know what it is. But I’m going to try to invent it.”
The KANEKO Exhibition
What: Cedric Hartman: Selected Works 2015
When: Through Jan. 3, 2015
Where: KANEKO, 1111 Jones St.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday
Admission: Free during regular gallery hours