“I am an old man” Helmut Fortense says. “I have to recognize that. I did my thing in this community. I am ready for the final stages of my life. “
He’s actually not old. Fortense is 77 and in good health. But if there’s one thing the German-born businessman has mastered, it’s how to live well. There are operas in Europe – he and his wife Katie recently attended two performances in Bayreuth after waiting four years for tickets. There are books to read and music to be made – the couple just built a glass pavilion in their home for such nifty pursuits. There are good cars to see – Fortense had a successful career owning a Mercedes dealership in Illinois before retiring at 50 and moving to Indianapolis.
But there is no longer any furniture or works of art for sale.
Fortense will be leaving its Form + Function business at the end of the month. At the time of going to press, he had no plans to sell it, but is holding a final sale through December. Its inventory is large and expensive, mostly European, and represents the latest and greatest in modern design, as well as classic pieces such as Eames, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto and Michael Graves. To cope with this aesthetic in Indianapolis, where taste is conservative and most new architectures are based on the past, you have to live and breathe not just looks, but lifestyle as well.
“Helmut was a pied piper of modern design in Indianapolis,” says interior designer Tom Vriesman, a friend and colleague who often took Fortense to the Milan furniture fair in Italy. “When Craig Miller was building the contemporary design collection at IMA, Helmut worked with him to donate pieces.” Fortense also hosted in-store events for the museum’s Design Arts Society, sponsoring local artists, and turning the curious into modernists over a cup of espresso and discussions about the sophistication of modern design.
Fortense moved to Indy after a couple of decades in Illinois. In the early 1990s, after divorcing, he was searching for the soul with a local disciple of the mythopoetic men’s movement, based primarily on the book Iron John: A Book About Men by Robert Bly. Indy was also closer to his son, who was in college in Ohio. Fortense had to do something, and he always valued modern design even though he had never been trained in it. So he opened Form + Function and – in what he now calls a “massive misjudgment” – thought it would be easy to sell elegant European home accessories here.
An early customer was initially cautious. He came into the shop when he was in what is now the ironworks near George’s restaurant. It wasn’t the best place – Form + Function was exposed to the fast paced traffic on Keystone. To attract attention, Fortense put two red lamps in the window and left them on all night. “Red attracts unmarried men,” says Fortense, laughing and half-joking. But it worked. That early customer was a doctor who was getting divorced. He looked around and bought a lamp. He later returned and asked for design help in his home. Fortense himself took on such tasks at this time. The man started buying the family tree furniture from Form + Function, which, according to Fortense, meant nothing to him when he first walked into the store. Fifteen years after that visit, he hired Evans Woolen to create a box-shaped house of modernity – and convinced two friends to do the same next door. Fortense’s job was done.
He’s a talented businessman, according to architect Drew White, who designed both Form + Function stores (moved down 86th Street to Nora in 1999). White, also a modernist, was a kindred spirit. But with children at home, Form + Function was not always on budget. White once looked at Le Corbusier’s famous LC4 lounger. Fortense put it in White’s convertible and said to take it home and try it out. “He knew what he was doing,” says White. “As soon as I brought it home, I knew there was no way I was going to take it back. He allowed me to set up a payment plan. “
Fortense was delivering furniture in the Traders Point area when he found his soulmate of a house: a 1,500-square-foot mid-century modern building designed by Indianapolis architect Edward Pierre, who is respected in the local design community but widely recognized as unsung applies. It is on the edge of a ravine, surrounded by trees. It’s small but special. The living room has a sloping ceiling with wooden beams and a stone fireplace. The doors lead to a terrace with complete privacy, the owner’s favorite place to sit with coffee and the New York Times.
A few years ago when Fortense got married, he realized he needed more space. Katie plays the cello and they both enjoy listening to classical music and reading. But the house only had a general living space. They needed an extra room for those times when they didn’t want to do the same, and they wanted a guest room too.
Fortense hired Steven Risting, a longtime economic architect in the city. Since Risting founded his own practice a few years earlier, he has had more freedom to realize small residential projects – and this was something special. “I liked that it was an architect-designed house,” says Risting. “I had added historical projects” – and renovated the Harry Weese ice skating arena in Columbus, Indiana – and was used to exposing wooden structures. I am sensitive to that. “Risting would even win the Edward D. Pierre Award for Community Service from the Indiana Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
He and Fortense hit it off. Risting spoke Fortense’s language. He had studied in Helsinki as a student and had bought gifts from Form + Function for many years. An Aalto vase was a focal point; Fortense has a large collection from Aalto himself. Risting was building a vacation home for his family called the Glass Cabin, a pared-back box on posts with windows in a field straight from Dwell’s magazine. The living room resembled that of Fortense: a sloping roof with wooden beams and a generous view of nature.
They ruled out an extension on the north side of the house, which would have required an overhaul of the sewage system. Extending the West End would have meant replacing Fortense’s beloved terrace. The eastern edge was the driveway. That left the south – the gorge.
They decided to play the glass booth and create a room with windows on two walls that was cantilevered over the abyss. The roof was a little higher than that of the house. A couple of oversized doors pop open from the entrance; The rest of the house extends in the other direction, giving this space privacy (with a B&B Italia sofa bed it doubles as a guest room). The higher roofline visually distinguishes it from the main house, so the space became known as a pavilion, an architectural term for a structure with a secondary use in relation to the main house.
It wasn’t easy to build. The room is 16 feet long on a 12 foot foundation of which it takes four feet to hang on the edge. There is also a “slit window” – small and narrow – on one outer wall that is not all made of glass. Risting went through several contractors before finding someone ready to build it.
That’s the kind of commitment Fortense needs to develop. “You don’t need an architect to design a house,” says Risting. “What’s the value? Uniqueness. Most of them would not have created the slit window, raised the roof or made the room cantilevered. They would have built right down. “
Internally, Fortense has always stuck to the same standard. “I’d rather sit on an orange box than buy a chair that I don’t like,” he says. “I’ll wait until I have the money to buy a chair.” However, marriage brought compromises. Katie hung Acopian BirdSavers – a deterrent known as Zen wind curtains – in front of a large window. She made them herself from parachute cords. “If you’ve ever wanted proof that I love this woman,” says Fortense, pointing to her.
The house is full of European designers but there aren’t any ubiquitous pieces like an Eames chaise longue or a noguchi table. Instead, a velvet-upholstered Knoll rocking chair by a Spanish designer and a sleek brown leather armchair by DeSede are most commonly used in the pavilion. (The leather comes from German and Swiss cows raised at great heights, which makes the skin thicker.) Fortense points to a Marcel Breuer “Laccio” side table from the Bauhaus period with a simple top made of American cypress wood on a tubular shape Chrome bases, one of them 200 produced in a limited run from 1994. The design, which has endured since the 1920s, was modified from a stool that aircraft assemblers made for themselves in the 1920s. You wouldn’t notice, but for Fortense, its simplicity is beautiful. “Take something away and it is no longer a piece of furniture,” he says.
He doesn’t have a favorite property. He loves everything – the high-quality cutlery that he bought at the age of 20 and which he still uses, the wind chimes by Paolo Soleri, the Italian toilet paper holder and the dining table by Molino (an original that was sold 10 years ago for 3.5 Million US dollars was auctioned) the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold). This is where the total work of art comes into play. It’s not about a look; It’s about everything working in harmony (but not because a color palette holds everything together) and creating a sense of a beloved space. The two-room apartment Fortense, which grew up in Germany, was a total work of art, although it didn’t even have a full bathroom. “The rooms had soul, and that was my mother. They reflected them, ”he says. Once, while on vacation in Costa Rica with his son, a guide invited them to his house. It had a dirty floor and was cluttered beyond Fortense, but “nothing in it was cheap,” he says. “It was lived. It was a total work of art.”
What then? What will become of his self-described “missionary zeal” to spread the gospel of the modern age? Can he just sit? Completely relaxed in his slim leather armchair in his pavilion, legs crossed, espresso brewed, Katie nearby with her grades, he says: “I lived the American dream. I can sit “