Raleigh Now Spotlight: Design Duet

Becky Kirkland

North Carolina’s celebrated art, across mediums, is often the marriage of tradition and innovation, craft and contemporary. At the Gregg Museum of Art & Design, one current exhibition showcases a compendium of work by two pioneers and anchors of this marriage, Robert Keith Black and Jesse Ormond Sanderson, Jr. DESIGN DUET includes pieces by the two acclaimed artists, known for their modern design work – abstract collage paintings, contemporary etched and glazed enamels – as well as furniture, stoneware, and jewelry. Accessory and necessity commingle. “This represents a lifestyle over the years,” Sanderson says.

The Triangle’s mid-century cultural landscape was one of innovation: Research Triangle Park was first envisioned in the early 1950s, providing opportunities for industries apart from textiles, tobacco, and furniture. Meanwhile, Black studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, where he fell in love with the latter, but with contemporary flair – modern design. The Museum of Modern Art exposed him to Poul Kjærholm’s clean lines and Hans Wegner’s peacock chair. By 1958, he’d moved to North Carolina, met his partner, Ormond Sanderson, and they’d moved to a derelict family farm outside of Chapel Hill. While RTP broke ground, Black and Sanderson devoted their creative energies to celebrating and innovating the state’s traditional industries. For inspiration, they took a number of design magazines from Europe. “Domus Italian magazine, Mobile Design German magazine, Mobilia, a Danish publication – these were all important titles for us,” Sanderson says. “We were, and are, interested in the modernistic wave because we felt it was a refinement of styles. Less is more.”

The couple’s styles are both distinct for many reasons, including the clear respect for North Carolina craftsmanship. Sanderson says modernism and nature share an essence of simplicity. “Robert and I closely associate ourselves with the natural world. That’s where most of our inspiration comes from.” Throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s, Black and Sanderson cultivated a community of creatives: they operated a crafts shop stocked with their own wares as well as pottery from Seagrove and textiles made by local weavers in an on-site loom. The shop expanded to become Strawvalley, a complex of design-minded stores including a high-end boutique, an interior design shop, and an architectural firm.

Ultimately, the two downsized to the rural property outside of the Triangle where they live today, both well into their 80s, and both still working and creating. This show at the Gregg is a “true honor,” Sanderson says, for two Raleigh area natives. It is a continuation of their Strawvalley legacy. “One of the things that has propelled our interest in the arts is the opportunity and the hope to educate the public about crafts in North Carolina.”   –Jessie Ammons Rumbley

DESIGN DUET—the creative lives of Robert Black and Ormond Sanderson is open until Sept. 9 at the Gregg Museum of Art & Design at N.C. State University; gregg.arts.ncsu.edu