“Roger Kraft,” Retro Inferno

“Untitled,” oil, oil pastel and pencil on canvas 59.5 x 41.5

Kansas City is celebrating the life and work of Roger Kraft, an influential architect who passed away ten years ago at the age of 65 of ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

The idea of celebrating Kraft and his work grew out of a conversation among KCmodern president Scott Lane, architect Mark McHenry, and Kraft’s long-time partner, Scott Anthony. It opened with a house and garden tour on June 4, featuring two houses and a memorial designed by Kraft, and continues with an exhibit of Kraft’s furniture and paintings at Kansas City’s Retro Inferno, a shop specializing in vintage mid-century modern furniture and design.

The exhibit includes six pieces of furniture designed by Kraft, but its focus is 28 of Kraft’s paintings and drawings spanning 1991 to 2010, when Kraft became intently focused on his painting. None of the paintings have been previously exhibited, as upon Kraft’s death they were put into storage and were only made available for this show.

A conversation with McHenry and Adam Roberts, the architects who worked with Kraft, and Scott, an instructor at UMKC’s Conservatory of Music, sparked considerable and insightful debate over whether Kraft’s work should be considered mid-century modern.

Although there are obvious elements of that movement in his building design, as well as his furniture, the case was made for the influence of Modernism, Italian Modernism, Post-Modernism, Scandinavian design, even Classicism, perhaps best summarized by Retro Inferno’s Rod Parks, who simply observed that Kraft was “a genius, too creative to be easily categorized.”

“Iris”, 1995, Oil pastel and pencil on paper, 30 x 32.5″

Similarly in his paintings, Kraft explored different mediums and styles, including abstraction and figuration, but those in the exhibit are mostly oil pastel on canvas or paper, with a few drawings done with colored pencil and mixed media. In one viewing of Kraft’s painting and drawings, Anthony noted that Kraft turned to painting as “a means of self-expression and emotional release from the constraints of his architectural design.”

In notes he left behind, Kraft further explained his process of painting: “When painting, there are periods of conceptualization, periods of passionate, violent action, periods of destruction to make it better, periods of long quiet reflection, periods of thought about how they measure up next to other respected works, and periods of caressing nuance and careful adjustment . . . a willingness to follow a fresh encounter in painful honesty and questioning.”

Missing from the exhibit are examples of Kraft’s architectural work, which constitute his major contribution to our aesthetic and cultural landscape. But plans are being discussed for a future exhibit correcting this omission and completing our recollection and celebration of Kraft’s legacy.

Kraft studied at the University of Kansas School of Architecture and Design but expanded his horizons with a life-long study of art, largely in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and nine formative years as designer and project architect with Ted Seligson, another highly influential Kansas City architect.

Kraft started Roger Kraft: Architecture-Design in 1980, where he served as principal for 32 years, designing buildings and furniture with an artistic flair that attracted widespread attention and accolades. He also taught design history at the Kansas City Art Institute.

“Manna”, 1990-94, Oil, oil pastel, pencil on canvas, 58.25 x 40.25

McHenry and Roberts made clear how much they learned from Roger Kraft and the “deep connection” Kraft made with them. McHenry, who worked with Kraft from 1989 to 1995, said that Kraft was “a uniquely gifted human being,” and that working with Kraft was “an overpowering experience.”

Roberts, who worked with Kraft from 2005 to 2010, explained that after he finished his architectural studies at Kansas State University and became acquainted with Kraft’s work, “I knew I had to work for him.” He pursued the position for the next two years, but when hired, Roberts said, Kraft “completely changed my life,” providing him with a greater depth of understanding in his work.

Anthony said how much he missed his evening conversations with his partner over art and music. He described Kraft as “a quiet man,” who rather than being “ego driven,” listened intently to, and learned from, others, but who, when he spoke, had meaningful things to say. He added that Kraft loved teaching at KCAI, constantly insisting that his students “be in the space, merging the intellect and feeling in their work.”

“Roger Kraft” continues at Retro Inferno, 1500 Grand Blvd., through July. Hours are noon to 3 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, and by appointment, 816-213-0333. For more information, www.retroinferno.com.

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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