Ati Gropius Johansen, at 88; illustrator, design teacher, Gropius House adviser
Growing up in what is now known as the Gropius House, the Lincoln residence designed by and named for her famous architect father, Ati Gropius Johansen experienced a childhood in which “esthetics were always a primary consideration.”
“This included food, which was always presented on the most elegant dishes, however minimal the quantity,” she wrote in an essay for Architecture Boston. “Each meal was a small rite, like a Japanese ceremony, of flower arrangements, beautiful table settings, colors of napkins, and artistically presented foods.”
After the family donated the home to Historic New England, the regional historic preservation and cultural heritage organization, and it became a showcase for the modern movement, her precise memory of how everything was positioned decades ago helped turn it into “truly our most authentic and living house museum,” said Peter Gittleman, the organization’s team leader for visitor experience. For 27 years, Mrs. Johansen offered advice and guidance to Historic New England, which operates the residence designed by Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus design school in Germany.
“She had an extraordinary impact on the Gropius House, and the way it’s presented physically and how it’s interpreted to the public,” Gittleman said. “She really gave us a vocabulary to teach the modern movement.”
A former children’s book illustrator who taught students from Cape Cod to Germany about modern design and the movement her father helped launch, Mrs. Johansen died of complications from a brain tumor Sept. 7 in her Wellfleet home. She was 88 and had led workshops in Wellfleet as recently as last year.
“She found herself in teaching,” said her daughter, Erika Pfammatter of Waltham. “Not that she was lost before, but she was a born teacher and a warm teacher — a smart, caring, succinct teacher.”
For visitors to the Gropius House, and its curators, Mrs. Johansen’s lessons could come through a casual observation, a stern instruction, or the scrupulous way she would walk through a room and pause to move a piece of furniture a half inch to match her memory of its original place.
“That’s one of the things, frankly, I’ll miss the most,” Gittleman said. “That fine-tuning.”
She was just as rigorous about the bigger picture. The first time Gittleman met her at the Lincoln property, “she walked in and said pretty much, ‘You folks have no idea how to present the modern movement.’ She said, ‘People are going to get the wrong impression of what the modern movement was like. This house has no life in it.’ ”
Among the changes she forcefully insisted be made was adding plants her parents had favored, such as ivy curling up a wall and a large philodendron. “We had to bend our rules to her thinking,” said Gittleman, who added that her advice provided the organization with the rare opportunity to speak with someone who had lived in a historic home, which isn’t possible with the organization’s other properties, which date as far back as the late 1600s.
The result of her work with Historic New England, he said, is that the Gropius residence became “one of those houses where people walk in and want to sit in the furniture because they feel so much at home. It went from being this story of starkness to a story of life.”
Born in Wiesbaden, Germany, Ati Gropius Johansen's given name was Beate, pronounced as if it was the first part of Beatrice. Her nickname, Ati, which she used all her life, sprung from the way she tried to say Beate as a child, when she couldn’t manage the pronunciation.
Her mother was the sister of Ise Gropius, the second wife of Walter Gropius. At about 9, Ati was adopted by her aunt and uncle when her mother died. Her new parents offered an exit in the early 1930s from the rise of Nazism in Germany.
She lived in England for about three years until Walter Gropius accepted a teaching position at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and she joined her adoptive parents in the United States. Construction of the Gropius House, which was funded by philanthropist Helen Storrow, concluded in 1938.
“From the first year on, it seemed that a never-ending parade of visitors, far-away friends, strangers, and students came marching through the house at all hours of the day,” Mrs. Johansen wrote in Architecture Boston. “It was a curiosity or a mecca to them and it meant that every nook and cranny always had to be on display and picture-perfect. I holed myself up in the bathroom as it was one of the few unassailable spots.”
Having attended an alternative school in England, she chafed at the structure of Concord Academy. After her junior year, she attended a program at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which was known for its progressive education, and she never returned to high school, testing out of her senior year. A mentor at the college was Josef Albers, an influential art educator.
At 21, after finishing at Black Mountain, she married architect and designer Charles Forberg, who with Edward Larrabee Barnes created the logo for Pan American World Airways. The couple lived in Boston, Rome, Colorado, and Chicago before settling in New York City.
Her marriage to Forberg ended in divorce and she later married John M. Johansen, who was the last surviving member of the Harvard Five architects — a group that had been influenced by her father — when he died in 2012. They lived for many years in Stanfordville, north of New York City, where he designed his famous Plastic Tent House. They spent summers in the Wellfleet home they purchased in the mid-1970s, and Mrs. Johansen moved there year-round several years ago.
“She fell deeply in love with Wellfleet,” her daughter said. “She loved nature and loved light. She was so sensitive to light. She would always say to me in August, ‘Don’t you see how different the light is?’ She saw all of that.”
Private gatherings are planned to celebrate the life of Mrs. Johansen, who in addition to her daughter leaves two grandsons.
From workshops she taught in Wellfleet to classes she led at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Walter Gropius School in Erfurt, Germany, Mrs. Johansen had a wide geographic reach as a teacher. Along with illustrating children’s books for more than 30 years, she created prints, watercolors, and ink drawings, some of which are collected at the Asheville Art Museum in North Carolina.
She was just as creative with ordinary moments. When her daughter was young and the family lived in a Brooklyn brownstone, Mrs. Johansen would drive her an hour north on chilly winter evenings to a frozen lake in Tarrytown, N.Y. There she set out votive candles to illuminate the ice and her daughter skated while the strains of “The Blue Danube” drifted from a portable cassette player.
“That was the essence of her,” Pfammatter said. “She was full of fabulous, beautiful, magical ideas.”