The Collectors

The Collectors

From the driveway, Dennis and Debra Scholl's Aspen, Colo., home looks something like a repurposed army barracks, its boxlike structure sheathed in uniform squares of rusted steel.

Click the slideshow for more images.

But when the front door swings open, you're faced with an interior so bright and airy that you fight the urge to grab the handrail lining the entry's landing. There's art everywhere, which is exactly what you'd expect in the home of a couple who own one of the world's largest collections of contemporary photography. But there's more than what hangs on the walls. There's art everywhere—in the diamond-shaped shadows that reach across the floor, in the silent pivot of the hinged glass panel that serves as the kitchen door, in the wire stair railings that mirror the shadows from skylights above. And then there's the art itself—photographs and sculptures deliberately placed to resonate in their ample spaces.

Dennis, a 49-year-old "ex-lawyer" and venture capitalist, rustles to the door in old-school bib snowpants, his gray hair matted from his ski hat, and starts talking about the collection even as he introduces himself. Before you can get a good look at what appears to be an elongated basketball hoop stretching two stories down the wall of the open living room, he brushes past a bristling spherical sculpture made from vinyl records that sits in the entryway and takes you back outside—in his ski socks—to point out the site on which an aluminum and plexiglass piece they've commissioned from British modernist Liam Gillick will soon sit. "And this is the concrete deck we built for a nine-foot sculpture by Franz West," he says, nodding at an adjacent empty platform. He turns, adjusts his glasses and says with intent eyes, "We are totally invested in art. It's what we do."[NEXT ""]

Back inside, Debra, looking fit and elegant in yoga pants, rests on a streamlined gray couch in the kitchen/dining room's sitting area, while Dennis seats himself on the wide-board maple floor. On the blank wall behind Debra are two flatscreen TV/DVD players mounted on antennae-like extenders that loop short videos by artist Paul Pfieffer. The walls are stark white, and everything else—from the sandblasted log beams on the ceiling to the blond maple cabinetry in the kitchen—is earth-toned. "I'm kind of a white-box guy," says Dennis. Debra, who is clearly the more reserved of the two, chooses her words carefully. "Dennis likes the white box, but I try to warm it up a bit," she says, pointing to an orange cushion on the concrete hearth and a fluffy red-orange throw rug in the office behind her.

"I'm more of a purist," Dennis bounces back. The two look at each other. "We are so opposite," Dennis concedes, "but we always come to a happy medium."

The couple, who met on the first day of law school 27 years ago ("We sat alphabetically," Dennis says) and have been collecting art ever since, now own more than 350 pieces—40 of which are displayed in their Aspen home. "We try to leave enough air for things, to give every object room to breathe," Dennis says. The pieces vary, but each is by a contemporary artist, and each shares an edgy quality that, in some cases, verges on downright disturbing. "Things that are just pretty don't wake your senses," Debra says. "But things that are challenging make you think. If it moves you—whether you love it or hate it—then it's art."

When it came to the design of their 4,200-square-foot home, they structured it entirely around their collection. "We only think in terms of art walls," says Dennis. The site's original home—which they bought for a steal in 2003, paying the lowest price per square foot in Aspen that year—was a 1970s warren of small, dark rooms. "It was a wreck," says Dennis. But Debra, a real-estate developer who was one of the first to renovate Miami's Art Deco district, has a talent for recognizing potential. And, hooked on Colorado's skiing, they relished any opportunity to ve a home in a ski town—especially one with an art scene as rich as Aspen's. [NEXT ""]

The Scholls had long admired the work of award-winning architect Scott Lindenau, from Studio B Architects in Aspen, and wanted to hire him to design the massive remodel. "Scott was the only guy for this house," Dennis says. But when Lindenau first saw it, he balked. "The first thing I said when I walked in was, 'Tear it down,'" he says. "It was an aged hippie house filled with macramé and dream catchers." It didn't take long, however, for Lindenau to notice the couple's shared passion for inventiveness, and he and his assistant architect, Noah Czech, accepted. "So many people build great modern houses and then move in with their grandmother's furniture," he says. "But the Scholls understand the marriage between art and architecture."

Four creative minds drawing up plans for one project can create a few hiccups, however. "At first, Scott and Noah thought it was a house for us to live in and oh-by-the-way show our art," Dennis says. "But we wanted a house built for art that we're going to oh-by-the-way live in." They eventually tore out all three floors but kept the exterior largely intact. Lindenau refitted a wall of windows with specialized glass to block heat during summer and wrapped the rest of the structure in rusting steel panels. "We were determined to make it not fit in with the environment," says Dennis. "We're trying, with the art and the house, to evoke a response." They built three enclosed floors inside the shell, like boxes stacked on top of one another, each with windows that look into the glassed living room. The result feels like a museum, alive with natural light.

The décor is remarkable in its minimalism. Furnishings straight out of a primer on midcentury modernism—Mies van der Rohe, Florence Knoll, Ray and Charles Eames—don't distract the eye from the surrounding art and architecture. And true to modernist style, there is a conspicuous lack of "stuff"—there are no magazines stacked on the hearth, no centerpiece on the table, no platters cluttering the counter. Dennis credits his wife: "I do all the talking, and Debra does all the work."

Though they bought the home as a getaway from their permanent residence in Miami, the Scholls now spend half the year there, skiing 15 to 30 days a season (Aspen Highlands is their favorite), hiking and kayaking. Last summer Dennis ran the Pikes Peak half-marathon, and last winter he summited Mt. Quandry, a 14er that's no easy feat in snow. "We wake up every day and pinch ourselves," he says. "We don't take anything for granted—we didn't live this life growing up."

They share their fortune with anyone who's interested, opening up their homes for museum groups. Their Miami residence has hosted more than 10,000 visitors during the past five years. "That's what community is about," Dennis says.

The Scholls also share their home with a multitude of friends. "One thing about living in Aspen is that you always have guests," Dennis says. The lower level comprises two suites, a gym and a 2,000-bottle wine cellar. The master suite, with its clean-lined, forthright furnishings—a simple maple platform bed, an oblong black table—occupies the entire top floor.

Though attached to the pieces now on display, the Scholls will continue a tradition they started in Miami: They'll commission a curator from a notable museum (past institutions include the Guggenheim and the Whitney) to choose and arrange pieces in their home. Love it or hate it, they'll live with it for a year. "You learn so much about your art," Debra says.

To keep their surroundings in motion is difficult, Dennis says, because in a world that's shifting fast, it feels safe to come home to constancy. But they refuse to become complacent; it would contradict the ideals of the analytical artists they admire. They view their living space with adventurous eyes: "I like change. It keeps things fresh," Debra says, folding her legs beneath her on the couch. Dennis doesn't blink: "I hate change." He looks up at his wife and takes a breath. "But I know it's good for you." Without breaking his gaze, he continues. "Change is the cornerstone of our relationship. We keep taking risks and looking for opportunities to learn."

November 2005r legs beneath her on the couch. Dennis doesn't blink: "I hate change." He looks up at his wife and takes a breath. "But I know it's good for you." Without breaking his gaze, he continues. "Change is the cornerstone of our relationship. We keep taking risks and looking for opportunities to learn."

November 2005