The collection of the Elsons represents a life filled with adventure and meaningful connections

Susie and Ed Elson, art&culture magazine Winter 2019

Susie and Ambassador Edward Elson pose with PH Piano, Poul Henningsen; metal chairs, Fred Baier; Studio Figures, James Valerio.

Throughout their 61 years of marriage, Ambassador Edward Elson and his wife, Susie, have enjoyed a life of distinguished public and community service and philanthropy. While Ed served as U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, Susie was receiving a string of awards for her own service—as volunteer chair and trustee of many educational and art institutions and a staunch advocate for mental health. After living in Atlanta for more than 40 years, the Elsons made their home in Palm Beach in 1999, where Susie is currently chair of the board of The Society of the Four Arts and was honored as a Palm Beach Woman of Distinction in 2014.

It is here, in their Palm Beach home, that the Elsons proudly display their eclectic art. It’s a superior collection that grew out of the couple’s mutual love of craft, a genre that Susie, in particular, has long been fond of. She was involved in the early days of the American Craft Council in New York City (now the Museum of Art and Design), where she served as chair from 1989 to 1992, was given the title “Visionary” in 1996, and remains an honorary trustee today.

Ed gives much of the credit for their finds to his wife. “Her genius is to identify talent,” he says. Case in point: The Elsons were at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum when Susie fell for a piece by Wisconsin-based contemporary glass artist Harvey Littleton. That led to the acquisition of one of his pieces—and the beginning of the Elson Collection of Contemporary Glass, which is now with the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Susie and Ed have always believed in forming relationships with the artists and commissioning pieces directly (around 75 percent of their collection are straight commissions). In 1983, when Ed’s business took the couple to London for the next 32 years, Susie recalls: “I was running around commissioning all this stuff for the house, and I suddenly panicked and thought, How is all this stuff going to live together?” It was then that she learned an important lesson about collecting from her friend Dan Klein, Christie’s director of twentieth-century decorative arts. “He said, if one person does the picking with a single sensibility, everything will get along fine in the same room.”

It was also in London that the Elsons began their interest in furniture. They met a group of fresh, young designers who were rooming together in the city: Ron Arad, Tom Dixon, Danny Lane, and André Dubreuil. “At the time, we were their only customers,” says Susie. “We commissioned pieces and purchased early Arad pieces.” Furniture has since become an important part of their collection. Susie reckons she was drawn to contemporary designer furniture as a reaction to the Chippendale chairs and “brown” furniture of her parents’ home.

Highlights in their home include an elegant metal chest by French master craftsman Dubreuil. The piece, while spectacular, has a bit of a complicated history. Upon seeing the finished chest, Susie objected strongly to the antique wood inlay at the front, and Dubreuil, whom the Elsons had commissioned, did not want to change it. Litigation followed, causing a rift in their relationship. But friendship was restored when Dubreuil’s magnificent, nearly 10-foot-tall armoire caught the Elsons’ eye, and Dubreuil realized how much they appreciated his work.

Photography by Nick Sargent

An extraordinary Bechstein piano is a true conversation piece. Danish designer Poul Henningsen created his PH Piano in the 1930s. The lid is reduced to a skeleton-like frame; coral-colored leather surrounds the narrow body, which stands on skinny silver metal legs. Next to the piano are two angular metal chairs by British avant-garde furniture maker Fred Baier, examples of the artist’s experimental designs based on theories of proportion and mathematics. Serving as a backdrop to the piano and chairs is a striking painting by James Valerio, Studio Figures (1982).

In the center of the living room sits an ebony coffee table (1999) by the “father of American art furniture,” Wendell Castle. Nearby hangs a Cristóbal Toral oil painting, Yellow Apples (1973). On the narrow console table below are two rows of small ceramic pots with metal covers by Danish ceramicist Patrick Nordström that were originally designed for Royal Copenhagen circa 1920. The pots are flanked by Dubreuil’s iconic Perles candle holder, made of crystals and wrought iron, and his metal lamp with shade. 

Set on a carved mahogany and ebony console table by British designer Scott Cunningham is an elegant ceramic bowl. The large piece was created by Alev Ebüzziya Siesbye. Born in 1938, Siesbye was the first Turkish ceramic artist to achieve international acclaim and have works in prominent museum collections. “It’s wonderful to see her having this success,” says Susie, who got to know Siesbye in Denmark and has since acquired several of her bowls.

In the bright and airy dining room is a specially commissioned table and sideboard by French artist Laurence Montano. The round dining table (1998) is crafted from cedar of Lebanon wood and seats 12. A collection of nineteenth-century Japanese yari covers line up on the sideboard.

Hanging down from the skylight above is a cluster of tree branches with delicate dangling crystal drops lit by tiny lights. The stunning chandelier (1999) is the work of American artist Donald Lipski.

An international collection of ceramics, from art deco to contemporary, fills shelves on one wall. Opposite, another large Valerio painting featuring a lush green forest, Summer (1989-1990), works well with the nature-based chandelier.

In the comfortable library, Erwin Eisch’s glass Picasso Head sits on a bronze chest (2003) by Swedish/French artist Ingrid Donat. The chest features narrow rows of delicate repeating patterns. Also in the library is an early version of Dubreuil’s Spine Chair. Perhaps most intriguing, however, is a piece by Greek artist Lucas Samaras, Sculpture Table (1981). Inspired by Dante’s “Inferno,” bronze and silver plates form a group of 20 twisted human forms atop a silver-plated table.

Leading off the master bedroom is Ed’s light-filled study. In front of the United States flag and the Presidential flag flown by ambassadors stands the spectacular Castle desk and chair. Created in 1999, the desk—with its smooth, bold, rounded sides in ebonized mahogany and lace wood—is truly fit for an ambassador.

A powerful and poetic portrait of Ed in the hallway was done by Danish realist Thomas Kluge—and the story of how it came to be is quite interesting. Queen Margrethe of Denmark had read a newspaper article where Ed had decried the fact that there were so many paintings in The National History Museum at Frederiksborg Castle depicting military defeats rather than celebrating the bravery of Danish troops. The queen agreed such a piece should be commissioned and assigned Ed to select the artist. His search led him to the then little-known Kluge, who finished A Short Stay, showing Danish U.N. soldiers in Bosnia, in 1998. Kluge was then commissioned to paint portraits of the Danish Royal Family, making him the most famous contemporary portrait painter in Denmark. 

The portrait of Ed is a symbol of Kluge’s gratitude. In the work, the artist likens Ed to a magician who changed the relationship between their two countries, not to mention also made Kluge famous. Ed is wearing the sash and badge of the Grand Cross of the Danish Order of Dannebrog First Class, a personal award bestowed by the sovereign.

While Susie and Ed no longer add to their collection, much of which has been given to museums and university collections, they look back on their journey with abundant pleasure. Each piece has a story; each piece represents a relationship cultivated with an artist. Because of that, it would be impossible to choose a favorite, says Susie. “Do you have a favorite child?” she quips. “No! Each piece is different, and each one has a story connecting it with the artist and has an experience involved. That is part of the joy of the whole thing.”

Additional Photos from the Elson Collection

Photography by Nick Sargent