Design firm will move into long-empty historic storefront

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Thanks to a patient owner and an appreciative buyer, one of Lansing’s architectural treasures will get a new life.

The only retail store in the world designed by George Nelson, a founding icon of American modernist design, the former Liebermann’s store at 113 S. Washington Ave. in Lansing, will become the new office and gallery of Old Town’s Redhead Design Studios.

The new owners plan to preserve the store’s glassy, sleek storefront, a bold choice for commercial space in 1965 and still striking today, along with its dusty but unmolested interior shelves and fixtures.

In a downtown commercial district where eateries and businesses flip over by the month, Jen Estill, Redhead’s creative director, can hardly believe the space made it from 2005 to 2020 without succumbing to some form of retail rapine. She hopes to move in by spring of next year.

“We’re very lucky someone didn’t buy it before we were able to,” Estill said. “Everything about this space — how it was done, the history, Betty Price’s thinking when she commissioned the design — it’s a great story.”

Lansing retail queen Betty Price, owner of Liebermann’s, sought out Nelson to redesign the store after reading his 1945 book, “Tomorrow’s House.”

Price wanted everyday Lansing shoppers to soak up the best design in the world. She stocked the shelves with high-end stuff like Swedish crystal and Noguchi lamps, but you could also get a wooden bowl, paper lantern or glass vase for less than 10 bucks. Estill never met Betty Price, but she loves it that Price welcomed everyone into the store, whether they bought anything or not, hired a racially diverse staff and set a sterling example as a strong woman running a quality downtown business.

Nelson fulfilled Price’s egalitarian vision with a chamber concerto in glass, stone and wood, influenced by Japanese design principles. Four 22-foot-high glass panels are set back from the neighboring stores by colorful slate walls. Just inside the entrance, criss-crossing shelves and partitions float transparently in the afternoon sun.

Estill and her husband, John, plan to polish the glass and stone, gently update the lighting and put in a retail gallery, open to the public, on the first floor. The firm’s design work will be carried out on the second floor, a more flexible space with fewer historic features.

Deeper inside the first floor, a hovering staircase floats over a bed of white stones where a Japanese rock garden used to be. The walls within are still lined with Nelson’s famous Comprehensive Storage System shelves, cantilevered, adjustable tracks designed for another world-renowned modernist firm, Herman Miller furniture of Zeeland, Michigan. The shelves, by themselves, sell for thousands on Internet auction sites.

Overhead, instead of a drop ceiling, Nelson laid out a delicate latticework of light wood beams, still in excellent shape.

After Liebermann’s closed in 1990, several tenants, including the Michigania gift shop and the Lansing Art Gallery, occupied the space, but the building has been vacant for most of the past 15 years.

Betty Price died in 2013. Her son, Tom, was determined to respect her mother’s vision for the space and held out far longer than most sellers would have done, waiting for an appreciative owner.

“We could have sold it many times to a restaurant that would probably be out of business in a year, and that isn’t what we wanted to see happen to it,” Price said.

He turned down an offer from a brewpub that wanted to cut holes in the ceiling for holding tanks. A more respectful proposal for the Historical Society of Greater Lansing to move in, using the front area for exhibit space, fizzled in the mid-2010s.

Price paid a price to keep the space in play, and not just by paying property taxes. In 2011, he used some of the proceeds from the sale of his mother’s Lansing home (designed by another modernist, Lansing’s Kenneth Black) to tear the roof down to the deck at the former Liebermann’s, stripping away layers going back to 1900. In 2016, some stucco fell off the front of the building. The underlying problem was fixed, at a cost of about $10,000.

Meanwhile, Jen and John Estill had already been eyeing the building since the early 2000s.

“We were young and broke and didn’t need that much space,” Estill said.

With Redhead’s Old Town lease up for renewal this year, Estill decided it was finally time to move her growing firm. She called Price, hoping it was still available.

“To me, it’s the most interesting building downtown,” Estill said. “We told Tom we don’t want to change a thing here, especially at the front of the building. Our goal is to keep it as true to form, as pristine and functional as it can be.”

Estill’s enthusiasm and her plans for the building sounded to Price like a deal his mother would have approved.

A lot of design work at Redhead Studios involves building brands and campaigns for advocacy organizations and private companies. Estill expects that working here will take the work a notch higher.

“George Nelson was an amazing industrial designer, he did corporate brands, and he designed this space,” Estill said. “That’s really inspiring for our staff.”

Price called the sale a “big relief,” but he admitted that it was hard for him to let go, even as the property bled money for years.

At about the time Price was dealing with the stucco collapse, he got the signal he needed from the universe. Standing in front of the store, surveying the stucco and plywood rot of 50 years, he spotted Robert Bell, a Liebermann’s employee for 42 years who visited the nearby Peanut Shop each week.

“Tommy, I know you wanted to save the building as long as your mother was alive,” Bell told Price. “You can sell the building.”

Bell died within a year of the encounter.

“Robert giving me dispensation to sell it meant a lot,” Price said. “His daughters, his mother, his whole family worked here.”

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