Hidden away in a Bloomfield Hills home is a collection of artwork so impressive, it rivals even the unique midcentury style residence that houses it.
By Amanda Rahn
Photography by Brett Mountain
On a narrow strip of land between two lakes sits a gray, midcentury home owned by Bertha and Alberto Cohen.
Unlike the cookie-cutter miniature mansions dotting the shared lakefront in Bloomfield Hills — with their soaring ceilings and regal entrances — the Cohen home is a vestige of an architectural era when ceilings were flat and the focus of a house was the nature around it.
“They’re crazy big,” says Annabel Cohen, the Cohens’ middle daughter, of the newly built houses on the lakefront. “They tear down old houses like these and put up those, and they’re beautiful, but they don’t have a whole lot of personality.”
The couple moved to Michigan from Brazil with their three daughters and later into the home they’d live in for the next 40 years.
Bertha, an extroverted artist, and Alberto, a quiet doctor, are opposites, but they’ve found a steady balance over the decades.
“My husband goes along for the ride,” Bertha says, “but in a way, we are the same. We both heal with our work.”
With her Spanish-inflected words and elegant look — she’s prone to wearing all black and decking out in costume jewelry — Bertha is a unique addition to the Metro Detroit suburb.
“She’s very glamorous,” Annabel says. “My mom’s dad was a photographer, and she grew up with art. Not with money, but with culture.”
One of the first things Bertha did when the family relocated was bring the surrounding nature inside.
“I had workers tear out the wall and put in windows, and when they did, I had to call my husband at work and tell him: ‘The lake is in my living room,’ ” Bertha says.
While the lake is the focus of the house — many of the features, like the deck, point toward it — the Cohens’ impressive collection of art steals the show. Much of it was made by Bertha herself.
“I was called a colorist, which I agree with,” Bertha says. “My paintings are full of color.”
Her work is filled with splashes of red and blue. There’s a floor-to-ceiling tapestry in the hallway, oil paintings scattered throughout the home and an entire wall plastered with torn-out sketchbook pages.
But it’s not all hers. Many pieces are by artist friends. There are large works, like a glass container the size of a child filled with peanuts, and smaller ones, like serving bowls held upright by miniature human legs.
Some are local artists she’s met in Michigan. Others are artists she’s rubbed elbows with in Latin America.
“I have many pieces made by friends — we exchange art,” Bertha says. “It’s a compliment if someone wants a piece of mine.”
In a typical modern home, the eccentric collection might seem out of place. But in the Cohens’, it fits right in. The curved sections of the walls play off a circular hanging sculpture, and an original neon ring of light illuminates a larger-than-life wooden figure.
The most important piece, though, is a small one tucked away in the basement. A simple painting of a woman in a black hat, it’s an unassuming work in a house full of eccentric things.
“That is the artwork I would save if there were a fire,” Bertha says of the painting she completed 15 years ago. “It’s totally symbolic. It means many different things.”
Filling the Space
When the family moved into the home in the late 1950s, the girls were teenagers.
“We used to throw big parties when we were in high school,” says Annabel, a local caterer. “We would even skinny dip in the middle of the day!”
Now, Bertha, 82, and Alberto, 85, regularly pack the living rooms and kitchen full of friends and artists for huge, themed parties.
“I have my Brazilians parties,” Bertha says. “I once constructed a throne for the queen of Mardi Gras to sit and had a fortune teller, and I had a Greek party, with four or five musicians playing.”
She even dressed as Frida Kahlo while her husband tied a scarf around his neck to pass for Diego Rivera at one party celebrating the arrival of a special Kahlo and Rivera exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
But the home is not always filled with huge crowds. Bertha might have an intimate coffee with a friend in one of the cozy rooms, like the glass-walled addition in the back. It has a stunning view of the lake and purposeful pops of yellow to play off the sun streaming through the surrounding glass, she says.
“It’s the whole atmosphere,” Bertha says. “The landscape is inside, and we are lucky to have the privilege to live here.”