Southfield art commissioner Jeff Lygon has a knack for finding valuable artwork and antiques in unlikely places.
By Susan Peck
Photography by Brett Mountain
Stepping through the entrance of art collector Jeff Lygon’s Southfield home feels a bit like you’re Alice in Wonderland falling into a world of whimsical color and form — showcased in his eclectic impressionism to midcentury modern décor.
“I have about 400 works of art displayed, including glass, pottery, paintings, sculpture and furniture, and I’m not afraid of color so it is visually exciting,” says Lygon, 54, a private collector and arts commissioner for the city of Southfield. “A number of pieces are by recognizable artists like Max Ernst, Marcello Fantoni, René Gruau and Henri Matisse, while others are by lesser known artists that I admire.”
Entering the breezeway of the ranch built in 1953 are two curio cabinets filled with some of Lygon’s favorite pieces — a glass collection by Chicagoan artists Frances and Michael Higgins, who he befriended while living there.
“It’s one of the rarest collections of their work in the country,” he says. “They were founders of the American studio glass movement started in 1948 and visionary pioneers in the medium of glass.”
Every inch of the main living space exhibits hundreds of artifacts. There is an abstract design bar cabinet by natural wood furniture maker Adrian Pearsall, a midcentury modern coffee table by Fredrick Weinberg and two 1950s vintage chairs by British architect and furniture designer T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings. Vibrant color is cast from a 1970s furry textured ottoman by Urban Jupena, a Wayne State University professor of fibers and Cranbrook affiliated artist.
While Lygon owns valuable art, he says he doesn’t choose pieces based on financial value for his two-bedroom ranch. “I’m more interested in things that make me smile. And if they happen to be valuable, then that’s good too,” he says. His art purchases are primarily made at estate sales, auctions and online, and he also sells antiques and art on chairish.com.
“My parents were a huge influence on me, and as traditional antique collectors I traveled with them overseas, even as a child. They specialized in 18th century French decorative arts, then moved into modernism in the late ’80s, so I had a hands-on education from them,” says the WSU graduate with a major in business and minor in art history.
An important part of the art connoisseur’s collecting is to preserve history. “I have a rare, working Clairtone turntable — the Maserati of stereos from the 1960s that singers from that era like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin had in their homes,” Lygon says. The original kitchen has a working 1947 Kenmore Silvertone oven, along with a General Electric horizontal, wall-mounted cabinet refrigerator in turquoise.
For quiet time during a busy day, Lygon retreats to what he calls his “mind palace” — a guest room turned into an English library. “There are no electronics allowed whatsoever. Instead it’s filled with sentimental family photos and art, like the painting from my parents’ favorite Japanese artist Wah Kee Wu,” he says. “I also have a large portrait of Anna Thompson Dodge wearing pearls from Catherine the Great — there were only three portraits ever done of her, so it’s considered very rare.”
Wall paint throughout the home is either vibrant or deep rich hues that Lygon feels make a better backdrop for his art. “I’ve used the bright Hermes orange hue in the library because I feel it makes the antique pieces in there really pop,” he says. “The main entrance and hallway have midnight indigo walls and ceiling that really show off the rare 1970s Samurai warrior silk screen by French artist René Gruau and the many paintings I’ve hung gallery style.”
Prized possessions of Lygon’s in the main bedroom are a pair of one-of-a-kind $40,000 Luciano Gaspari midcentury modern table lamps in striking red and blue glass and a Fantoni sculpture displayed under a painting that mimics the design and color of the sculpture. “It’s so important when grouping art pieces together to have them complement one another in their setting,” he says.
Terri Stearn, owner of Detroit Fine Appraisals in Keego Harbor, says Lygon has a keen eye when it comes to spotting respected art at an estate sale or flea market. “He can tell if a piece is French or Italian, and he’s genius at reading signatures from an artist and telling whether or not they are authentic,” Stearn says.
After 30 years, Lygon says art collecting never gets old. He especially loves preserving and bringing art to the city of Southfield as an arts commissioner.
“Every experience is a bit like searching for buried treasure, and when I find a beautiful piece of art it’s like finding a chest of gold,” he says. The only downside? “Without a doubt it’s having to dust the 400 wonderful pieces I have in my home — it’s a labor of love every time.”