At home in a world of art

A condo with views of the Art Museum and river is perfect for a couple with a passion for studio glass.

Penny and Sheldon Bernick stand at their balcony overlooking the Philadelphia Art Museum. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer )

Where would an art teacher and art-glass collector live with her pediatric dentist/collector husband?

In a condo just steps from the Art Museum, of course, with magnificent views of the historic building and the oft-painted Schuylkill.

Art has always been a symbol of Penny and Sheldon Bernick's relationship.

Married in 1981, they bought their first piece of studio art glass, a bowl by the world-renowned Dale Chihuly, from the Works Gallery in celebration of their wedding. Now, their condominium overlooking Boathouse Row is a gallery of their decades-long shared passion for glass.

Living in the city was nothing the couple planned. In 1999, after a meeting, a friend invited Penny, who was living in Media at the time, to visit her place across the street from the museum.

There, Penny had her epiphany: "I took one look and said, 'I am an art teacher, I have to live here.' "

A graduate of Pratt Institute and Temple University's Tyler School of Art, she taught 21 years in the Philadelphia School District, then was the art teacher at Akiba (now Barrack) Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion. She and Sheldon raised their two boys in a large contemporary house with a pool in Delaware County.

After that nest emptied, they decided first to buy a condo as an investment. Then they gave more serious thought to the possibility of moving into Philadelphia because they were spending much of their cultural and entertaining time in the city.

"We were only using one level of the [Media] house. We just said to ourselves, 'We are finished with this part of our lives,' " Penny says.

A city place would be a great beginning for their growing art collection.

"It was getting hodgepodge-looking in our house," says Penny. "We needed someone to design a new home that would house the collection and our new lifestyle."

The Bernicks combined a two-bedroom unit with a studio, and asked gallery owners and friends about architects. The name Reed Axelrod came up - he's worked with many homeowners who collect art.

The challenge is balancing art with life, Axelrod says: "You don't want to design a gallery where people happen to sleep. . . . You have to balance the disorder of domestic living with the order of art."

Axelrod asked the Bernicks for an inventory of their artworks, with the weights and dimensions. He had a library of images of what they would take to the city, and it was like a puzzle figuring out where things would go.

Overall, the design of the Bernicks' home is something he calls "warm contemporary" - just minimal enough that you still want to live in it.

To display the art glass, Axelrod used pumpkin-stained, quartersawn cherry cabinets, made by a Lancaster craftsman, that have "a quiet grain that didn't compete with what is displayed on them." (The same wood was used for kitchen cabinets and bedroom furniture.)

In addition to the display cases, floating illuminated ledges in the living room, dining room, and bedrooms hold more glass. Axelrod built structural-steel framing into the walls to support the sometimes-heavy pieces.

Light-colored walls and floors don't compete with the visual feast that is the Bernicks' house. Axelrod also factored into its design the things they brought along from their former home in Media, like the glass dining-room table by local furniture maker Peter Handler. Each leg is a different shape and color.

"The art almost becomes a second homeowner," Axelrod says. "You have to satisfy it, as well."

From that table, or the living room sofa, or the bar in the kitchen, one can see both city views and colorful glass - figurative glass, blown glass, carved, cast, and lamp-worked glass.

Artists represented range from locals such as Magan Stevens, Will Dexter, and Michael Schunke, to such prominent Americans as William Morris, Martin Blank, and Paul Stankard, to Asian, Australian, Czech, and emerging artists. The Bernicks spend a lot of time at Wheaton Arts in Millville and at studios meeting the artists themselves.

To a visitor to their home, Sheldon offers a bit of information about how each glass piece is made and where they bought it, while Penny tells why they bought it and what drew them to it.

Sheldon spent months researching the appropriate lighting with galleries, then worked with the electrician for installation.

The living spaces Axelrod fashioned in and around the art are open and gracious, perfect for entertaining and holidays, like this year's Passover meal for 21.

In January 2004, Axelrod and contractor John Orsini started construction on the Bernicks' home. The 2,450-square-foot space - which features a 42-foot terrace - was completed in time for the Fourth of July.

That holiday is the highlight of the year, because the annual fireworks are launched just outside.

"There are so many people on their balconies that night," Penny says, "that I think the building is going to tip over."

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