From farm to fine arts
Rhea Mahbubani
Thursday, October 10, 2013

The original article was published by
The Daily Pilot / Los Angeles Times.

Henry Segerstrom appears at launch of coffee-table book about his family’s history and the growth of Southern California’s cultural scene.

Henry Segerstrom rarely makes public appearances. But he made an exception Thursday at South Coast Plaza, clad in a dapper blue pinstriped suit and a matching polka dot tie and seeming a tad bashful at all the attention.

The entrepreneur and philanthropist, who at 90 is also the managing partner of C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, was the guest of honor at a book launch by luxury book publisher Assouline. He was joined at the 6 p.m. event by family, including his wife, Elizabeth, son Anton and daughter-in-law Jennifer, as well as well-wishers like Debra Gunn Downing, the plaza’s executive director of marketing, members of the An family of AnQi by Crustacean, and others.

Segerstrom shook hands and laughed with close friends, while guitarist Roger Espinoza, tucked discreetly into a corner, strummed Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time.” They were surrounded by a swelling, multi-accented crowd comprising the who’s who of Orange County, dressed in all their finery, who chatted, nibbled on hors d’oeuvres and sipped wine in a store outfitted with colorful walls, a carpet lined by numbers and alphabets, and books on Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel, bar mitzvahs, St. Barths and Venice, and even Coca Cola.

Assouline, headquartered in New York City but with an outpost in Costa Mesa, recently released the 128-page “Henry T. Segerstrom: The Courage of Imagination and the Development of the Arts in Southern California” by Bonnie Rychlak.

Don’t be fooled by the number of leafs, though — the coffee table book packs a punch, in content and literal weight, not to mention the weighty price: $150. It tells the tale of the Segerstrom family, originally from Sweden, and how they made the United States their home and built a dynasty.

The man who started out dairy and lima bean farming has donated land that now houses South Coast Plaza, South Coast Repertory, the Orange County Museum of Art and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. In doing so, he permanently altered luxury consumerism and the arts landscape of California’s third largest county.

“I really believe in my own heart that in our lifetimes, we are put on this Earth to do more than just make ourselves happy,” Segerstrom is quoted as saying. “We should do something to help others. Now is the time for us to pay ahead so someone else can enjoy it.”

In the 14 1/2-by-17 1/2-inch book with an olive-green cover, text plays a minimal role while Rychlak employs pictures — some showing a seemingly pensive Segerstrom — to depict tasteful gardens, architecture and artwork by Isamu Noguchi, Carl Milles and Aiko Miyawaki, all meant to show how brick-and-mortar buildings have been elevated to cultural destinations.

Rychlak was one of 650 resplendent guests who RSVPed, most of whom spilled into the Jewel Court outside Macy’s, a few feet away from Assouline, where a jazz quartet performed. Shoppers leaned over railings on the retail center’s upper floors trying to catch a glimpse of the people packed tightly into a space shared by food stations and a screen on which images from the book were projected.

After mingling with attendees for some time, Segerstrom moved to the reception area, where he thanked everyone who worked behind the scenes and others who came out to celebrate the book. The short, heartfelt speech, which included advice to partygoers to, in some way, assimilate art and culture into their lives, was followed by a tribute video that showed him on construction sites and in action over the years.

As a Los Angeles-born sculptor who has lived in Manhattan for over three decades, Rychlak revealed that this is her first full-fledged book. She began working on the project in August 2012, splitting the next several months between poring over databases and flying to the West Coast to interview the man of the hour, who, she said, “picked [her].”

What stood out from these meetings? Segerstrom’s modesty.

“Having known Henry for a very long time and having strong impressions of him as a dignified, elegant man, but not knowing him closely until I did this book, I think the character that has stood out more than anything else is incredible modesty,” she said.

“It is so wonderful in so many ways. He defers everything to other people even though he is the center.”

And Thursday’s event was no exception.

Rychlak, who worked at the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum for about 30 years, recalled how Segerstrom turned to the Assouline team, reminding them that the book was their idea, and handed over control of the evening.

The entire experience, she said, unequivocally reinforced her beliefs about his far-reaching and long-lasting effects on local development.

“Henry understood that to make a really well-rounded community you need good education and you need culture and art,” she remarked. “He knew that from the very beginning. So, what he brought here … there’s really nothing like it — there’s nobody else like that.”

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