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Wednesday, October 19,2011

'A well-designed life'

Playwright Sandra Seaton talks with Lansing retail queen Betty Price

by Lawrence Cosentino

Any chance to bask in the effervescence of 97-year-old
Lansing retailing legend Betty Price is beyond compare. Playwright
Sandra Seaton has known this for decades.


“She has a great ability to use energy well, mentally and
emotionally,” Seaton said. “I’ve always enjoyed her love for design and
for the arts. She has a great perspective on things.”


As a customer, as a friend and now as a historian, Seaton
has tracked Price’s remarkable life for 40 years. On Tuesday, the two
will sit down at Schuler Books in the Meridian Mall to talk about
Price’s 50-year run as owner and guiding spirit of Liebermann’s,
downtown Lansing’s premier gift shop, where the real Mad Men of the
1950s bought tony gifts for their wives, kids — and mistresses.


The latest issue of Modernism Magazine features a lively
and handsome spread, written by Seaton, about Price’s reign at
Liebermann’s and her experiences with George Nelson and other modernist
designers. Tuesday’s talk celebrates the story’s publication.


Price would probably laugh at the idea, but Seaton sees a
connection between her most famous subject — Thomas Jefferson — and
Lansing’s legendary retail queen. Price was a passionate advocate of
mid-20th-century-modern design. She hired Nelson, one of the world’s
foremost modernists, to dress the Liebermann’s store at 117 S.
Washington Square in a classy, glassy grid of suspended steps and
hanging shelves — the only retail store Nelson ever designed.


The merchandise inside Liebermann’s was held to a similarly high standard, even though many gifts were 10 bucks and under.


“It was more than just a store where she sold things,”
Seaton said. “She brought beauty to the home. She thought of herself as
an educator, as far as the customers were concerned.”


Seaton’s works include a play, “Sally,” and a libretto,
“From the Diary of Sally Hemings,” chronicling the lives of Jefferson
and his mistress, Sally Hemings. Seaton was drawn to Jefferson as a
historical subject, in part, because of his interest in design. Seaton
planned to study architecture at the University of Michigan before
life, including four kids, got in the way.


“Jefferson was some version of a mid-century-modern kind
of guy,” Seaton said. “He was an architect, a draftsman. Envisioning
that world was fascinating to me. I could definitely see (writing) a
play about Betty and her world. She’s right out of that Thomas
Jefferson playbook.”


The interviews for Seaton’s story were conducted at Price’s home in East Lansing, designed by top local modernist Kenneth Black.


Seaton’s fascination with Price goes back to their first encounter in 1971, when Seaton moved to Lansing.


To this day, African-American shoppers
get a hairy eyeball from some white storekeepers, especially in
high-end emporiums. In 1971, Seaton was new in town and braced for the
worst every time she walked through an unfamiliar door.


“I’d had different experiences in places about that same time,” Seaton said. “People size you up.”


But Seaton and her husband needed a
“special” wedding gift for a friend, and Lansing residents said
Liebermann’s was the place to go.


“We walk in the door and there’s this
woman who was so gracious. She didn’t know us, but it was as if we were
walking into her home as her guest.”


Seaton was pleased that Price didn’t
patronize her or steer her to less expensive stuff. She ended up with
an Orrefors decanter, “wrapped so beautifully you didn’t want to open
it.”


“The way she treated us that day — I was a customer for as long as there was a Liebermann’s.”


Since Liebermann’s closed in 1991, Price
has traveled the world, looking for jewelry to sell at her trunk shows
benefiting the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts; her 23rd annual
sale takes place from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday in the Wharton Center’s
Christman Lounge.


She moved to Milwaukee last fall to be closer to family, but plans to return to Lansing often.


In the meantime, Price has become a
celebrity in modernist circles, a condition this month’s Modernism
Magazine story will surely help along.


Last December, Seaton took Price to visit the Herman Miller furniture company in Zeeland. 


“That was a great day,” Seaton said.
“She would stop everybody and say, ‘You know, I knew George Nelson.’
She was a celebrity. The plant managers and administrators all ran out
to say hi.”


True to her alarmingly robust health,
Price refused to use the elevator as they toured the plant. “I thought
she’d be good for a couple of hours and we were there for four or five
hours,” Seaton said.


Price’s keen sense of design, her
gregarious charm and her mighty, retail-fortified legs have all
impressed Seaton. So has Price’s quiet way of getting on with whatever
comes next in her life.


“You don’t see Betty fretting over
things,” Seaton said. “She’s methodical person, but not obsessive. I
guess you could say she lives a well-designed life.”


Sandra Seaton and Betty Price


7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25


Schuler Books, Meridian Mall


1982 Grand River Ave.


Okemos


Free


(517) 349-8840



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