Introduction

by Timothy A. Eaton

Please be Crated

by Penny Fowler

Growing Up Wright

by Mary Anna Eaton

 



 

Please be Crated

by Penny Fowler

 

Frank Lloyd Wright is the greatest American architect of the 20th century. His designs, residential and commercial, have been heralded as revolutionary. He created a new architecture, one that was indigenous to its surroundings. It was the physical organization of a new, complete and wholly integrated environment. The concepts of total design and individuality were paramount. All furnishings were to express the essence of the architectural whole.

For his 1889 residence in Oak Park, IL, he incorporated some built-in features. In 1893, he established his independent architectural practice. When he enlarged his home in 1895, he designed a dining room ensemble and other free standing furniture that set a precedent as a unified whole. In later years, Henry Russell Hitchcock said, "After that, there was no dichotomy between architecture and ornament, between structure and design, between the whole and its parts."[1]

Committed to his principles, Frank Lloyd Wright brought forth fresh and original concepts for each new client which included the interior attributes. He was seemingly satisfied with each building even though he often replied (when asked which building was the best), "the next one." However, it is evident that his furniture designs presented a challenge. He went so far as to say that his attitude toward designing a chair was "something between contempt and desperation"[2] In addition, he strongly felt that 'the only attractive posture of relaxation is that of reclining,"[3] and called sitting "an unfortunate necessity." Wright remained unencumbered by these thoughts, continuing to meet the formidable task he had set forth for himself.

There are over three hundred chair drawings in the collection of the Frank Lloyd Wright archives. Each is not a totally new or original design. It is common knowledge that Wright frequently varied details to meet specific needs. He also was continuously striving to improve aspects of his designs -- not only in the buildings themselves but the many decorative elements as well. The extent of his design involvement and fixation with detail is impressive.

Art historians agree that Frank Lloyd Wright was the dominant figure of The Prairie School (1900-1910). Unquestionably, he was the most productive at this time -- out of approximately 126 residential designs, at least 82 were built. Seventy-five percent of these were private residences. [4] It is difficult to comprehend the amount of furniture Wright was responsible for designing to create the "total environment" for these commissions.

Seven of the chairs in this exhibition fall into the time frame of 1895 to 1912. A spindle back chair from Wright's 1895 dining room, the dressing table chair from the Avery Coonley residence and the side chair for Isabel Roberts (both from c 1908) illustrate a design feature that was representative of the Prairie school. Not simply a decorative element, the repetitive spindles denned space and allowed a transference of light. The spindle configuration was diverse. The Roberts and Coonley chairs illustrate a center grouping of the spindles, extending over a portion of the back. The dining chair spindles terminate at the seat rail. Perfect vertical stiles extend from the top rail to the bottom stretcher on others. This was a very important element for Wright's free flowing spaces.

The spherical elements atop the back stiles of the Oak Park dining chairs were not included for dining ensembles that followed --" simple -- devoid of applied ornamentation ".[5] Interestingly, four chairs included in this exhibition are for his dining rooms Wright maintained that designs for dining were "much easier to manage and always a great artistic opportunity". This statement was not limited to the table(s) and chairs; it was extended to the choice of table covering, dishes, flatware and, of course, flower arrangement.

The straight and geometrical planes of flat planks, easily adapted to machine production, created the powerful rectilinear formed chairs. They appeared as uncomplicated sculptural structures. However, under closer examination, the furnishings were quite complex. Specifications for the tall spindle back chairs for the Ward Willits house clearly outline the intensive labor involved. All wood is to be of best quality solid, weather seasoned, and kiln dried, clear quarter sawed, white oak, joined throughout with blind, glued, mortis and tenon or oak dowel pins and finished with stained filler of color to be selected by the Architect and waxed Spindles are to be sprung into housings. [6]

The wood was waxed to bring out its deeper beauty; no other finishing was desired or required. It was rarely stained, painted, shellacked or varnished. Oak has an interesting grain without being too dominant. This characteristic along with its multitudinous uses made it the perfect choice for Prairie School architects. [7]

It is well documented that George Mann Niedecken collaborated with Frank Lloyd Wright for at least eight major commissions from 1903 to 1918.[8] At one time, he was part of Wright's Oak Park Studio In 1907, he returned to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, established himself as an Interior Architect and joined with John Walbridge (his brother-in-law), establishing the firm of Niedecken- Wolbridge. An advertisement in the Western Architect described their services as "Specialists in design and execution of Interior Decorations and Mural Paintings Makers of Special Furniture -- Art Gloss -- Electric Fixtures."[9] They contracted with the F H Bresler Co, also of Milwaukee, to construct furniture Niedecken was heavily involved with the Coonley and Robie commissions. There are numerous presentation furniture drawings, beautifully rendered by Niedecken, housed in the Prairie Archives of the Milwaukee Art Museum. For years, art historians have queried when Wright's involvement ceased and Niedecken's ethos began.[10] Current consensus is that Wright established the original concept and in some instances, Niedecken may have contributed to the final plan Nevertheless, Wright had the final soy. The two had a good working relationship Niedecken envisioned furniture as sculpture modulating the interior space. He was also cognizant of sitting comfortably. Accordingly, he did alter choir backs by shortening and contouring, to accommodate the human element. [11] Author David Honks remarked that furnishings provided through the Niedecken-Walbridge firm hove lighter structural components. [12]

The arm chairs for the William Heath house (Buffalo, NY, c 1905) represent another choir that was very much in Wright's vocabulary "Easy" and reclining chairs were quite popular. With the rise of domestic science, magazines like House Beautiful emphasized a "modicum of comfort". The massive appearance of these pieces is one more recurring theme from the Prairie School. It is reminiscent of the Morris Choir and the designs of Gustov Stickley, The Roycrofters and other Arts and Crofts furniture manufacturers. The variation of the brood central slot combined with narrower slots on either side of the Heath choir is refreshing.

The Browne's Bookstore, Coonley and Robie, "slant," "slob" or "plank" back chairs are only three of many variants. The back of the Browne's choir is tilted and tapered ever so slightly. This sophisticated subtle touch along with the simple ornamentation provided by the thin strip of molding gives the choir elegance. Indeed, very fitting for the space which combined the best features of a well-equipped bookstore with those of a choice home library. The interior had beauty and distinction, combined with special provision for the comfort and convenience of visitors, that made it unique.[13] This trim technique was often employed to de-emphasize a feature that may not be aesthetically pleasing.

The child's chair from the Coonley Playhouse is composed of several elements that are familiar to Wright designs. The manner in which the back cushion is attached to the frame is a new innovation. A pair of two square cut-outs allows the cushion to be secured without compromising the rectilinear elements of the choir. The leather covered slip seat (another consistent trait) served the same purpose. This was also a measure of practicality, particularly for children's furniture.

Without a doubt, the most enigmatic choir of Wright's is the angled slob back chair. There are numerous modifications to the basic" design -- which we must assume, first appeared in several locations of the Larkin Administration Building (Buffalo, NY, c 1904) To my knowledge, there are no extant Frank Lloyd Wright drawings of this choir'as built"(see pg 33). Our drawing (figure 1) stipulates 75 chairs like this" (a version with on arm!). Note that it appears to have the right arm slightly extended and wider. Its intended purpose is that of a writing surface.

The photograph of the classroom, on the fourth floor of the annex substantiates this rationale (figure 2). While the slant in the drawing is less pronounced than that in known (armless) examples, it is clearly evident that the germ of the idea existed. Historic photographs document the chair in the dining room and on the main floor of the light court. The back stiles of recognized examples (from the Lorkin Building) have rectangular block "cuffs" at the top and bottom. This seems to be the rendition connected to Hillside Home School, Unity Temple, Robie and Wright's Oak Park interiors. There are no known early photographs displaying the choir(s) at any of the locations.[14] Several museum collections have examples of this chair, but data on their origins is speculative in many instances. The provenance mystery is, compounded by the fact that when Wright was satisfied with a piece of furniture or other decorative item, he would instruct the maker to produce one or more of the pieces for his own use. He would incorporate them into his own living spaces and sometimes included them in exhibitions of his work. In the chair delineated in figure 3, the basic frame work is similar. Nevertheless, there are details not found in any other variations.[15] There is a rectangular cut-out centered several inches below the top of the slant board.

The rear stiles are only 27 1/2 inches high, and are beveled off at an angle Stiles on examples with the "cuff" at the top are 9 inches higher. Measurements (height x width x depth) for five different examples of this chair are generally true to one another varying less than an inch.[16]

The chairs from the Mori Oriental Art Shop (1914) [17] and the Imperial Hotel present a juxtaposition. The first could not be more basic while the latter is a geometric complexity. The Mori establishment was located on the eighth floor of the Fine Arts Building in Chicago. It was a compact space, sparsely furnished, and Mr. Shigehisa H Mori was a diminutive individual.[18] These factors undoubtedly influenced Wright's scale of the design. The hexagon, square and triangle shapes of the Imperial Hotel chair are recurring motifs utilized for the ornamentation of the building itself. The chairs illustrated in early photographs reveal that a number of original chairs had inserts on the backs and on the sides (underneath the seats). The back rests had padded cushions that were fastened in the same fashion as on the Coonley child's chair. The slip seats and back pillows were constructed from silk and wool upholstery fabric woven specifically for the hotel. There were three motifs; circles, squares and triangles, which were used throughout the building.

The Taliesin II chair was made sometime after 1914. It replaced a tall, plank-backed chair.[19] In a photograph of the chair in the Taliesin dining space, (figure 4) (dated after 1916) the back rest extends beyond the stiles. The inset squares paralleling the vertical stiles mirror the configuration of the wood mullions on windows and door sidelights throughout the Wisconsin residence. The elongated member was subsequently shortened when Wright moved the chairs to an area adjacent to his studio office (see pg 46)

The dining chair from Taliesin III is presumably from the early 1930's Wright presented this chair as an example of work to the Museum of Modern Art, purportedly when he participated in the museum's 1932 exhibition, Modern Architecture International Exhibition. The co-curators, Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock intended to downplay Wright's contribution to modern architecture, portraying him as passé.[22] By the end of the decade, nothing could have been further from the truth. At age 70, Wright was back in the limelight. Two monuments to modernism, Fallingwater and the SC Johnson Administration Building brought Frank Lloyd Wright renewed international acclaim.

The furniture for the S C Johnson commission is as streamlined as the building (figure 5) Wright had somewhat of a struggle in regard to the chairs and desks with Jack Romsey, the general manager, who held a tight rein on the budget Wright had envisioned what was needed - something that would incorporate the geometry of the building and reiterate the cantilevered features.[23] During a meeting with David Hunting of Metal Office Furniture Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan,[24] Wright provided a conceptual sketch and the company was able to produce drawings for the architect's approval. There was resistance to the three-legged chair, but Wright prevailed.[25] In spite of the peculiarity of the three legs, which one must learn" to balance, the pivoting back rest affords comfort. Moreover, with five legs (three metal and two human) it encourages good posture! Christopher Dresser.[26] said, "There is no reason whatever why a chair should have four legs if three would be better, or five, or any other number, let us use what would be best ".[27] The function of any chair is to support the sitter.

During the construction of the corporate project, Herbert F Johnson requested Wright to design a home for his property, Windpoint, just north of Racine. The land was once a nature preserve, located about one-half mile from Lake Michigan. True to form, Wright created a variety of original furniture for the residence. The barrel chair, reduced in size and refined from the first example that appeared in the 1904 D D Martin House, Buffalo, NY, was fabricated by the Gillen Woodwork Corporation of neighboring Milwaukee. According to former Wright apprentice Edgar Tafel, the chairs were constructed of plywood with chestnut cores.[28] The other free standing Wright designed furniture was of oak It is interesting to note that the mezzanine of the Johnson home, Wingspread, has a most unusual flooring. It is composed of one by three inch planks, fabricated from three inch thick plywood cut into one inch strips, which are laid on their sides, exposing the edges of the plywood laminations in the finished face of the ftooring.[29] (The same type of flooring is in place at the Hillside drafting room in Wisconsin) At some point, Mr. Johnson gave the plywood barrel chairs to Taliesin and replaced them with tawny oak examples of the some design.

Wright was investigating the capabilities of, plywood. In 1936, he was also formulating Usonion House concepts.[30] This was a moderately priced home that was suited to an individual site (suburban) as well as to an informal lifestyle. Several references are made to furniture design and plywood is designated as the material best suited for the experiment. The exercise was to confirm the advantages of the wood. Unfortunately, the attempt was not successful Burton Goodrich reported 'that as far as furniture is concerned the effect has been undesirable". [31] Another contributing factor, during the early 1930's, to the interest in furniture may have been that Peter Frankl had come to study with Frank Lloyd Wright. Peter was the young son of Paul T Frankl, [32] a New York furniture designer Frankl was a significant force in modern design. Trained as an architect, he championed many of Wright's principles and dedicated his 1928 book, New Dimensions: The Decorative Arts of Today to him. [33]

Through trial and error, the Taliesin Westor Origami chair resulted -constructed of plywood Wright deemed it a victory 'I have done the best I could with this living room chair.[34] He felt that he overcome the dilemma of the awkwardness of sitting .I've tried to design a chair so that when one was seated, one looks like something. And that's the chair in the living room there. You know, with the sloping slides, and really when you're reclining, seated in that chair, you are graceful -- in spite of yourself. [35] The geometric perforations on the arms and back are not found on other examples.

Plywood was not a new material. In the 19th century, Michael Thornet [36] was investigating the strength and moldability of piled wood. Patents were even issued. Use of plywood was fettered because adhesives available at the time were not stable when exposed to moisture. By the early 1930's, Alvar Aalto had produced his first successful all-plywood designs, the Palmlo furniture collection. [37] Aalto visited Taliesin in the early 1940's. Wright obviously approved of Aalto's 1946 cantilevered arm chair -- they appear in the living room at Taliesin West!

Wright's accomplishments with plywood went beyond the Origami chair In the development of a system for the construction of the Usonion homes which included the interior furniture, a new vocabulary resulted, for both built-in and separate items, that could be constructed easily from lumber and plywood.[38] He placed the designs for furniture directly on the set of working drawings for the construction of the house itself. Simple components, such as tables, chairs and hassocks, could be executed by the carpenter who built the house or by the client -if he could operate a table saw. A total of fifty-eight Usonion houses were build and furnished. [39] As a rule, the furniture pieces are very forthright. There are no curving members; Wright made use of straight- line components for the millwork details and furniture Joinery was achieved by intersecting and interlocking panels. The complete premise was cognate to prefabrication. These elements, incorporated into the finished piece, made the furniture appear as if it could be folded. Some pieces were enhanced with geometric cuts-outs utilizing a decorative element that was repeated from the pierced clerestory window panels. In order to strengthen or beautify, the exposed edges would be stained (with a contrasting color) or laminated with another material. The Roux Library chair exemplifies this technique. For table edges, a simple metal edge would be added to visually eliminate the seam of the bonded wood. For accent, brass shoes were occasionally placed on the bottom edges of various pieces.

Hassocks (or stools) were very much a part of the Usonion lexicon Wright thought of these as a type of "pull-up" chair. They were unobtrusive gregarious objects, easily rearranged for a small conversational gathering or tucked under a table when not needed. The hassock was a very important component, fundamental as it may seem. The living room of the Usonion house was a multi-purpose room which expressed this new democratic and egalitarian way of living.[40] The hassock had to be handsome, as it was always in view. Hassocks were designed in interesting, geometric configurations (based on the grid of the house) that could stand alone, or be grouped in different configurations, to meet a variety of demands. [41] The pentagonal shape of the Schoberg hassock personifies the Wrightion criteria.

The Rayward House, Tirranna, [42] is much too palatial to be classified as Usonion. However, chairs from this commission are of the same or similar nature as the niche of designs that were used for many of the Usonion commissions Wright would suggest the same design for yet another client, possibly modifying it when the design was used another time. [43] The high back chair with five graduated triangular cut outs was utilized in two other commissions.[44] The chair embodies the same ideology of the early dining chairs. Subtle details such as angular cuts at the base, beveling of the seat rail, and calculated tapers create a work of art Wright was developing a modernized barrel chair in 1935. He proposed it for the office of Edgar Kaufmann, but it was rejected.[45] With a few additional changes, he incorporated it into the interior of the house he designed for his son, David The combination of circular and angular forms is pleasingly unique and repeats the elements of both the David Wright and Rayward residences. The drop--in seat cushion and loose back pillow do not disturb the structural form Mr. Wright was fond of the design and ordered three for himself (see page 62). The low spindle dining chair of the Rayward House restate components of the barrel chair. The stretcher plane, pierced with two triangles is highly individual.

The metal armchair from the H C Price Company is a silhouette of geometry. It has been described: "The articulated back and seat of hexagonal form (was) raised up on a pedestal supported by a modified hexagonal base, the long arms sloping downward, the chair back supported by a spine-like support."[46] Analyzing this narration, it is determinable that the angular forms found in the chair are the sum of the shapes found throughout the building. Instead of "shaking this one out of his sleeve," Wright customized a standard, ready-made office chair. Our drawing file illustrates several versions, many of which are edited blueprints, supplied by the manufacturer, Domore Chair Company of Elkhart, Indiana. Only three, a secretary's model, a casual chair, and an executive's chair, were produced. All had interchangeable parts and, with slight modifications of the basic pattern of the secretary's chair, the other two could be assembled.[47] Metal furniture is used in the auditorium and cafe of the Guggenheim Museum Metal furniture was designed for lenkurt Electric, an unrealized project in 1955. The metal table and chairs proposed for the Midway Gardens did not come to fruition because of financial difficulties. However, an adaptation of the chair and table designs was fabricated at Taliesin West in the 1960's and is still in use today.

Early in life, Frank Lloyd Wright had to choose between "honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. He chose honest arrogance. [48] However, there was a humble moment when he cautioned, "Human use and comfort should not be taxed to pay dividends on any designer's idiosyncrasy."[49] When it came to his furniture, he was the most critical. One of his first chairs was a severe "cube". During an interview with one of Wright's children, he told art historian, Don Kalec, that Papa would say, "Come, sit on my crate chair.[50] A former apprentice recounted "when friends or clients came to see him he welcomed them by suggesting that they 'Please be crated'.[51] Repeatedly, Wright complained, "all my life my legs have been banged up somewhere by the chairs I have designed.[52] He thought chairs were his Achilles heel. Quite contraire!

Frank Lloyd Wright was tenacious in his pursuit of simplicity, harmony, unity and integrity. He had the ability to develop a range of expression that evolved into a synchronous system. His innovations of form and design in chairs is perceptible perfection. He had the genius to imbue his furnishings with the same authority seen in his buildings. His unending creativity has left us with an infinite body of design.

 

NOTES

1 Marion Page, Furniture Designed by Architects, (New York' Whitney Library of design, 1980) page 94

2 Frank Lloyd Wright, The Natural House, (Horizon Press Inc, NY, 1954) page 170

3 Ibid

4 Robert Twombly, The Prairie School Design Vision for the Midwest, (Chicago, IL The Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Volume 21, No 2, 1995), 86

5 David A Hanks, The Decorative Designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, (New York E p Dutton, 1979), page 36

6 The Irma Strouss Papers, (uncatologued), The Frank Lloyd Wright Archives, Taliesin West, Scottsdale, AZ

7 Donald Kolec, "The Prairie School Furniture", The Prairie School Review, Vol I, No 4, Fourth Quarter, 1964, page 8

8 Prairie School Collaborators: Frank Lloyd Wright & George Mann Niedecken, to be published in1997. It is the result of an exhibition of the same name which was mounted at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 1995

9 David A Hanks, The Decorative Designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, (New York E p Dutton, 1979), page 215

10 See footnote 5 The publication is an in-depth study of this aspect.

11 The Domestic Scene (7897-7927) George M Niedecken, Interior Architect, (Milwaukee, WI The Milwaukee Art Museum, 1981), page 65

12 David A Hanks, Frank Lloyd Wright Preserving an Architectural Heritage, (New York E p Dutton, 1989), page 62

13 Mary Jane Hamilton, Frank Lloyd Wright & the Book Arts, (Madison, WI Friends of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, Inc, 1993), page 66

14 Information in the Hanks books indicates that the chairs became a part of those buildings at a later date

15 David A Hanks, Frank Lloyd Wright Preserving an Architectural Heritage, (New York EP Dutton, 1989), page 48

16 The Irma Strouss Papers, (uncatologued), The Frank Lloyd Wright Archives, Taliesin West, Scottsdale, AL

17 There is some question as to the correct date of this commission Correspondence between Mary Jane Hamilton and the author, February 10, 1994

18 Conversation and correspondence between Mr. John Schrocht and author, May, 1995

19 Carla Lind, Frank Lloyd Wright's Dining Rooms, (San Francisco, CA' Pomegranate Art Books, 1995), page 14

20 Four chairs of this design are illustrated in a Hedrich-Blessing photograph that appeared in The Architectural Forum, January 1938, page 10

21 A slant back chair, (possibly from the Larkin Building) is also in the MoMA collection; a gift of the architect

22 Terrence Riley, Ed, Frank Lloyd Wright Architect, (New York The Museum of Modern Art, 1994), page 45

23 Jonathan Lipmon, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Johnson Wax Buildings, (New York Rizzoli, 1986) For a detailed account of the furniture, see Chapter 7, pp 85-91

24 David A Hanks, The Decorative Designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, (New York E p Dutton, 1979), page 220 The firm changed its name to Steelcose, Inc in 1954

25 The four-legged "officer's chair" was designed by Wright, just subsequent to the opening of the building

26 Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) was one of the foremost commercial designers He was a proponent for mechanized industrial production for furniture. He also wrote extensively, advocating industrial design reforms

27 Christopher Dresser, Principles of Decorative Design, (London 1873), p 57

28 David A, Hanks, The Decorative Designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, (New York E p Dutton, 1979), page 152

29 Jonathan Lipmon, "Wingspread" Historic Structures Report, (February 20, 1995)

30 Randolph C Henning, "At Taliesin", (Carbondale, IL Southern Illinois University Press, 1992), page 169

31 Ibid, p178

32 Mary Jane Hamilton brought this to my attention (Correspondence dated April 4, 1993.)

33 Kathryn B Hiesinger and George H Marcus, Landmarks of Twentieth-Century Design, (New York Abbeville Press Publishers, 1993), pages 109 and 330

34 Frank Lloyd Wright, The Natural House, (New York Horizon Press Inc, 1954), page 172

35 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, transcript of talk to the Fellowship, March 7, 1954

36 An Austrian designer (1796-1871) who perfected the process for the manufacture of bentwood furniture

37 Charles D Gandy and Susan Zimmermann- Stidhom, Contemporary Classics Furniture of the Masters, (New York Whitney library of Design, 1981), pages 94-96

38 Linda Nelson Johnson, Project Editor, "The Usonion House and Integral Ornomenr, Frank Lloyd Wright: The Phoenix Papers, Volume II The Natural Pattern of Structure, (Tempe, AZ. Arizona State University, 1995), page 80

39 Ibid. page 76

40 Virginia T. Boyd, "The House Beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright for Everyone," (Madison, WI Elvehjem Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Bulletin/Annual Report 1987-88), page 28.

41 House Beautiful 97 (November 1955), page 336

42 "Tirrana," is an Australian aboriginal word that translates "running waters"

43 Johnson, Volume II The Natural Pattern of Structure, page 83

44 Project 5037, Richard Davis and Project 5102, Austin/Chorecy One chair appears in a photograph of the Karl A Staley house (Project 5119)

45 Christopher Wilk, The Kaufmann Office, (London, England The Victoria & Albert Museum, 1993), page 64

46 Important Works by Frank Lloyd Wright, Christie's, New York, June 9, 1990, page 74

47 Frank Lloyd Wright, The Story of the Tower; (New York Horizon Press, 1956), page 130

48 Patrick J Meehon, ed, Frank Lloyd Wright: The Master Architect, (New York John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1984), page 55

49 Wright, The Natural House, 1954, page 44

50 The Irma Strouss Papers, (uncatologued), The Frank Lloyd Wright Archives, Taliesin West, Scottsdale, AL

51 Curtis Besinger, Working With Mr. Wright: What it was Like, (New York Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1995), page 281

52 Wright, The Natural House, pages 172-173

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