Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Frank Lloyd Wright and the House Beautiful Tour Blueprint

through July 20, 2008

Frank Lloyd Wright and the House Beautiful is primarily an exhibition of Wright’s interior, furniture, and textile designs, as well as some of his drawings of architectural plans and elevations, custom and production furniture, and interior views of his houses. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Virginia Terry Boyd, Professor of Design Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Brooks Pfieffer, Director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives was also deeply involved in the project. The exhibition is circulated by International Arts & Artists, and comes to the NMA by way of the Naples Museum of Art (Florida), Boise Art Museum (Idaho), Columbia Museum of Art (South Carolina), and the Philbrook Museum of Art (Oklahoma), among others.

Among other objects in the exhibition, you’ll find chairs, lamps, tables, drawings, screens, windows, and textiles spanning a remarkably long architectural career of seventy + years, most of which are couched in the idea of the House Beautiful--a concept about architecture and, more importantly, about how to live—that was central to Wright’s work, although he did not coin the phrase. Its philosophical roots lay in nineteenth-century housing and social reform in an era of tenements and slums in rapidly industrializing cities following the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution. The basic idea, foundational to the aesthetic philosophy of John Ruskin and William Morris’s Arts and Crafts Movement, was that the “quality of life could be improved by reshaping the material physical environment”—that the nature of the environment had a profound effect on the individual’s social, moral, and cultural values.

This exhibition is presented as part of the NMA’s Art + Environment exhibition series, an initiative that brings community, artists, and scholars together to explore the interactions between people and their environments.

Wall Texts
The phrase “House Beautiful” came into use at the end of the nineteenth century as part of a design and social reform movement. The philosophy reflected a belief that quality of life could be improved through the design of material environments—from cities to houses to table settings. With respect to the home, “House Beautiful” implied not simply artistic goals, but a broader moral connotation that the home was a source of cultural and ethical values, a place where individuals became productive citizens contributing to the betterment of a democratic society.

Throughout his life, Frank Lloyd Wright was guided by a central motivating force: that architecture was about creating a way to live. He once said, “A building is not just a place to be. It is a way to be.” Wright’s residential architecture, in particular, was the laboratory for realizing—in form—a uniquely American “way to be,” which, over time, would become a “lifestyle.”

This exhibition presents three ways in which Wright translated his ideas about how to live into the design of houses. First, he introduced a new approach to the allocation of space, emphasizing a main living area. Second, he developed a style to express the modern era. Last, he worked to make his ideas and designs available to average Americans. Whether creating tables or textiles, Frank Lloyd Wright considered it his mission to provide a “House Beautiful” for every American.

Frank Lloyd Wright believed that Americans deserved a unique style of architecture, not one based on European precedents. He felt that design should reflect individual freedom and the increasingly informal, modern American lifestyle of the early twentieth century. Consistent with America’s vision of a democratic society, Wright imagined a house that liberated, rather than constrained, those who lived in it.

Wright proposed innovations such as removing attics and basements, and reducing the size of less frequently used rooms in order to focus and expand the common living area of the home. This meant removing walls deemed unnecessary in order to open up interior spaces—thereby creating one, continuous room that served multiple functions and changed throughout the course of the day and life of the family. Floor-to-ceiling walls of glass and exterior terracing diminished the visual and physical barriers between interior space and the surrounding landscape. These innovative changes created a house with a single, expansive “space for living.”

Creating a “House Beautiful” required establishing an underlying unity and order in the material environment. Frank Lloyd Wright described this sense of harmony as an organic approach to the design and use of houses. He gave physical form to this idea by emphasizing the inherent character of materials—their linear quality, texture, and natural patterns. Wright’s notion of organic ornamentation did not simply adapt natural images; rather, it expressed his sense of the relationship between the fundamental structure and visual appearance of forms in nature.

All of Wright’s work—from drawings to completed buildings to furnishings—shows a consistent visual character based on ruler-straight lines that move the eye through the object or space. Resulting patterns convey the Modern world through abstract geometric motifs and compositions. Regardless of scale, the consistency of Wright’s approach assured that a single, integrated vision governed the entire project.

Frank Lloyd Wright is most well-known for his custom-designed houses for wealthy or adventurous clients. Yet throughout his career he also remained committed to designing housing for the average person of “Usonia”—the term he used for the United States. Wright experimented with several ways to extend his ideas about organic architecture to mass audiences; the Usonian house was one such attempt. He developed plans and a construction process that, ideally, clients could implement themselves. Furthermore, he introduced and promoted his ideas through the popular press, built exhibition houses, and designed manufactured, prefabricated homes. Wright also understood that the closest most people would come to obtaining an organic “House Beautiful” was by outfitting an existing home with his furniture, textiles, wallpapers, carpets, and paints. All such products were coordinated so that a consumer could customize a space according to Wright’s principles for creating a unified, organic whole.

Like all accomplished architects, Frank Lloyd Wright knew that success was as much dependent upon vigorous promotion of his work as it was on the work itself. To firmly establish his approach to residential architecture, Wright needed to address potential clients using a means of communication with which they were familiar.

The popular press was one avenue Wright used to deliver his products to a mass audience. In the early twentieth century, women’s and lifestyle magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal, House Beautiful and Life were widely read. They often included articles describing current issues of the day that affected the middle class—such as trends in home design. Frank Lloyd Wright entered numerous architectural design competitions sponsored by these magazines, and his ideas were frequently featured in their pages.

Every house that Frank Lloyd Wright built was a way to publicize his work. However, only a limited number of people had access to these private homes. Therefore, Wright used a range of methods to expose larger numbers of people to his principles of organic architecture. One approach was to create prefabricated structures—such as the American System-Built Houses—intended to reduce the cost of expensive skilled labor, yet control the quality of the design and construction. Another means of disseminating his ideas was the production of a series of exhibition houses that provided access to hundreds of visitors. Although temporary, these houses made it possible for people to imagine the experience of living in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

In 1954, Frank Lloyd Wright submitted a number of textile and wallpaper design ideas to F. Schumacher and Company, a production firm that had previous experience collaborating with designers. Several of Wright’s ideas were selected and adapted for production—supplemented by additional colors and designs that filled out the product line. Over time the line evolved, with the last new fabrics added in 1960 and all of the products gradually phasing out by 1972. In 1986, the company introduced a second line called “The Frank Lloyd Wright Collection,” which remains in production today.

Fabrics were important to Wright’s vision of a “House Beautiful.” When large-scale textiles were hung to cover entire walls, their patterns created an illusion of “opening up” the confining walls in the room. The complex designs and fabric colors also conveyed the visual richness of Wright’s custom houses, echoing the lush materials, light screens, and the unique carpets used in these structures.

Frank Lloyd Wright recognized that not all people could build their own homes, so he designed “organic ornaments” to improve already-existing houses. These objects represented a fundamental change in the way Wright approached furnishings: rather than serve as integral components of a custom-designed home, these mass-produced pieces were freestanding objects that created an organic space on their own. Wright submitted designs for three furniture lines to the Heritage-Henredon company, elements of which were integrated into the company’s final “Taliesin Line.” This group of 66 pieces included a dining set, side tables, chairs, upholstered seats, and modular cabinets. The modular pieces, a new idea at the time, gave Wright the means to develop standardized furnishings that could be personalized through unique configurations for different situations.

Lackluster sales of this furniture might have been due, in part, to the uniqueness of the products at the time. Additionally, the modular pieces required considerable skill to combine effectively, and the individual objects were virtually impossible to coordinate with other furnishings. Nonetheless, these products foreshadowed the modular furniture systems that were still to come.

You’ll find the exhibition installed in the third floor Feature Gallery South. The exhibition is roughly chronological in its layout, and it invites you to meander through the gallery, looking at the evolution of Wright’s work over the course of his remarkable seventy-year career as an architect and designer. A clear delineation occurs midway through the exhibition that represents a shift in Wright’s work—one in which he moved away from more formal, expensive, and individually unique designs of everything from landscapes to tableware, and towards well-designed objects for production on a much wider, and therefore affordable, scale.

Wright Houses
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, Oak Park, Illinois (1889-1898)
Edward C. Waller House, River Forest, Illinois (1899)
B. Harley Bradley House, Kankakee, Illinois (1900)
Hillside Home School, Spring Green, Wisconsin (1902)
Susan Lawrence Dana House, Springfield, Illinois (1902)
Edward C. Waller House, River Forest, Wisconsin (1902)
Darwin D. Martin House, Buffalo, New York (1905)
William R. Heath House, Buffalo, New York (1905)
C. Thaxter Shaw House, Montreal, Quebec, Canada (1906)
J. Kibben Ingalls House, River Forest, Illinois (1908)
Frederick Robie House, Chicago, Illinois (1909)
Taliesin I, Spring Green, Wisconsin (1911-1914)
Avery Coonley Kindergarten, Riverside, Illinois (1912)
Taliesin II, Spring Green, Wisconsin (1915-1925)
Henry Allen House, Wichita, Kansas (1915)
Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, Japan (1915)
Mabel & Charles Ennis House, Los Angeles, California (1923)
Taliesin III, Spring Green, Wisconsin (1925-1937)
Broadacre City (unrealized, 1935)
Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Arizona (1937-1950s)
Lloyd Lewis House, Libertyville, Illinois (1939)
Bernard Schwartz House, Two Rivers, Wisconsin (1939)
David Wright House, Phoenix, Arizona (1950)
Guggenheim Museum, New York City, New York (1953)

Perspective Drawing – a drawing that uses one- or two points on a line to convey the illusion of three dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface
Plan – a “bird’s eye” view of the layout of a house; a map of the rooms of a house as seen from above
Section – a “cutaway” or “dollhouse” view of the layout of a house; a map of a house plan illustrating the view through the walls at how space is organized.
Elevation – an architectural drawing of a building that depicts an exterior view of the side of the structure, e.g., the north elevation or the southeast elevation.

Tour Framework

  • Ask guests to look closely at the title wall of the exhibition, and to describe what kind of ideas, feelings, or senses of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work it conveys. Craftsmanship? Japanese influences? Warmth? What else? Why? What comes to mind when you think “Frank Lloyd Wright”? Why?
  • Explain that the House Beautiful is a concept with historical roots in the nineteenth century that strongly influenced Wright’s design philosophy over most of his life. Following the rapid industrialization and mechanization of large cities around the western world in the nineteenth century, large numbers of poor, working, and middle class people were more or less forced to live in squalid conditions in tenement projects and slums. First in England, and later in the U.S., opposition to these living conditions increased as a result of treatises by Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin. As Boyd explains: “For them the improvement of the aesthetic and cultural milieu was an essential part of broader social reform. Ruskin discussed the relation between architecture and the moral good, even suggesting that particular architectural features such as hearths, overhanging roofs and steep gables represented Christian moral values such as trust and devotion. As leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris emphasized a relationship between the aesthetic environment and an individual’s quality of life; a supportive environment could inspire the initiative and educational activity necessary to achieve a better life.” (41)
  • Explain to guests that there are many ways to understand the historical trajectory of Wright’s development as a designer, but that in many ways, it can best be understood by the eras of his architectural designs for his own family’s life: Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, Illinois (1889-1909); Taliesin I (1911-1914); Taliesin II (1915-1925); Talisein III (1925-1937+); and Taliesin West (1937-1959). Be sure to emphasize, however, that this is not an exhibition about his architecture, per se, but an exhibition about his concept for the house beautiful.
  • Point guests’ attention to the window from the Darwin D. Martin House (Buffalo, NY: 1905) mounted in the title wall. Explain that early in his career, during the Oak Park era, Wright was learning architecture from two mentors, and designing homes that were moving out of the staid Victorian traditions of the time. This window illustrates Wright’s lifelong interest in the patterns underlying nature, and the quality of the colored and leaded glass illustrates Wright’s concern for craftsmanship. Additionally, the window shows Wright’s interest in Universal design, as he designed not only the home’s structure, but also its windows.
  • Invite guests to look at the Dining and Living Area drawings of the C. Thaxter Shaw House (Montreal, Quebec: 1906).
  • Explain that the drawings are interior architectural views of the Shaw House that convey the illusion of three dimensions through the use of two-point perspective. This common drawing style allows architects to help clients understand their plans for a given space.
  • Invite guests to examine the group of furniture objects, including two pieces from the Oak Park, Illinois, Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio, and one each from the Avery Coonley Kindergarten and Hillside Home School.
  • Ask guests to describe the shapes, materials, and styles of the chairs. What kinds of shapes and forms does Wright use to craft the chairs? Do these chairs seem more formal or more informal? Why?
  • Explain that Wright’s work evolved throughout his career. His early home and furniture designs were not traditional—they often raised eyebrows, actually—but to our eyes today they do seem much more “traditional.” Look closely at the Frank Lloyd Wright Studio Side Chair (Oak Park, IL.: 1895), for example. Yet it also conveys some of his revolutionary ideas in its form: he was most famous for removing walls from the interior spaces of homes, and instead relying on furniture to help convey a sense of space. He often used high back chairs to do this. So, while this might be a very traditional-looking chair, it also represents the seed of revolutionary thoughts by a young architect.
  • Ask guests to look at the Enclosed Chair from the FLW Studio on the higher pedestal nearby (Oak Park, IL.:1895). If the chair were a purely three-dimensional form, what would it be? Essentially, the enclosed chair is an experiment in reductive sculpture. What has he removed from the cube to create this chair?
  • Ask guests how many of them have or, more importantly, use a formal dining room in their own homes. How about a library? The nearby Edward C. Waller House Library Table and Susan Lawrence Dana House Hanging Lamp (1902) reflect a time of a still-very-traditional turn of the century. The library table was designed for a very specified use in a very specified room—before the advent of more common spaces in his house designs. Likewise, the lamp was designed for a formal dining room in the Dana House, which Wright moved away from after the 1930s.
  • Point guests’ attention to the Japanese Print Table nearby. Here again we see a piece from early in Wright’s career (1898) that represents a custom design, a formal purpose (the display of a single Japanese print at a time), and clients of means. And yet the table also indicates some of FLW’s interest in modularity: the table has hinges and can be completely closed for storage, taking up a fraction of the space it does when open.
  • Explain that Wright’s nearby designs for side and coffee tables (1943) and for the David Wright House armchair (1950) illustrate some of the shifts in culture that FLW used his design savvy to meet. The tables and armchair are much less formal, much simpler, and they reflect a significant shift in the way people were living their lives from just two or three decades before. The small tables could be moved and grouped for the user’s needs, and even the fact of the upholstery on the David Wright chair suggests a less formal sitting area than was customary in the early part of FLW’s career.
  • Explain to guests that the J. Kibben Ingalls House light screen mounted in the nearby wall (River Forest, IL.: 1908) begins to illustrate some of the concerns that would preoccupy FLW for the remainder of his career: how to blur the boundaries between inside and out, and how to make a home’s design organic, of its place, not on its place. Note the details of small pieces of colored glass in the design, and the strictly geometric and quite linear components of this particular design.
  • Ask guests to consider again FLW’s sculptural and geometric design work by looking at the Taliesin Barrel Chair (1936). Like the earlier Enclosed Chair, the Taliesin Barrel Chair is an experiment in reductive, geometric design: a cylinder that has been cut away by the designer’s hand to reveal a more beautiful form.
  • Explain to guests that one of the great tragedies of our American architectural heritage is that many of FLW’s buildings have been demolished, both here at home, and abroad. The silver tureen on display was a design for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan (1915). Sadly, like others of FLW’s designs, the Imperial Hotel was demolished in 1968--this after it had survived the 1923 Tokyo earthquake when not much else did. Note the specific and formal use of the tureen, and the geometric decoration in the handles.
  • Explain to guests the basic principle of universal design. When he could, FLW designed not only the plans, sections, and elevations of his houses, but also the ways in which the houses fit into the landscape, all the way down to the linens on the tables, the windows in the walls, the carpets on the floor, and the utensils on the counter—epitomizing the idea of custom home design. Nearby, several windows and light screens indicate FLW’s continued interest in breaking down the barriers between inside and outside, and in the geometry of design. The Francis W. Little House (Deep Haven, MN.: 1912) is very much in a lush setting, and FLW wanted to emphasize this with the windows. The nearby Avery Coonley Kindergarten windows (Riverside, IL.: 1912) illustrate FLW’s interest in another geometry—that of the circle. In his later work FLW created designs based on a single geometric shape that became the underlying design principle for the whole project—the David Wright House, like the Guggenheim Museum, was based on the circle, for example.
  • Explain that the B. Harley Bradley House Dining Chair (Kankakee, IL.: 1900) reiterates FLW’s interest in furniture-as-architecture. The high back of these chairs at a formal dining table within a large, open Wright-designed space helped to create a sense of a room-within-a-room in his design for the home. The open floor plans that he favored left large amounts of open space; the design of the chairs helped to create the feeling of a smaller space around the group of seated diners.
  • Explain that the designs for the Frederick Robie House (Chicago, IL.: 1908) Wall Sconce and Chest of Drawers, along with the William R. Heath House (Buffalo, NY.: 1905) Hanging Lamp nearby are again examples of fine, hand-crafted, custom-made pieces for the well-to-do clients who commissioned FLW to design their homes. The pieces are made from high quality quarter-sawn solid oak; in comparison, some of the furniture around the corner is made with plywood—a new material in the 1930s—and FLW begins to experiment with furniture designs that met the changing needs of contemporary American families, e.g., moveable coffee tables functioning as alternative dining tables for the increasingly informal lifestyles of Americans at mid-century.
  • Explain that Taliesin, FLW’s cherished home and studio in Spring Green, Wisconsin, burned almost entirely to the ground on two different occasions. Taliesien I (1911-1914) was lit afire by a disgruntled employee, who killed FLW’s mistress and four others. Taliesin II (1915-1925) caught fire in a 1925 lightning storm, and burned the house, but not FLW’s studio. He began work on the third iteration of Taliesin “III” in 1925, for which he created the nearby designs for the Taliesin III Lamp (1949) and Low-Back Music Chair (1943). Wright began construction on Taliesin West (Scottsdale, AZ.) in 1937.
  • Explain to guests that these pieces allowed FLW to experiment with simpler, more modular, and more affordable designs for Americans, especially following World War II.
  • Explain that as a result of the strong influence of the social reform tendencies of the Arts and Crafts Movement, FLW always believed in the democracy of design—the idea that everyone deserved good design, a well-built and well-designed home, and that such environments had a profound impact on the strength and qualities of peoples’ character. However, this was at odds with his chosen career path, as only the wealthy, generally, could afford architecturally unique homes or furniture. As FLW grew older and more well-established, he began to design for the middle and working classes, in addition to his wealthier clients.
  • Ask guests to look at the Bernard Schwartz House (Two Rivers, WI.: 1939). How is it different from some of the other windows or screens they have seen in the exhibition?
  • Explain that, as plywood was invented and becoming widely used, FLW used it to frame his windows, making the patterns in his screens not with expensive lead, but with punctuated holes cut into the plywood. His use of clear and translucent glass as opposed to colored glass made them more affordable as well.
  • Encourage guests to look closely at the Heritage-Henredon Taliesin Line drawings of furniture on the west (curved) wall of the gallery, and at the Scott Radio Cabinet Project drawing (1941).
  • Ask guests what they think the drawings might illustrate about Americans’ changing needs for furniture in the middle of the twentieth century.
  • Explain that the rapid technological changes in America, which included the advent of in-home radios and then television sets, required new furniture designs, and increasingly informal lifestyles added to the need for revolutionary new designs, of which FLW’s of the 1940s are examples.
  • Encourage guests to note the draftsmanship of the drawings in comparison to the sketchier drawings of the figures and forms with which he was experimenting.
  • Encourage guests to look closely at the images of FLW’s carpet designs for the David Wright House (Phoenix, AZ.: 1950) and for the Gillin House (1950).
  • Explain that FLW’s overall designs for these two projects began with one primary geometric shape: the circle and the triangle, respectively. Every component of the design of each structure was couched in the principles of the shape. For example, the circular carpet pattern echoed the forms of the David Wright House, which was circular in plan, and which shares traits with the much larger design of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which was constructed just three years later.
  • Explain that, beginning in the 1950s, FLW began to design furniture, textiles, and even pre-fabricated “System-Built” houses that could be mass-produced and made widely available to a much larger audience.
  • Explain that FLW, like many talented artists and architects, was an inveterate self-promoter. It was said that “he could smell a potential client” at some distance, and he worked very hard to promote his design work by entering competitions hosted by such popular magazines of the day as House Beautiful and Ladies’ Home Journal. This was also how word about his Usonian and System-Built houses could be promoted to millions of people.
  • Explain that commissions from the F. Schumacher Co., for example, led FLW to design a variety of textile designs—some less expensive printed cotton and linen, for example, and some more expensive woven boucle damask and silk fabrics as well.
  • Explain that while FLW was working to plan the Guggenheim in New York, FLW constructed a model home of his System-Built Usonian house on the very site where the Guggenheim now stands, so that a wide audience could see what he was designing “for the masses.”
  • Explain that Usonian was the name FLW gave to the houses he designed with the hopes of providing more affordable, yet still-well-designed, housing to a large portion of Americans. It was an abbreviation of what he thought the country ought to be called—the United States of North America.
  • Ask guests if they think well-designed objects are important to them. Why? Would they be more important if they were more affordable?
Frank Lloyd Wright and the House Beautiful will, we hope, lead people to understand a number of things. First, that FLW had an extraordinarily wide reach as a designer and architect across seven decades of the twentieth century. Second, that the importance that FLW placed on design for everyone, not just the wealthy, is part of the design history of the U.S., which is often overlooked. Third, that companies like Target, which tout their affordable, well-designed objects for everyday use are not the first to do so. Fourth, that FLW was in many ways a visionary practitioner of architecture and design, predicting by half a century some of the conversations taking place to day about the need for affordable, beautiful, well-designed, and well-constructed housing. And perhaps most importantly, that FLW, one of the most important architects of the twentieth century, was a person concerned with not only the buildings in which we live and how they should fit in and not on the landscape, but how to live well within their walls.