Architect, furniture designer, critic and writer, Frank Lloyd Wright almost single-handedly established the model of the family home as we know it today. Frank Lloyd Wright is a towering figure in modern architecture, a legend in his own lifetime whose legacy – houses, office buildings, factories, churches, furniture, furnishings and stained glass – had a huge impact on the course of 20th century design.
Fittingly, Wright’s early life in effect coincided with the birth of modern America. Born in 1867 as the country was beginning to reconstruct after the devastation of the Civil War years, Wright grew up in rural Wisconsin when America was experiencing a period of unprecedented development and prosperity. He was exposed to literature, art and music through his parents, and to nature through his immediate environment.
After engineering studies at the University of Wisconsin, Wright moved to Chicago and worked in several architectural practices including that of Louis Sullivan. In 1889 he married Catherine Tobin and built the Oak Park house that was to be the home for his expanding family for the next 20 years. Establishing his own practice in 1893, Wright moved the office to Oak Park in the late 1890s. It was the creative domestic environment of the Oak Park office and its location within the flat Midwestern landscape that nurtured Wright’s revolutionary ideas about the function, planning and integration of interior spaces and the importance of the relationship of building to landscape.
The result of these ideas – the ‘prairie style’ houses of the next 10 years, such as the Darwin Martin and Robie residences – created a new language in domestic architecture. The long, low horizontal lines of these houses, inspired by both the prairie landscape and Wright’s admiration for Japanese art and architecture, were the complete antithesis of contemporary house styles. And in an ‘honesty to materials’ that was unprecedented, brickwork, timber, concrete, stone and stucco were exposed and accentuated rather than painted or rendered. Internally, the novel concept of open-planning created free-flowing spaces with abundant natural light from long bands of windows. Furniture, furnishings, lighting and stained glass – all designed in the Oak Park office – were integral to the total architectural statement. Wright’s holistic approach to design was an entirely new phenomenon, one that was to become central to the modernist credo as the 20th century progressed.
Wright’s furniture spoke the same aesthetic language as his ‘prairie style’ architecture: strong, abstract geometric lines, an overriding functional simplicity and an honest use of materials – usually lightly-stained oak – that also drew inspiration from the principles of the late 19th century Arts and Crafts movement.
The reproduction today of a selection of the Oak Park era pieces through the Cassina I Maestri collection attests to the significance and timelessness of these now century-old designs.
If the momentum of the Oak Park years held the promise of a brilliant future, things went seriously awry for Wright mid-career. In 1909, aged 42, Wright left his wife and six children and travelled to Europe with a client, Mamah Cheney. Returning to America in 1911 he built a retreat – Taliesin – for himself, Cheney and her two children at Spring Green, Wisconsin. Three years later tragedy struck when a hostile servant set fire to the house and then murdered seven of its occupants, including Cheney and her children.
Wright was devastated but not defeated. In the years immediately following the Taliesin tragedy he completed the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, an extensive project for which he also designed extraordinary ‘art moderne’ furniture, fittings and tableware. The hotel survived the devastating Tokyo earthquake of 1923 only to be demolished to make way for a high-rise hotel in 1968.
His creativity undiminished in advancing age, Wright went on to design a series of innovative concrete ‘textile block’ houses in the Los Angeles area in the 1920s, and during the Depression developed his concept of the low-cost ‘Usonian’ house. In the mid-1930s he completed two of his most prestigious projects: the sublime ‘Fallingwater’ at Mill Run, Pennsylvania, and the innovative Johnson wax factory administration building, for which he also created an equally impressive range of metal furniture. In the years after WWII up to his death in 1959 aged 92, Wright designed nearly 500 projects as diverse in style as the curving concrete Guggenheim Museum and the desert-hugging Taliesin West complex in Arizona. A giant among architects, the range, diversity and inventiveness of Wright’s creative contribution to 20th century design has never been equalled.