You Can Own An American Home 

A Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition makes us ask: What can we learn from Wright's ideas, and are we paying attention?

The recently opened "Frank Lloyd Wright and the House Beautiful" exhibition at Boise Art Museum (BAM) contains over 100 pieces--including furniture, fixtures, magazines, textiles, photos and rarely exhibited original drawings--organized around the theme of the "house beautiful" (Wright published a book by that title in 1897), or the idea that an interior's style improved the life of its inhabitants.

Wright insisted on the transformative power of a harmonious and fully integrated design and stressed modern America's need for it. "Every house is a missionary," said Wright. "I don't build a house without predicting the end of the present social order." He had the idea that design wasn't just a decoration, but a way of life that could shape the nation.

Wright's existence was defined by rejecting existing mores, gathering aesthetic particulars that were worth gathering and integrating them into something entirely his own.

Near the beginning of Ken Burns' 1998 documentary on Wright, the narrator intones: "Frank Lloyd Wright broke all the rules--in his art, and in his life." This is not hyperbole. In his 92 years on earth, Wright would overcome humble beginnings, personal tragedy and his own self-sabotaging outrageousness to become the most widely regarded architect of the 20th century. With his characteristic immodesty, Wright is purported to have said (objecting to being called the most important American architect), "I am the greatest architect who ever lived."

Born in 1867, in the middle of the Victorian era, dead in 1959, at the tail end of the Atomic age, Frank Lincoln Wright began in Wisconsin what would turn into a singularly remarkable life.

When Wright was a boy, his father left the family and Wright changed his middle name to his mother's family name "Lloyd" and refused to ever speak to his father again. (Wright would later do just as his father had, leaving his own wife and their six children to go off with his lover, the wife of a friend and client. Fortunately for the Wright legacy, his own children didn't judge him as harshly.)

Wright's mother thought him destined for greatness since his birth, and Wright claimed that early on, she hung pictures of cathedrals in his room and gave him Froebel blocks for his play, all with an aim of pushing him into architecture.

As a young man barely out of his teens, Wright left Wisconsin for Chicago, where building was booming in the wake of the devastating 1871 fire, and by sheer cheek soon managed to apprentice himself to already-renowned Chicago School architect Louis Sullivan in 1887. Now famous mostly for his Wright mentorship, Sullivan is also the progenitor of the saying, "form ever follows function"; he also designed some of the world's first skyscrapers, and Wright helped him draft them.

Near the end of Wright's time with Sullivan, the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago embodied the Neoclassical design par excellence in its famed White City. Sullivan hated it. He represented a new breed of architects who believed in the integration of adornment as part of the design, not attached to it.

Wright learned well from his master, and from there, taking inspiration from Japanese aesthetics, the Arts and Crafts movement and his beloved nature (instilled since childhood summers on a Wisconsin farm), Wright was soon looking to create a unique American style of his own. Wright began taking commissions from clients without Sullivan's knowledge, and whether he was fired (as Sullivan claimed) or quit (as Wright claimed), Wright had struck out on his own before the century turned.

Early in his solo career, during the years between 1900 and 1909, Wright designed 135 homes in what evolved into his "Prairie Style." Rejecting the tradition-bound designs of the Beaux-Arts movement, with its arbitrary rules, obliviousness to physical context and tacked-on ornamentation, Wright avoided the false alternative that would later be typified by the boxes produced by Gropius and the Bauhaus movement and later still the non-building deconstructions by architects like Frank Gehry--or today's "cracker box" houses that fuse utilitarian no-design boxes with strange architectural references as decorative afterthought.

Wright's Prairie houses embodied his idea of organic architecture, designs that were a unified whole, integrating the land, the exterior of the home, the interior of the home and the spaces within. Characteristics of a Wright-designed home included an open, flowing floor plan, earthy colors, low ceilings, a central fireplace, horizontal expansion, non-90-degree angles, obscured entrances and fully integrated design. Wright would pick a decorative element, and repeat and reinterpret it throughout the house, from the windows to the carving on the dining room table to the rug in the great room, as a leitmotif. Wright's idea of design was that it was not an afterthought to be dealt with only after the basic structure was decided. He said, "True ornament is not a matter of prettifying externals. It is organic with the structure it adorns."

Even after he moved to get away from building homes and into the civic spaces--office buildings, houses of worship and a very famous art museum--that made other men legends, Wright would later design home furnishings, available in department stores, in order to give people access to the feel of a Wright home even when they couldn't have an actual Wright-designed house. He even made a foray into pre-fab homes with "American System-Built Houses" and his Usonian designs later in his life. He wanted everyone to have access to his designs--to have the opportunity to dwell in a serene space that made the inhabitant better for being in it.

Wright's genius was not a quiet one, but part of a flamboyant bigger-than-life personality who brought turbulence to everything, from his personal life, to his method of work to his charming self-promoting swagger. It is particularly interesting, then, that the most pervasive characteristic of a Frank Lloyd Wright home's interior is its tranquility.

In 1957, Wright said on The Mike Wallace Show, that having designed so many buildings, "It is quite easy for me to shake them out of my sleeve." That was a glib assessment of the facility with which Wright came to design homes. Today, his structures are treated like works of art. His designs and ephemera from his interiors end up in museum shows, like BAM's current exhibition.

It is not his Larkin office building in Buffalo, New York, or the curving lines of his Guggenheim museum in New York City that drive the theme behind the "Frank Lloyd Wright and the House Beautiful" exhibition, co-sponsored by International Arts & Architects (IA&A) and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. It is the private spaces he created, the ones for individual people living behind closed doors. As exhibit curator Virginia Terry Boyd says of the show's evolution, they were "not so much interested in [Wright's] architecture itself, but rather how he thought about how Americans lived and how he wanted to design a space that accommodated that well."

Boyd, professor of 20th century design at the University of Wisconsin and Wright scholar, says the gestation of the show was about a four-year process, something people rarely realize about museum shows. IA&A--a Washington, D.C.-based organization that brings art to the public in all areas through traveling exhibitions across the United States and five continents--was approached by a museum interested in a Wright exhibition. IA&A contacted the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, and they, in turn, contacted Boyd.

They asked her how she would approach putting together a Wright exhibition, says Boyd, and then "I sent them my thinking on what kinds of themes I thought would be interesting to develop." She says what is challenging about museum shows in recent years is that they're often organized around a set of ideas that are represented in material form by the objects. "The next step, then," Boyd says, "is to find objects that will explain and illustrate the themes."

With a traveling show like this one, a big issue in organization is getting permission. They spent a good deal of time approaching various collections and private donors, to "see what they have and what they're able and willing to let travel." Says Boyd, "Being crated and uncrated for two years is really hard on pieces."

Some of the show's more fragile pieces include original windows from Wright houses. Over the years, windows have been removed from many of the houses, "either because the house is being demolished or renovated," explains Boyd. Many of these windows end up in museums, and in this exhibition, the windows are on loan from museum collections. An exception would be the windows from the Martin house in Buffalo, New York. The Martin house is currently under renovation and the windows had been removed and stored. "The owners were generous to let them travel," says Boyd.

Other fragile objects in this exhibition are several original Wright drawings. That the Wright Foundation allowed those to travel, says Boyd, is unusual, given that the pieces are extremely prone to damage from light and handling. Because the foundation is a co-sponsor of the show with IA&A--also an unusual occurrence--the foundation contributed a large portion of the exhibition's objects, including the drawings.

About the co-sponsorship and collaboration between IA&A and the Wright foundation, Boyd points out that the mission of the IA&A organization is to make art widely available to the American public, which is also the mission of the Wright foundation (albeit with a narrower focus). "They had a common goal to make this accessible," says Boyd. "A very admirable goal."

"Having a beautiful, satisfying environment is something to aspire to," she says. "The theme of the exhibition doesn't come through in scholarship. This exhibition is really intended to put that theme forward."

Eric Lloyd Wright, an architect himself and grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright, was in attendance at BAM's July 22 gala opening of the exhibition. Though he wasn't involved with organizing the show, he was asked by the museum to attend the gala and to give a talk. He tells BW of his visit to BAM, "I think it's an excellent exhibition, particularly interesting as it shows how important the interiors to the building are to the space."

Having a famous--iconic in this case--relative seems like a double-edged sword: On one hand, you have instant name recognition and an "in" with the family field--and instant invitation to the museum galas. On the other hand, there's a tremendous shadow of expectation--in the eyes of the public, anyway--to live up to or exceed that legacy. Eric Wright not only had the revolutionary architect for a grandfather, he apprenticed under the man for six years and--while an architect in his own right--has been involved in preservation projects on buildings designed by both his grandfather and his father, Lloyd Wright. When asked about this, Eric Wright is realistic. He says he feel fortunate for being able to work with his grandfather and recognizes that the pedigree has "opened many doors" for him. He also says, however, that though people will always make comparisons, "we're all individuals and we're all different."

"I have a responsibility to be involved," he says of preserving the buildings that are the elder Wrights' legacies, "because of my knowledge and [the works'] importance." But, he adds, "My own creative work is the most important challenge."

Eric Wright also discusses with BW his grandfather's legacy and the expectation of what the exhibit might bring to Boise visitors. "I hope from this particular exhibition that they take away how important it is to create their own physical environment around them." As his grandfather stressed, he emphasizes that the space in which you live has an "important effect upon your psyche--physical beauty to help with your emotional beauty." This is a principle Eric Wright, as his grandfather, wants to see applied to our whole environment, not just one home.

Eric Wright regrets the way his grandfather's line of home furnishings designs lapsed. "It was too bad that [his] experiments with that didn't go further," he says. "It faded out in the '50s. A great deal of that is because it was not well-exhibited. It was all spread apart and pushed in among other furnishings," and in that out-of-context context, he says, the objects didn't "read" properly. "That hurt it--you couldn't see the effect that it could have."

The current exhibit makes an attempt to exhibit the pieces in a way that does read well.

Sandy Harthorn, BAM curator since 1980, says the museum hasn't brought in many shows on architecture and design in her tenure. "We wanted to start with the best," she says.

The Wright show was a good one for BAM, says Harthorn, because "Frank Lloyd Wright did the Guggenheim [in New York City]. He was the first to focus on the museum itself being a work of art.

"There have been new museums built across the U.S. and the world in the last five to 10 years," Harthorn says, and they were "all architect-influenced buildings where the architecture is really playing a role in the museum."

When asked why Wright's comprehensive, wholistic idea of what a home, from roof to rug, should be an enduring source of public interest, Harthorn talks about the progressive nature of Wright's ideas on home design. "His experimental ideas included open floor plans, the prominence of a central fireplace, simplicity and a respect for materials and a sense of harmony in the house. When you think about contemporary living--houses today have great-room concepts instead of formal traditional homes with a family room and dining room--it's a popular idea [now] to have a great room, and the idea of the 'great room' goes back to Frank Lloyd Wright. It's as important today as when he developed the idea."

People are much more aware of "houses being part of the land and a reflection of the personality of the individual," says Harthorn. "The whole notion of the 'house beautiful' was a notion of a quality of life."

Bringing the show to BAM was itself a long process. The show had to be booked several years in advance to allow the museum enough time to write grants and otherwise raise funds for the show. BAM representatives traveled to Naples, Florida, last January to see the show, photograph it and talk to the curator there and begin planning for how the show would look at BAM. They spent months designing exhibition platforms and pedestals, deciding on the order of the pieces, the colors that would be used--all this before the objects themselves were ever in the museum. "It has to all be done with photographs," explains Harthorn. "It's a skill, and over a period of years you begin to understand how many objects are required for a gallery and how you can best display them."

The intended effect is, fittingly enough, harmony, which is most apparent in the museum's display of Wright's Prairie style. Collected from homes he built early in his career, the objects in this part of the exhibit beautifully complement one another.

One can imagine sitting in front of Wright's Tree of Life window--a stylized geometric abstract tree pattern--with natural light flooding through planes of glass punctuated with subtle tones of yellow, green and other earthy colors. The window, from the Martin House built by Wright in 1904 in Buffalo, New York, is just one of many beautiful stained glass windows of this period on display at BAM.

click to enlarge Hanging lamp, William R. Heath House, Buffalo, New York, 1905, leaded glass, as displayed at BAM - PHOTO BY LEILA RAMELLA
  • Photo by Leila Ramella
  • Hanging lamp, William R. Heath House, Buffalo, New York, 1905, leaded glass, as displayed at BAM
Wright continues with the same leaded stained glass motif in the numerous lighting fixtures. One of the most striking examples of a lighting fixture in the exhibit is the reproduction of the massive hanging lamp from the Dana House, which Wright built in 1902 in Springfield, Illinois. Suspended from the ceiling, the light hangs just above eye-level, the electric bulb emanates a warm glow that is caught in the sharp angles of yellow and shimmering blue-to-green glass. The almost impossibly intricate geometry, the delicacy of the glass against the gray metal of the piece's superstructure, is reminiscent of a dragonfly's wing.

The strong planes used in the glass works are echoed in the elegant angles of high-backed chairs, tables and other pieces of furniture. Take, for example, Wright's Japanese print table made in 1898. The dominant vertical planes of the support legs, capped at the top by pediment-like detailing, tower above the hinged surface of the table--and all of it is stained in a rich, warm hue. There's something sublime about Wright's pairing of these dark, solid pieces of furniture and the airy, translucent windows--a person feels warm and safe, but not closed in.

BAM's exhibition also contains various large-scale photographs of pieces in their original settings, which are a nice touch--allowing visitors to the museum to see not just individual pieces, but also the way Wright intended them to be viewed, as part of a completed home interior. And yet, it also leaves one wanting to be in the actual rooms for which the objects were designed. Viewers are trapped outside of the cozy living room, away from the fireplace and the rugs and the light coming in through the windows. This touches on the sense of out-of-context context that Eric Wright talks about in connection with the phasing out of his grandfather's home furnishing line.

Perhaps this sense of loss or incompleteness, an inevitable part of a museum show that does not actually take place in the homes from which the objects came, can have a positive effect, inspiring future generations of architects to create the kinds of extraordinary buildings that just haven't been created since Wright died on that spring day in 1959.

"I hope that everyone finds something in their own lives that they can relate to the concepts of Frank Lloyd Wright," says Harthorn. "His effect was so large and so important and I'm not sure that people realize how much of the way we live came out of his concepts or ideas."

Wright built over 360 houses in his lifetime. For him, that didn't just mean drafting building plans. It meant shaping the entire home, down to whatever details--from fabrics to rugs to where the furniture should be placed in relation to the space--his clients could stand him dictating. Even so, his intention and execution are vindicated by his legacy's endurance.

Dan Everhart, president of the local non-profit group Preservation Idaho, says, "As amazing as it is to me, there are still Frank Lloyd Wright houses that are threatened. You'd be surprised that people still want to tear down houses built by the most famous architect in the United States ... the world, perhaps."

Everhart is both realistic and optimistic about the effect of the current interest in all things Wright on the wider context of architectural preservation in our state. Even with the popularity of the exhibit, Everhart isn't certain that people will look at the larger idea of general historic building preservation. "It's easy for people to disassociate themselves from the larger question of preservation," he says. He feels it would be a benefit of this BAM exhibit if people did understand that as important as Wright was, "the legacy of our own heritage is something that takes place on a yearly, monthly basis."

"Threats to historic structures do not respect a name like Frank Lloyd Wright or Tourtellotte and Hummel or those unnamed architects who built log cabins out in the Sawtooths," he says. "Historic preservation has a hard task reminding people about Wright and his influence but also those unnamed people who shaped Idaho's heritage."

Of the contrast between what his grandfather was promoting up through the '50s and the box-upon-box of modern housing developments, Eric Wright says, "It's our lack of understanding, perhaps. We're just set in old ways." But he, too, sees hope.

"Boise is a city that's moving very fast now and has to be very careful how it grows," says Eric Wright. "It has a wonderful sense of space right now, and I hope it can keep that sense." This means, he says, not just the existing architecture, though those historic buildings should be preserved, but that new buildings, too, should have architecture that is "beautiful, not just utilitarian." He says we should ask ourselves of new buildings and new interiors, "Are they going to make it more claustrophobic, or make our lives more open and more natural?"

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