"My early approach to the chair was something between contempt and desperation, because I believe sitting to be in itself an unfortunate necessity not quite elegant . . . I think the ideal chair . . . allows the would-be sitter to gracefully recline."
Frank Lloyd Wright, writting "The Natural House."
WHEN DAVID Hanks was researching the exhibit "Decorative Arts of Frank Lloyd Wright" opening Friday at the Renwick Gallery, he found this story in Olgivanna Wright's book "The Shinning Brow" about her famous husband:
The Wrights went to stay with friends in Chicago. One evening, when the friends were out, Wright suggested they rearrange their friends' living'room furniture as a "generous gift." They worked very hard hard moving it all around - everything, including the piano - until they were both exhausted. When their hosts returned, they were horrified, and that night the householders moved it all back to where it was in the first place.
Mrs. Wright also wrote that even when they stayed in hotels for a day or two, they would move around all the furniture and even buy flowers and fruit to decorate the room. They changed the furniture around so often at Taliesin East and Taliesin West no one could remember how it was from year to year.
Wright, while a great talker about democratic architecture and Jeffersonian principles, could be very firm, not to say dictatorial about his designs. There is a story about some clients who worshipfully kept all the furniture placed as he told them. But every time Wright came to see them, he'd rearrange it again.
Robert Llewellyn Wright, a Bethesda lawyer, said his father on one visit was troubled by a thought in the middle of the night. So he went downstairs and sawed an inch off the back legs of a chair he'd designed for them. The next morning he said, "That chair always was uncomfortable."
Wright often said, "All my life, I have been black and blue from bumping into my own furniture" - perhaps because he couldn't remember where he'd moved it, perhaps because much of it had unexpected corners and surprising angles. His fondness for built-in furniture might have been an effort to keep himself from rearranging it. In any case, most of his houses came complete with furniture designs - both free standing and built-in. He never allowed any outsider to fiddle with his designs. He called interior designers "inferior desecraters."
With all the books and exhibits about Wright, it is astonishing to find that no one has ever before done an exhibit on Wright's decorative designs: his furniture and its arrangement, accessories, graphic designs, and, if you will excuse the expression, his doodads.
Now comes along David Hanks, an enterprising young man who spent some years at the Art Institute of Chicago, surrounded by Wright houses and stories of Wright. Hanks is by profession a decorative arts curator. So with the promise of a show at the Renwick Gallery to travel later to New York University and the University of Chicago and a book for Putnam & Sons, Hanks set to work to survey the field.
In the meantime, showing the way things happen in this world, Bryan A. Spencer, curator of the newly constituted Prairie Archives program at the Milwaukee Art center, organized an exhibition called "An American Architecture. Its Roots, Growth & Horizons," with a great number of Wright sketches as well as some of his furniture and objects. A conference he organized on the Prairie School drew more than 300 people, including seven former Wright apprentices. A small sampling from the show, mostly photographs and drawings, will be shown here at George Washington University's Dimock Gallery, Lisner Auditorium, opening Thursday.
At the Dimock, along with the Milwaukee loan, will be a panel of photographs of Wright and his works with a biographic commentary assembled by Edgar Tafel, a Wright apprentice and colleague whose book on Wright will be published soon. The show, originally done on a National Endowment for the Arts grant, has been around the world under the auspices of the U.S. information Agency.
The shows point to the strength of the Wright revival. With the decline in favor of the International school of architecture, its antithesis, Wright's Organic Mid-American school, is once again coming to the fore. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's new Wright room opening not too many months from now will be another push. It's all a part of the trend toward what is being called "post-modern" architecture, emphasizing the human scale and human concerns.
Tafel puts it well in his introduction to his panel show: "The legend he (Wright) made of himself in his lifetime and the legend he had grown into since his death in 1959 at the age of 91 are fully justified.
"Architecture for Wright meant a total environment - the site, the building and everything inside. His all-encompassing design sense took in the landscaping, the construction materials and the structural and mechanical systems and the interior furnishings and art work, down to each rug and ashtray. Wright's main interest was how people live - at home, at work - and how to help them live better."
Hanks had, he admits, a magnificent time hunting up the Wrightian artifacts. Up in the attic in the Lovestsville, Va., home of Nora Natof, a Wright granddaughter. Hanks found 12 original pencil and colored ink designs for covers of Liberty magazine from 1926-1927. They are among the more beautiful art moderne drawings you will ever see.
The show also includes a cover from Architectural Forum as well as designs Wright made for the cover of his "Autobiography." In the autobiography, Wright explains that the design represents a walk with his grandfather - the straight line being the grandfather's path, the zig-zag the young boy. Another design inside the book is derived from a plowed field from his childhood. The designs show how Wright's mind translated from the real to the abstract.
At Taliesin West in Arizona, Hanks went through the Wright archives (at $50 an hour, a charge leveled by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, because, they say, they have so many calls upon the collection). He also had the opportunity to meet and talk with Olgivanna Wright, the architect's widow, and herself a remarkable personality. He found Mrs. Wright to be "witty, helpful - and formidable."
"I'll never forget her entrance into the great dining hall, flanked on either side by her architectural apprentices, as sort of guard of honor. It was Valentine's and as usual at Taliesin the dining room was decorated for the occasion with ballons and hearts and so on.
"It helps you to understand his designs when you see how they still live at Taliesin," Hanks said. "All the architects and apprentices wear black tie for the formal Friday night dinner. And there is great entertainment. It really is wonderful."
Mrs. Wright lent him a silver cream pitcher, designed for the Imperial Hotel (now demolished) in Tokyo. It may well be the most exquisite art moderne object ever designed. (If this second comment begins to give you the impression that this observer has been impressed by the Wright objects in the show, then your understanding is correct.)
Mrs. Waldron Faulkner, who lives in one of the great houses of Washington, which was designed by her architect husband, contributed a dinner napkin with her parents' intials, designed, of course, by Frank Lloyd Wright - another bit of evidence of Wright's attention to detail.
Mrs. Faulkner's parents, the Every Coonleys, commissioned one of Wright's most beautiful and famous houses, in Riverside, Ill, along with a schoolhouse for Mrs. Coonley's innovative educational methods. When they sold the house to come to Washington, they left all the wonderful furniture designed for the house. All they brought along were the linen dinner napkins. Mrs. Faulkner told Hanks she remembers her mother telling her that the unusual shape of the napkin - long and skinny, more like a placemat than a napkin - was because Wright thought the shape would stay on laps better than the traditional square napkin (originally designed to be tied as a bib around the neck). One of the best photographs in the show is of Mrs. Faulkner as a little girl playing in the lily pond while her parents watch.
A cooper vase (1893) was lent by Mr. and Mrs. John D. Randall of Williamsville, N.Y. Wright originally designed the vase for his own home in Oak Park, Ill., to hold the sort of "weeds" he liked to use as organic decoration. The vase was made for Wright by James A. Miller, a sheet metal contractor, who offered it for sale to Wright's householders. Another urn (1899) for Wright's dried flowers or weeds was lent by the Wilbert R. Hasbroucks of Palos Park, Ill.
As with most of the objects in the show, this object is accompanied by a photograph showing the urn in situ in the hallway of the Edward C. Weller house in Forest River, Ill. A fascinating picture of Wright's own studio in 1895 shows for branches stuffed into metal vases - one short and rotund, the other tall and skinny. On a shelf above are all sorts of things - sketches of women, a Japanese plate and a Japanese watercolor, a nude statue of one of his sons and two amazing lamps that look as though they could have stood as models for street lamps.
Not many people remember it now, but Wright was very much interested in photography early on. According to Tafel. Wright was one of the first to use photographs as wall decorations. "He used to say a good photograph was much more interesting than a bad painting. He liked photograph himself, especially still lives. He would make all sorts of arrangements of Japanese prints, flowers and branches in vases and photograph thems."
Nora Natof has also lent a side chair (1900), which one was in Wright's own home, although it is though to have been designed for the dinning room of Wright's Larkin Co. building in Buffalo.
The furniture makes it easy to understand Wright's own jibes about being black and blue. It has an uncompromising angularity to it. Very often, Wright designed the furniture to echo the floor plan of the house. In the Wright house in Bethesda, a coffee table and a series of hassocks follow the house's own almond shape. The sone remembers that when it came time to get the hassocks upholstered the craftsman couldn't figure out how to do it, so R.L. Wright had to do it himself.
The armchair designed in 1904 for the Darwin Martin house in Buffalo is the show. It was much copied by Wright for his other houses. It is quite handsome, in the arts and crafts style of the period - oak, of course, with slats that go all the way to the bottom and a cushioned seat. Wright's oak furniture is clearly kin to the Roycroft furniture studio, the American manifestation (the California version was called 'Mission' style) of the arts and crafts movement that began in England with William Morris, his furniture, fabrics and wallpaper.
The oak chair looks much more comfortable than three other chairs that are more like sculptures: a side chair for Hollyhock House, a residence in Los Angeles; the dining chair for the John Rayward house in New Caanan, Conn; and the side chair for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.
Hanks recalls that the chair Wright designed for the Johnson Wax building in Racine, Wis., had only three legs, to encourage good posture. If you didn't sit just right, you'd be on the floor. Wags said it was to keep the typists awake.
Tafel remembers that Wright was very fond of earth colors - which once again are in vogue. "He especially liked gold. We always included at least one gold choice in upholstery samples for him."
The leaded-glass windows designed for the Darwin D. Martin house, and another set from the Coonley schoolhouse, are among the most interesting parts of the Renwick show. It is useful to see how closely related the windows are to the graphic designs. The Wright china, some made by Noritike for the Imperial Hotel, and a rare cup and saucer made for the Midway gardens in Chicago, as well as the fabrics and wallpaper are also very much like the magazine covers.
Wright designed almost 400 buildings during his long and busy life. Today, we are perhaps just beginning to realize how right he was.