November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
When a quirky genius who is also the greatest American architect of his time sets out to redesign the way people live, then the results are likely to be at the very least arresting. And Frank Lloyd Wright’s chairs and desks and inkwells are every bit as arresting as his houses.
It would be a shame to raise a handsome house only to fill it with ugly furniture. Wright was well aware of this, and early on he started creating not only walls and roofs but the tables, chairs, and beds that went into his houses. To guard against a distracted householder who might buy less than perfect porcelain or silver, he went on to design a host of implements. Just how well his notions have held up was proved in a recent Christie’s Park Avenue auction: a table lamp in geometric forms with a glass shade, which he designed shortly after the turn of the century, sold for more than seven hundred thousand dollars.
A number of Wright’s designs have survived, some of which were not carried out at the time they were made. Such is the case of the covered sterling silver bowl on the opposite page. Originally conceived in 1930 for the Leerdam Company, a Dutch firm, but not actually produced, it was part of a set of silver and glass ware of which only a flower vase was made. Recently, Tiffany, in New York City, after obtaining permission from Taliesin, the foundation set up by Wright that now owns the bulk of his designs, has begun to make both these and other pieces, such as plates and coffee cups of the pattern once used at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.
The covered bowl, in fact, is a direct result of those 1922 Imperial Hotel designs. The hexagonal shapes and diagonal motifs, the sharp angles, and the openwork handles are similar to those of the sugar bowl of a coffee service that was designed for the hotel and used there throughout the twenties and thirties. Even great creators sometimes recycle their own work. The stark, almost Cubist look of the covered bowl and the massive proportions that give it such presence were very much in accord with Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy. From the very beginning, in his pre-World War I Prairie houses, Wright had shown his fascination with clean, uncluttered, yet expressive forms. Massive beams, wide overhanging balconies, and strong horizontal and vertical elements created majestic volumes in which life seemed both grander and simpler, if sometimes a little austere. To enter a Wright-designed house today is still to experience a lift of one’s spirits, the realization that we can live in surroundings just as beautiful, in their own way, as a Gothic cathedral or a Baroque palace.
Like all great architects, Wright understood that his buildings were part of an environment. His Johnson Wax Research Tower at Racine, Wisconsin, soars up as a counterpoise to the endless stretch of the flat Midwestern plain. At other times Wright chose to build in accordance with the nature of the landscape. The most illustrious example of this is Falling Water, in western Pennsylvania, a house poised on a rock over a natural waterfall, whose massive horizontal terraces seem to float above the water but are anchored to the ground by a strong vertical core built of the local stone. Thrilling though it is to see the house from the outside, the interior offers perhaps an even better example of Wright the designer, not only for imaginative use of space but for the unexpected tall, narrow windows in the core of the house and the mostly built-in furniture designed by the architect.
On the whole, Wright deplored the fact that people insisted on sitting, or even reclining, and that they used a variety of objects (including books) that were not designed by him. Talk to anyone who has actually lived in one of his houses and you will get the strong feeling that he considered the residents an especially pernicious form of clutter.
Still, he did his best to provide so complete a setting that not even people could ruin it. That, of course was not wholly new. The Austrian artisans of the Wiener Werkstätte at the turn of the century had also wanted to create overall, harmonious environments, as had the American Arts and Crafts movement; but Wright took it all a large step further.
It was therefore logical for him to design tableware. Indeed, there is little he did not design, from textiles to be used as curtains, upholstery, or rugs to furniture, silver, glass, and porcelain; and always his own geometric, yet personal, style is recognizable. Even so, he no doubt regretted that this was not a Frank Lloyd Wright world; he must have also deplored the fact that objects he had created would be used in buildings he had not designed. In spite of that, the power of the large, simple forms is almost as evident in the covered bowl as it is in one of the master’s houses, so that the simplest object becomes a lesson in architecture. Here, in a silver bowl, what we see is not just a period piece but the very reflection of genius.