TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT November 1979

books

The Decorative Designs of Frank Lloyd Wright

David A. Hanks, The Decorative Designs of Frank Lloyd Wright (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1979), 272 pages.

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT’S FINEST achievements—the Winslow House, 1893, the Avery Coonley House, 1908, the Robie House, 1908, Falling Water, 1936, and that museum to end museums, the Guggenheim, 1943–57—place him in the front rank of world architecture. Yet his decorative designs, of which there are hundreds, and upon which he set great store, are often, with some notable exceptions, disappointing. Perhaps this is not so surprising, since there is a limit to the amount of quality work any individual can produce. What is surprising is that it is so rare to find a forthright appraisal of Wright’s excursions into the decorative arts.

Although Wright himself said, “To promote good work it is necessary to characterize bad work as bad,”1 apparently David A. Hanks, the author of The Decorative Designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, disagrees. His text presents an overview of Wright’s decorative designs with, at best, only sporadic reflections upon their relative merits, although esthetic quality was ostensibly a prime criterion of selection (preface). If artistic merit had been decisive, this would have been a slim book indeed.

It might be argued, with some justification, that research is at the beginning stages in this largely undocumented and unexplored area of Wright’s work, and that now is not the time for stringent judgments of its esthetic worth. Certainly the information which Hanks here presents is interesting in itself and vital to understanding the full complexity of Wright’s production. Nonetheless, it is clear that Wright’s talents lay elsewhere.

Published in connection with a recent traveling exhibition (1977–79) of Wright’s decorative designs organized by the Renwick Gallery, in Washington, Hanks’ text functions in part as a catalogue of the exhibition and as a basic reference work. There is, to my knowledge, no more convenient or comprehensive compendium on this aspect of Wright’s career. Because of the dual function of the book, it was decided, I think arbitrarily, that full entries, including materials and dimensions, would be given only for those objects which were in the traveling exhibition; this unfortunately vitiates the book’s potential usefulness. Another logistical point: reference sources are given conveniently within the body of the text, but you must note them while reading; there is no bibliography to refer to.

In the first few chapters, Hanks discusses Wright’s historical antecedents, his maturing esthetic philosophy and the range of his interests in the decorative arts. This is followed by chapters considering Wright’s major commissions in chronological order. Separate summary chapters are devoted to Wright’s graphic work, from his early Arts and Crafts designs for the private press of his friend W.H. Winslow to the Bauhausian mode of his Taliesin Fellowship years; his furniture and fabric designs for mass production for the Heritage-Henredon Furniture Co. and F. Schumacher & Company; and the craftsmen and manufacturers with whom he worked from the 1890s to the 1950s.

We learn that Wright owned a copy of Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament (1856), that he thought The Discourses (1863) of Viollet-le-Duc represented “all that there is to know” (pp. 2–3) and that Christopher Dresser, in his Principles of Decorative Design (1873), prefigured Wright on many significant points (p. 3). As the author points out, Dresser advocated truth to materials, the “orderly repetition of parts . . . in the production of ornamental effects,” and the use of conventionalized plant motifs for decoration years before these propositions were embodied in Wright’s decorative designs. Unfortunately, while the evidence presented is certain on Wright’s knowledge of Owen Jones, it is only circumstantial with regard to Christopher Dresser, and while Wright’s startlingly high regard for Viollet-le-Duc is quoted, no source for the quotation is given.

There follow the standard references to Frank Furness and Louis Sullivan, with a short discussion of Wright’s theory of organic architecture. Quoting the master, David Hanks reveals ornamentation to be of seminal design importance in Wright’s theory of organic architecture. If a building “is conceived in organic sense all ornamentation is conceived as of the very ground plan and is therefore of the very constitution of the structure itself” (p. 7), while “floor coverings and hangings are at least as much a part of the house as the plaster on the walls or the tiles on the roof” (p. 9). Hanks comments further that Wright described his buildings as “organic abstractions,” which in their “severely conventionalized nature sympathize with trees and foliage around them, with which they were designed to associate” (p. 7).

There is a fine textural and illustrative exegesis devoted to the Sullivanesque ornament in that prophetic gem of Wright’s career, the Winslow House, in River Forest, III. (1893). As Hanks stresses, the Winslow front door derives directly from Sullivan. Already, however, the plastic exuberance of its oak leaf motif has a robustness that is Wright’s alone, and that recalls no less than the acanthus frieze of the ancient Ara Pacis Augustae, in Rome.

“Experimentation” focuses on Wright’s predilection for arranging and rearranging everything from rooms to table settings, and his concommitant passions for both the smallest details of his settings and for photography to record his fugitive ensembles. We are told the famous tale of a visit that Mr. and Mrs. Wright made to friends in Chicago. Left alone in the house, the Wrights totally rearranged the furniture as a gift for their friends. Understandably, their hosts were horrified and put everything back in its place during the night.

The range of Wright’s interest in the decorative arts becomes increasingly evident as the author discusses and illustrates designs for wood, concrete, glass, terra-cotta and metal. The architect, in Wright’s view, was to deal with all aspects of a house and its furnishings—floors, doors, decorative friezes, windows, tables, chairs, rugs, grill work. Wright even designed clothing for the inhabitants of his houses “to harmonize with the interiors” (p. 25).

“Furniture” introduces one of Wright’s perennial problems, that of finding suitable furnishings for his houses. All that was available when he began his career was, in his opinion, “senselessly ornate” (p. 29). The only solution was to design his own, which he did to his continuing discomfort. Somewhat ruefully, he observed in later years: “I soon found it difficult, anyway, to make some of the furniture in the ‘abstract’; that is, to design it as architecture and make it ‘human’ at the same time—fit for human use. I have been black and blue in some spot, somewhere, almost all my life from too intimate contacts with my own furniture.”2 This humane, witty, and unusually humble bit of self-awareness is transformed in The Decorative Designs of Frank Lloyd Wright into a much testier self-defense. David Hanks writes: “as a defense against the criticism that had often been made about the discomfort of his seating furniture, he came to acknowledge what he felt was a failure, blaming the human need to eat or sit in a folded position, which he thought was abnormal to man” (p. 50). No source is given for this unattractive formulation, but even if one exists, it is not the sort of statement to substantiate an esthetic position.

Wright’s 1895 design for a cube chair is singled out by the author as an “uncompromising statement” of his ideas on furniture design. The chair is reduced to the basic geometry of a cube and wholly unornamented. It looks about as inviting as a prison bench, but at least it was stable: subsequent adventures in chair design were not always so safe. The chairs designed for the S.C. Johnson Administration Building, 1936–39, were supported by three legs. David Hanks explains that “this design recognized for the first time the support that is given by the legs of a chair’s occupant—assuming that one’s weight is evenly balanced and both feet are squarely on the floor—thus encouraging good posture. If the sitter chose a different position—for example, with legs crossed—the chair would lose its stability, and the unfortunate individual would be capsized. This evidently has occurred enough times so that today all but a few of the original three-legged chairs have been converted to four legs—a compromise in the design for practicality” (p. 148). I cannot figure out whether this passage is written tongue-in-cheek or sincerely, but my sympathies go to the capsized individuals with their incorrigibly bad posture.

One of Wright’s more solid ensembles, his own Oak Park dining room of 1895, is compared with the conventionally fashionable, overstuffed dining room of the Arthur J. Davis House, New York, as it appeared in 1905. In this simple, illuminating photographic juxtaposition between repressive ostentation and repressive simplicity, David Hanks reveals the revolutionary austerity of Wright’s vision. Furthermore, by quoting a contemporary’s enthusiasm for Wright’s dining room the author gives us a welcome insight into avant-garde taste in the 1890s. Enthralled by the soothing harmony of Wright’s design, Alfred Granger extolled its continuous horizontal lines, golden brown oak, and delicately leaded glass (p. 36).

As the chapter on “Art Glass” emphasizes, Wright’s designs in this medium are among “the most important and brilliant” (p. 53) of his early decorative work. David Hanks does every student of Wright a real service by illustrating so many of the finest windows in color. There are the amber and green sumac windows of the Susan Lawrence Dana House, 1903; the blue, red, orange, and green Coonley Playhouse windows, 1912; and the purple Hollyhock windows, 1920, among others. Interestingly, in no instance do the colored areas predominate over the panes of clear glass; rather they function as brilliant bits of light-suffused color. So insistently serious in most things, in his windows Wright seems always to have been a boy playing with the Froebel blocks and colored German construction papers of his childhood.

Wright’s early exposure to Frederick Froebel’s “gifts,” a smooth maplewood cube, sphere, and tetrahedron, as well as the multi-colored papers, led him to appreciate basic, geometric forms that were compatible with machine production. Wright’s acceptance of the machine was crucial, as David Hanks demonstrates in his chapter “Beginnings: 1887–1900.” It enabled him, from his earliest Arts and Crafts days, to develop “his esthetic in the context of the capabilities of machine production” (p. 61). Unlike so many of his contemporaries in the Arts and Crafts movement, Wright never feared the machine. He admired William Morris, but he was a Bergsonian colleague of Walter Gropius, who believed that the machine was “no more or less than the principle of organic growth working irresistibly the Will of Life through the medium of man.”3

In “The New School of the Middle West: 1900–1910,” we see Wright, post-Arts-and-Crafts, in the maturity of his Prairie School period. Sustained discussions are given of the Susan Lawrence Dana House, 1903, the Larkin Company Building, 1904, the Darwin D. Martin House, 1904, and the Avery Coonley House, 1908, Wright’s own personal favorite among the Prairie houses (p. 99).

David Hanks focuses upon Wright’s aim to have a “certain simple form [that] characterizes the expression of one building” (p. 80). Wright was most successful in incorporating a single design motif in the Dana House, for which he created sumac windows, complementary butterfly lamps, splendid arched bands of leaded glass for the entrance hall with the sumac motif abstracted and, for the dining room, apainted sumac frieze. The consistency with which the sumac motif is maintained, and the inventiveness which characterizes its use, are amazing, particularly once we realize that at the same time, Wright was immersed in work on the D.D. Martin house and the Larkin Building.

It was for the Darwin D. Martin House that Wright designed his finest chair. As the author says, “the flared crest and curved incline of the arms are designed for comfort—very different from the usual rectilinear back and arms” (p. 95). Perhaps it is the sturdy humanity of the Martin armchair that distinguishes it from Wright’s more precarious and puritanical ventures. The Martin chair is by no means lax; it is a visibly taut, no-nonsense chair, but it isn’t forbidding and it would not dump an unsuspecting occupant onto the floor.

Oddly, humanity, sturdy or otherwise, is a rare quality in Wright’s work of the following period, “From the Middle West to Japan and California: 1911–1930,” although there are high points. The Coonley Playhouse windows, 1912, are a joy. The subtle colors—pinks, mauves, yellows, oranges, purples, olives—and delicate design of the rug from the F.C. Bogk House, 1916, have a singular Whistlerian beauty. Aspects of Taliesin III, mid-1930s, are gracious and broad-minded. But this is also the period of the Midway Gardens, 1914, with its brainless sculptured sprites; of the Imperial Hotel, 1916–1922, with its obtuse furniture and oppressive, cavernous grandeur; and of the claustrophobic compression of the Charles Ennis House, 1924. Each of these three monuments is chock-a-block with decorative details asserting the freedom of the architect but leaving the viewer feeling like a prisoner. Unnervingly, the author makes no significant distinctions between the good and bad works of these years, and no attempt to explain Wright’s proverbial dislike for painters and sculptors—which becomes apparent in the context of the Midway Gardens commission. Wright’s infamous comment is quoted: “. . . I found musicians, painters, sculptors were unable to rise at that time to any such synthesis. Only in a grudging and dim way did most of them even understand it as an idea. So I made the designs for all to harmonize with the architecture. . . .” (p. 118–19). Wright wanted to reduce paintings and sculptures to the rank of decorative adjuncts to the creative impulse of the architect rather than according them independent creative status. No wonder he found only artist-ciphers willing to work with him. Who can imagine Wright dictating a scheme of circles or squares to Man Ray or Marsden Hartley?

The title of the final chronological chapter, “Renaissance: 1930–1959,” is reasonable with regard to Wright’s architecture, but it is misleading with regard to his decorative designs. These include the Johnson office chairs, 1936–1939, the Hanna dining room chairs, 1937, which were similarly precarious, and the H.C. Price Company chairs, 1953–56, which have been abandoned because, while they were stable enough, they were too heavy to move. The furniture of Falling Water might be better; it is referred to as “Wright’s most important domestic architectural commission after the Robie House” (p. 145), but the only illustration is the standard view of the exterior with its cantilevered terraces. There are no illustrations of the interior of Falling Water, and none of its furnishings.

The main body of the text ends with a perfunctory observation on the Guggenheim: “The building, which is an architectural tour de force whose ornament is truly in the plan of the design, is mentioned here because Wright did not live to attend its dedication. He died on April 9, 1959” (p. 168). This passage deserves citation, not for what it says about Wright or the Guggenheim, but for what it reveals about The Decorative Designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. It goes without saying that the Guggenheim as “an architectural tour de force whose ornament is truly in the plan of the design” merits discussion, for reasons wholly unrelated to the fact that “Wright did not live to attend its dedication.” Such lapses of logic and intellectual rigor characterize this book throughout. Thus, when dealing with that superb synthesis of architecture and ornament, the Unity Church, 1906, David Hanks gives up after two short paragraphs, saying: “All these threads, along with the colors and the striking rhythms of decorative wood molding, achieve such a complete integration with the architecture it would be disruptive to discuss each separately” (p. 99). It may be difficult, but it need not be disruptive.

Truly, references that are “reminiscent” of things which the author sees fit neither to illustrate nor explain are most disruptive. The second-storey decorative frieze of the Winslow House was “reminiscent of that used for the Moore House in Oak Park” (p. 11); the built-in buffet of the B. Harley Bradley House was “reminiscent of the Anglo-Japanese sideboard designed by W.E. Godwin” (p. 74). These are the only references to the Moore House and the Anglo-Japanese sideboard. They may be “reminiscent” to the author; they are not to the reader who begins to search futilely for prior discussions that The Decorative Designs of Frank Lloyd Wright does not contain.

David Hanks leaves us a great deal better informed about Wright and his decorative designs, and newly aware of the place that decoration held in Wright’s theory of organic architecture. But he does not do justice to Wright, his architecture, or his decorative designs, because he fails to confront the essential question of quality. Despite the quantity of Wright’s decorative production, there is little here that approaches the greatness of his architectural work. Indeed, The Decorative Designs of Frank Lloyd Wright goes far to prove that architecture took precedence above all else for Wright, chance remarks or Whitmanesque rhetoric notwithstanding.

David Hanks states that “for Wright, making a pleasing arrangement of the salt, pepper, and sugar containers on the dinner table was as worthy of attention as creating a building” (p. 23). Wright may have “applied his discriminating eye and mind to the smallest things as well as the biggest,” (p. 23) as Elizabeth Gordon wrote for House Beautiful (October 1959), but he was not the person to equate breakfast tables and buildings. The convincing evidence of his achievement is in the buildings.

Alice van Buren

—————————

NOTES

1. Quoted in Edgar Kaufmann and Ben Raeburn, eds., Frank Lloyd Wright: Writings and Buildings, New York, 1960, p. 196.

2. Ibid., p. 49.

3. Ibid., p. 71.