Even if you’re not a student of design, chances are you’re familiar with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright — the man the American Institute of Architects calls the “greatest American architect of all time.”
The hundred or so houses he built beginning at the turn of the 20th century were carefully planned to appear as if they’d sprouted organically from their surroundings. He believed in harmony between structure and nature. Wright would use materials found on the property and in the surrounding area, like stone for the fireplace surround and indigenous wood (lots of it) for window-box frames. His designs were beautifully modern for the time, possibly the first examples of the “open plan” layout. They were well-built homes, too, and many of them have been lovingly cared for and remain magnificent.
It’s inside those homes where I have a quibble with Wright’s genius.
Wright often created built-in furniture for his houses, claiming that furnishings should be natural extensions of a home and not so many bits and pieces to be moved about. For seating, a living room might feature low, built-in benches made of thick wood with thin cushions. He might attach huge shelves and cabinets to another wall — although a minimalist approach to storage was also one of his hallmarks, in a bid to limit people’s “stuff.” Essentially, Wright wanted to control how his clients lived: he served as architect, designer and decor adviser all in one. He would go so far as to place accessories of his choosing, such as sculptures, in the finished rooms, ensuring that the inhabitants had as little as possible to do with altering the personality of the house.
Wright’s furniture was reproduced for the masses as a sideline business to complement his architectural contracts. He used beautiful woods and crafted the pieces with care, but some of his designs appear uncomfortable and needlessly imposing. His dining suites, for instance, often included chairs with backrests that were perfectly straight and deliberately, ridiculously high. Absent frilly cushions or padding, the seats were hard and bare. To the untrained eye, their slat-back design appears to be in a Shaker style — the closest comparison that can be made, though it’s inaccurate. Lean back in one of those babies to sip your after-dinner tea, and you can see why diners in those days often retired to the parlour, where posterior planters were cushy and warm.
Not all of Wright’s designs were stiff and imposing, and this is by no means a comprehensive list. He designed beautiful stained-glass windows and lovely rugs. Another dining chair — this one lower and padded, called a Barrel Chair — featured a round, sloped back and a rounded seat. But Wright continued to return to the colder-looking straight-backed chair throughout his long career.
A designer with a vision is a wonderful thing. A designer with control issues is quite another — and Wright appears to have been the latter. While there is no hard evidence that his clients were unhappy, Wright wasn’t shy about sharing his expectations for the way his creations would — and should — be used.
Remember: it was an era when physicians were thought to know all, and you wouldn’t dare question one on his medical advice. Now we know better — that doctors are human and that we should become involved in our own health care. I hope the same applies to our homes. We hire designers to help us carry out the best vision for the way we actually live and not to tell put us into their idea of the perfect world.
Frank Lloyd Wright was a savvy businessman and undoubtedly a genius in his field. But I can’t help thinking that, for all his talent and innovation, the “greatest American architect of all time” may have let his healthy ego get in the way of good design. His most famous chair could have benefitted from a little bit of seat padding — for comfort’s sake.