The Man who Dared to be Different
Wednesday 31 March 2010
Frank Lloyd Wright and his love of risk opened the gates of possibility to furniture designers argues Derek Jones
Some research I came across a while ago talked about the tendency of all us to live and function primarily in own little universe. The theory was that we rarely venture beyond this secure haven to experience life anywhere else. This space was described as a circle where there is a nucleus. Contrary to what you would expect, the centre was where there was least creative activity. The reason for this was because like-minded people congregating at the centre would be exchanging ideas from the same pool of thought.
Continuing with the circle analogy, imagine yourself walking away from the centre to the edge, from where you can see people in a different circle. Another paradigm.
Begin to exchange ideas with these people and relate your ideas to their needs and interesting things happen. With this principle in mind I have chosen to look at the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.
To fully appreciate the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and the effect he has had on the world it is worth looking at his prolific output against a backdrop of world-shaping events.
Take a look at his early work and it is hard to believe he was born as long ago as 1867, just two years after the end of the American Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Before the end of the 18th century he was producing work that could easily have been conceived in the periods we associate with Art Nouveau and Art Deco and by 1902, a relative novice at the age of 35, he was designing futuristic buildings like the Prairie house pictured here.
A year later, in December 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright would take off from Kitty Hawk in what is widely regarded as the inaugural powered flight of man.
Witness to some remarkable changes in social values spanning two world wars, he was arguably responsible for creating the character of 20th-century architecture. He was designing buildings in Japan before the First World War and by the 1930s had already established himself as the leading creative force in American architecture, an iconic status that he still holds today, more than 50 years after his death.
His early life was peppered with personal tragedy and scandal but he would rise above this to become worthy of the reflection made by British writer Malcolm Muggeridge that if you lived long enough your past would be forgiven.
As a junior in the Chicago-based architectural partnership of Adler and Sullivan (1888-93) he developed many of the technical skills that would enable him to challenge convention with the confidence and self belief that was to become as much a trade mark as his distinctive style.
The phrase form follows function - attributed to Sullivan - came from this office along with the impetus, albeit forced, for Wright to establish his own practice where he would be responsible for creating his unique style. He was not averse to turning his hand to the widely accepted Colonial style on occasions and was able to work with apparent ease in both areas, emphasising perhaps his insatiable appetite for commercial success. Interestingly enough Wright admits to being influenced by the passion of his father for Bach and Beethoven. Recognising the structure and order of music helped shape his perception of architectural form.
The Prairie Style, for which he has become synonymous, cannot be attributed solely to him and there is no doubt that the space available for new development had some bearing on it. Where else in the world in 1902 were architects designing buildings with servants quarters and a butlers pantry as well as the many reception rooms that go with them, over just two storeys.
As the name suggests, the Prairie Style is evocative of the West and single-storey log cabins with overhanging eaves and low-pitched roofs. Replicating this form from construction methods using steel, concrete and brickwork enabled Wright to create a sprawling but uncluttered appearance to much of his architecture. This was not the case however for his early attempts at furniture design which look rather awkward and less than inviting on occasions.
The driving force behind his work was a healthy disregard for the built environment as it was. Couple this with an arrogance in his own ability to do things his way without deviation and you can see why he often had a less than smooth ride with many of his clients.
His confident attitude and self belief enabled him to impose his own creative vision on the works he produced. Although deeply concerned with the fabric of his buildings FLW devoted as much attention to the interior fitments and furniture often referred to as the brushstrokes of architectural design. A common theme in much of his architecture, and one that spilled over to his furniture design as well, was his interest in decoration and embellishment of surfaces.
Few people throughout history can reasonably be described as being ahead of their time, but Wright was one of them. Unwavering in his quest to create his style of architecture on his terms, his influence can be detected in many a Hollywood movie and even finds him in the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel in a track on Bridge Over Troubled Water called So where are you now, Frank Lloyd Wright
We owe much of our fascination for open-plan living to Wright. In isolation some of his furniture can appear out of proportion but in situ it often works as a screen or means of demarcation between what would otherwise be separate rooms.
His tremendous engineering foresight and technical ability allowed him to engage with his designs at every stage of the project - a maker in principle as well as a designer. Undoubtedly a showman and risk taker at times, he never lost sight of his dream however controversial it was - qualities that must be the prerequisite of any designer attempting to push the boundaries of their chosen discipline.
While furniture design was not his strongest suit, we can learn a lot from his masterly approach to design in general. His work can be divided into three main categories and without much of the eclecticism often associated with designers of his stature.
Rather than doing a style to death or risking criticism for becoming formulaic I believe he stayed with an idea because he believed in it. The fact that his designs were consistently responsible for driving the architectural debate forward in practice and not just in theory have him down, in my book at least, as one of the most influential designers of recent times. Indeed he proclaimed himself to be the greatest architect who ever lived.
He died in 1959 aged 93 leaving us with lessons to learn from this gifted designer of buildings who also dabbled in furniture. Apart from an excellent case study in proportion and the juxtaposition of weight and mass that features so heavily in his compositions there are his application of texture as a decorative motif, and, of course, his sheer determination to succeed.