The Frank Lloyd Wright Room
THE FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT LIVING ROOM
Researched by Rochelle J. Almeida
Designer: Frank Lloyd Wright (American, 1867-1959)
Living Room from Francis W. Little House
Wayzata, Minnesota; 1912-1915
White oak, electro-glazed glass, leaded glass windows
For furniture and textiles (See 1972.60.2-23).
The room, usually referred to as the Frank Lloyd Wright Living Room on the first floor of the American Wing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City was designed by the architect and interior designer who often called himself, according to his biographer, Harvey Einbinder, “the master” (6). Indeed, Einbinder continues: (Frank Lloyd Wright) “beamed when he was described as ‘The Greatest Architect in the World’ and boasted ‘when (Louis) Sullivan and I came to architecture it had been sleeping a hundred years. We woke it up’” (6).
Where was this room built and why?
Another one of Wright’s biographers, Kenneth Starosciak, informs us that the room was designed by Wright to become the vastly proportioned living room of the Francis W. Little House and was completed between 1913 and 1915 (1) expressly for the purpose of providing an elegant musical hall for the piano recitals that Mrs. Little, a trained classical pianist, often gave. At the time, Wright had just completed the design of what would become his own new home at Taleisin, that tragically, had been set on fire and destroyed “by a demented servant” (n.p.), according to Morrison H. Heckscher. “To pay for the reconstruction of Taleisin, Wright actively sought architectural commissions” (Einbinder 54). The Little house was one such, meant to overlook Lake Minnetonka and serve as the summer residence for the wealthy couple (Starosciak 1).
Proportions of the Room:
The house, in Wayzata, Minnesota, “featured a giant 55 foot living-room whose 14 and a half foot ceiling seemed to float in mid-air, suspended by sunlight streaming through five old-trimmed skylights” (Einbinder 155). The living room was “acquired” by the Metropolitan Museum in 1970, when plans were afoot to destroy the house, and was meant to serve as an indication of the master’s expertise in “organic architecture”—in which the building, the setting, the interior and the furnishings are inextricably related”, according to the plaque found in the room.
Based upon the fact that the room overlooks Central Park on its Western side, one is struck immediately by its mood of calm serenity. Indeed, one’s eyes are drawn from the lush green carpet of natural grass in the park to the moss-green carpet that covers a considerable part of the room’s oak floors. The fact that window seats run in an unbroken line along the room’s western side, i.e. alongside the park, offers the viewer unhampered views of the landscape outside and endows the room with the feel of what one would, in contemporary terms, call a “sunroom’. The window seats encourage the visitor to linger awhile, leave the cares of the world behind and drink in the natural light and beauty as one partakes of the tranquility of Nature outdoors.
Importance of Light:
Light floods the room, then, and becomes integral to its mood and design. So intrinsically is light related to the overall conception of this space that skylights are fitted into the ceiling which contribute to the ambience of the natural setting and tie in the theme of bringing the outdoors in. Fitted into what the modern architect would call a “tray ceiling’, are a number of panels of glass, embellished with wrought-iron fretwork in the typical linear forms of Wright’s most noted work. This fretwork provides the grill-like structure through which light filters softly and bathes the room with golden rays, no matter what the time of day. At night, the room is softly lit by the original electrical lighting that lies concealed behind the panels. Combined with the wrought-iron fretwork that forms the ceiling are the windowpanes themselves—stained glass set in electroplated copper frames and embellished by the slightest touches of leaf-like design.
Indeed, it would be impossible to describe the style of this room without making reference to two phrases, then fashionable in the world of architectural design—one was Prairie Style, the other is The Arts and Crafts Movement. According to.Heckscher, the characteristic features of Prairie Style evolved through Wright’s construction of his own home in Oak Park, Illinois, and was exemplified in “generally, a low horizontal mass, hugging the ground; specifically wide overhanging roofs, grouped windows with leaded glass designs, and natural wood and brick for interior trim” (n.p.). Certainly, the Little house has all these features. The Arts and Crafts Movement, on the other hand, promoted, according to Edward Lucie-Smith’s definition of the term, “craftsmanship and a reform of industrial design” and was “named after the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society founded in England in 1882” (21). This movement attempted “to reform the decorative arts, emphasizing the potential for good social and moral influence and encouraging a return to the ‘fitness for use’ of Gothic architecture” (Lucie-Smith 21-22). The Movement spread from England to the US, and Wright came strongly under the influence of this school of design philosophy and reflected its principles in his interiors that have been referred to as ‘Minimalist’. Minimalism is evident in the sparseness of the furniture and the severe lines of their design. The all-wood conception, integrated with the straight, unfussy lines of the Arts and Crafts Movement results in a stark feeling of peaceful serenity.
Placement-wise, the room, according to Kathleen Howard, follows the principles of an “open plan” (43). Thus, the center of the room remains bereft of furniture, allowing easy movement and contributing to the air of spatial continuity as the eye moves from the fireplace end to the opposite side of the room, dominated by the library table, so-called because its design provides for the storage of books underneath while its surface allows for them to be spread out and browsed through.
The reddish-brown, all-brick, floor to ceiling fireplace (a repetition of the exterior brickwork) dominates one wall at the far end and is prevented from being overpowering by the room’s vast proportions. While devoid of a mantelpiece, a single, simple, low stone slab runs across it and remains free of any accessories. As if to take advantage of the fireplace’s warmth and glow, two couches are placed diametrically opposite to the hearth. One is particularly struck by the lack of a coffee table, but then on further observation, it becomes clear that the longer couch serves this function, being provided with extended arms on both sides to hold glasses, magazines or ashtrays. Needless to say, all of the furniture groupings were designed by Wright himself to enliven peripheral spaces and contribute to quiet work activity.
There is no clutter to distract the mind or the eye in the quiet lines and the natural elements that comprise the room’s accessories. Indeed, accessories are also minimalist in conception and design and represent the natural environment—ceramic bowls and vases, of Japanese origin, dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries on the console tables flanking the room’s sides; on the library table, a few books, a wooden bowl of dried flowers, and a beautiful reproduction of a plaster cast of the Winged Victory of Samotrace (Greek, 190 BC) , considered one of the oldest masterpieces of world art and currently to be found in the Louvre in Paris; a drafting/drawing table facing the windows and taking advantage of natural light; a couple of cushioned chairs (certainly comfort was not sacrificed to the principles of good design!); two tall, narrow vases (referred to as ‘Weed Holders’), “cogent examples of Wright’s mastery of architectural scale in small objects” (plaque), also referred to as ‘skyscrapers’; a statue of the standing Buddha, further contributing to the air of quiet serenity and Eastern meditation that this room would seem to encourage; a pair of candlesticks. Accessories are also seen in the form of lamps, both freestanding models and wall lamps, designed organically to fit in with the general conception of this linear-dominated space. Finally, there are four area rugs in the room, of Caucasian origin and 4 Japanese prints, adorning the three walls of the room.
Wright lived from 1867 to 1959. But the Museum’s rescue of the Little living room allows his work to live forever, demonstrating his evolution as a artist and becoming, in the words of Berry B. Tracy, the Museum’s Curator in Charge, a “remarkable document of Wright as the total interior architect” (20).
Einbinder, Harvey: An American Genius: Frank Lloyd Wright. Philosophical Library, New York, 1986.
Hechscher, Morrison H: “Outstanding Recent Accessions, 19th-Century Architecture for The American Wing: Sullivan and Wright”. M.M.A. Bulletin, June/July 1972, vol.XXX, No. 6, n.p.
Howard, Kathleen: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide, 2nd Edition, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1994.
Lucie-Smith, Edward: The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. Thames and Hudson, New York, 1984, 21-22.
Plaque to be found in the Frank Lloyd Wright Living Room on the first floor in The American Wing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (referred to, in the essay, as ‘plaque’).
Starosciak, Kenneth: Frank Lloyd Wright: A Bibliography. New Brighton, Minnesota, 1973.
Tracy, Berry B: “American Wing”. M.M.A. Notable Acquisitions 1965-1975, 20.