Frank Lloyd Wright: 'A house is more a home by being a work of art'

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I believe a house is more a home by being a work of art.” - Frank Lloyd Wright,The Natural House, 1954 

Dr. John E. and Catherine (“Kay”) Christian, a Purdue University professor and his wife, had followed and admired Wright’s work and they were sure they wanted him to design their dream home.

But with a limited budget, was their project too small for such a renowned figure? It took some convincing, but following a series of memorable meetings between 1950 and 1952 and after a flurry of correspondence, Wright accepted the commission. He suggested that one of his Usonian designs would fit the Christian’s needs.

“Frank Lloyd Wright’s Samara: A Mid-Century Dream Home” is the story of how a young couple from Indiana and a world-famous architect worked together to build what was, for the Christian family, truly their dream home. It is also the story of how the family continued to honor the architect’s vision long after his death. 

Told through the juxtaposition of original objects and furniture, architectural fragments, rare archival materials, historic photographs, and video footage, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Samara  explores the creation of a Wright house through the eyes a client who spent more than fifty years fulfilling the architect’s Usonian vision.

Samara house exterior

First conceived by Wright in the 1920s, the Usonian house (an abbreviation for “United States of North America”) was meant to be a modest-sized, environmentally sensitive dwelling affordable to middle class families. For John and Kay Christian, this meant creating a basic home that they could complete and furnish to Wright’s specifications over time as their finances allowed. Samara, which derives its name from a winged, or whirligig, seed, is still a work in progress today.

View the exhibition touring schedule.

The exhibition traces how Frank Lloyd Wright and the Christians worked together to design the house, and illuminates how both sides compromised to bring the project to completion. (Yes, Frank Lloyd Wright did compromise.) Historic floorplans, client correspondence, and home movies show how the construction process moved forward even though Frank Lloyd Wright never visited the site in Indiana. Banner-scale graphics, original furnishings, and historic textile and scrapbook samples show how the Christians balanced custom-designed Wright pieces with commercially licensed models in the 1950s, then completed many of the architect’s additional custom elements over the next thirty years. The exhibit also looks at how the home and its furnishings exemplified Wright’s philosophies about the relationship between architecture and nature, ranging from the extensive use of windows and terraces to the origins of design motifs such as the “samara” concept.   

Frank Lloyd Wright was born in the farming town of Richland Center, Wisconsin, in 1867 and named Frank Lincoln Wright. His father, William Carey Wright (1825–1904), was a locally admired orator, music teacher, occasional lawyer, and itinerant minister. William Wright had met and married Anna Lloyd Jones (1838/39 – 1923), a county school teacher, the previous According to his biography his mother declared, when she was expecting her first child, that he would grow up to build beautiful buildings. She decorated his nursery with engravings of English cathedrals torn from a periodical to encourage the infant's ambition. The family moved to Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1870 for William to minister a small congregation.

In 1876, Anna visited the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and saw an exhibit of educational blocks created by Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel. The blocks, known as Froebel Gifts, were the foundation of his innovative kindergarten curriculum. A trained teacher, Anna was excited by the program and bought a set of blocks for her family. Young Wright spent much time playing with the blocks. These were geometrically shaped and could be assembled in various combinations to form three-dimensional compositions. This is how Wright described, in his autobiography, the influence of these exercises on his approach to design: "For several years I sat at the little Kindergarten table-top . . . and played . . . with the cube, the sphere and the triangle—these smooth wooden maple blocks . . . All are in my fingers to this day . . ."  Many of his buildings are notable for their geometrical clarity.

Falling waterWright's creations took his concern with organic architecture down to the smallest details. From his largest commercial commissions to the relatively modest Usonian houses, Wright conceived virtually every detail of both the external design and the internal fixtures, including furniture, carpets, windows, doors, tables and chairs, light fittings and decorative elements. He was one of the first architects to design and supply custom-made, purpose-built furniture and fittings that functioned as integrated parts of the whole design, and he often returned to earlier commissions to redesign internal fittings

Made possible by support from the National Endowment for the Arts American Masterpieces initiative, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Samara”offers visitors a unique behind-the-scenes look at how a client’s priorities and values worked in tandem with a great architect’s vision to create one family’s definition of an American dream home.

Curator Scott W. Perkins is Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Price Tower Arts Center, Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Perkins’ recent publications are Building Bartlesville, 1945-2000 (2008); and an essay co-authored with Pat Kirkham on the interiors and furnishings of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum for its 50th anniversary publication, The Guggenheim: Frank Lloyd Wright and the making of the Modern Museum (2009).

Visit your local library for these resources:


The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion

William Allin Storrer, (1994).
Wright expert Storrer has compiled the definitive Wright reference book. His splendid descriptive volume covers more than 450 buildings designed by master architect Wright between 1886 and 1959. Storrer documents each structure with plans, drawings, photographs, and commentary. Each presentation is both complete and concise, following each stage of Wright’s aesthetic development, each leap of his imagination, and each instance of technical innovation. Storrer is not only a scholar and writer, but a computer draftsman and photographer as well. He has painstakingly redrawn floor plans to accurately reflect the layout of the actual buildings, as opposed to Wright’s preconstruction drawings, and taken most of the 965 photographs... an invaluable, enjoyable, and authoritative resource. —Excerpt of review by Donna Seaman first published Feb. 1, 1994 (Booklist).

Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian houses
by Carla Lind, (1994).

Usonian houses
by Doreen Ehrlich, (2002).

Usonia : Frank Lloyd Wright's design for America
by Alvin Rosenbaum, (1993).

Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian houses : the case for organic architecture

by John Sergeant, (1976).
 
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio (DVD)
Timothy Sakamoto; Shiromi Arserio, (2009).
Filmed at the acclaimed architect’s home and studio in Oak Park, Illinois, this nicely shot documentary profiles Frank Lloyd Wright’s childhood, education, and professional career. Interviewed scholars and others, including his grandson, describe the brash young architect’s unique views and introduce some of his structures, including Taliesin, in Wisconsin, and Fallingwater, in Pennsylvania.
—Excerpt of review by Candace Smith first published June 1, 2009 (Booklist).

The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright
by Neil Levine, (1996).

Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Complete Catalog
by William Allin Storrer (2007 updated 3rd. edition)

Frank Lloyd Wright: America’s Master Architect
by Kathryn Smith, (1998).

Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect
by the Museum of Modern Art, (1994).

Frank Lloyd Wright: Masterworks
by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, (1993).

Frank Lloyd Wright: Building for Democracy
by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, (2004).

Wright Space: Pattern and Meaning in Frank Lloyd Wright's Houses
by Grant Hildebrand, (1991).

Frank Lloyd Wright Field Guide
by Thomas A. Heinz, (1999).

 

 

Images:

Interior Samara (1956) by Frank Lloyd Wright in West Lafayette, Indiana, Date: 30 June 2009 by Tim Musson

Entrance Samara (1956) by Frank Lloyd Wright in West Lafayette, Indiana, Date:30 June 2009 by Tim Musson

Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania (1937)

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