Why Wright, Now?

The Wright craze in the 1980s

Chicago Times

March/April 1990

As it happened, I wrote this piece while living in an above-the-law-office flat in Oak Park, Illinois, one block from Wright’s home and studio. One part of three in this issue about Wright collecting; the other two are here and here..

 

A chair or a table is two things at once. It is first a design, an idea of a chair. It is also an object, an idea made tangible. Traditionally, fine antiques have been treasured as both.

Frank Lloyd Wright was no builder. His touch does not enliven his windows or tables the way that of Stradivarius enlivens his violins. To execute the hundreds of objects needed to outfit each house, Wright of necessity collaborated both with his own assistants (who drew them) and with the craftsmen who built them, such as the Linden Glass Co. and metalworker James Miller, both of Chicago, and woodworker George Niedecken of Milwaukee. Wright probably never even saw some of his pieces in their finished forms.

 

Most pieces of Wright's early furniture were made either in Chicago or in Milwaukee. There the furniture industry by the 1890s had made great strides in replacing handwork with machines, and so offered Wright a blend of traditional craftsmanship and money-saving new technologies. But this workmanship was hardly to the standards of a Thomas Chippendale. "The pieces I've seen have been carried out in a carpenter's style of construction rather than a cabinetmaker's style," says Kevin Earley, who designs and builds custom furniture at his Wilson Street Woodworks in Madison, Wisconsin, and has reproduced several of Wright's Prairie-style pieces. "Their construction is not exquisite enough to explain why prices have gone so high."

 

If Wright's furniture-as-object is lacking, however, his furniture-as-idea measures up quite well. "I built the replica of the expandable dining table for the Willits house," Earley explains. "Visually, that piece is straightforward. But if you live with it, or if you build it from scratch as I did, you see how cleverly thought-out it is." The table leaves, for instance, expand it to a giant 14 feet using a cunning set of hidden supports. "From a cabinetmaker's point of view, this functional cleverness is pleasing," Earley adds. "It's part of what makes this furniture good."

 

In a way it was inevitable that Wright's furniture would come to be regarded as art objects, since people often preferred looking at Wright's designs—particularly his chairs—rather than using them. Their pared-down look results from his distillation of function to underlying geometry, partly because his furniture was designed to serve wider ends than human comfort; his high-backed dining chairs, for instance, helped create the illusion at the table of a room within the room—which enhanced the diners' sense of intimacy and occasion even if it did not spare their backs.

 

Wright's work has always appealed to architects, and a few others, for its own sake. The first Wright collectors who bought cheap or scavenged pieces from doomed Wright buildings were making what architect John Eifler calls "a sort of Bohemian statement about society and its lack of respect for good, well-made objects." From that vanguard, the passion for Wright passed to trend-setting gallery directors and private collectors, thence to more mainstream galleries and the upper-middle-class art market.

The recent explosion of interest in Wright owes as much to the master's celebrity as to his creativity. A Reagan-inspired cultural chauvinism has made the very American Wright look like a patriot, just as our deepening disenchantment with most of what is known as modern architecture has made him look like a prophet. Our present preoccupation with private rather than public life gives Wright—whose early work consisted mainly of houses—a new relevance.

 

"Also, Wright was a charismatic person," says architect Wilbert Hasbrouck. "When you buy a Wright chair for $10,000, you're not just buying something to sit on. You're buying a piece of the legend." Eifler, too, credits Wright's newfound appeal to the master's persona, tracing the current cult of Wright to the counterculture of the late 1960s, which found in Wright a kindred soul. His emphasis on organic design, his attachment to nature as inspiration, his commitment to a more democratic architecture, and above all his iconoclasm recommended Wright to the sensibilities of the emerging Woodstock generation. Eifler recalls a professor who carried a Wright chair with him to be-ins, believing that sitting in it conveyed a special spiritual energy.

 

The recent boom for Wright is also part of a larger explosion of interest in period furniture and antiquities among both collectors priced out of the market for Impressionist and other modern paintings and investors looking for safer places for their money after the 1987 stock market crash.

 

The Wright market has become self-sustaining, buoyed by buyers attracted more by appreciating prices than by any appreciation of Wright. "Society knows what money is worth," says Michael FitzSimmons, director of the architecture department at the Struve Gallery on Superior. "Unfortunately, it may not know what a Frank Lloyd Wright piece is worth, unless it has a price tag attached to it."

 

Wright's design-as-idea, however, is likely to survive the collecting fads. "Some people do get into it just because it's hot. But I think a lot of people are searching for roots," says FitzSimmons. "The interest in Wright is social archeology in a sense. People are trying to understand why we are what we are at the end of the century. It's natural that they would go back to one of the people who created that century." ●

The other two parts of this article are here and here

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated