Why Wright, Now?
The Wright craze in the 1980s
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." ●