Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Pickled Barrel (but is it Kosher?)

by EJF

The MHRC was delighted to receive a rare donation of a barrel chair earlier this year from Sandra Maddigan Moore, a Martin House volunteer. Sandra's family was the second owner of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Heath House in Buffalo, and the chair came with the house; it was passed down to Sandra's brother who used it in his home in Maui, Hawaii. Adding another curious twist to this tale, the finish of this barrel chair was "pickled," along with other furniture, cabinetry and millwork, during the Maddigan family's residency in the Heath House (1937 - 1950).

This unusual, milky finish clearly ties the chair to the Heath House during the Maddigan era, but the question remains: was it made for the Heath family or for the Martin family? And how did it make its way to the Heath House in the first place?

The plot thickens with the fact that there's no documentation of barrel chairs being specified for the Heath House. Other Wright-designed furniture, including a dining table and chairs, a sideboard and fireside armchairs are well known, but no barrel chairs appear in the historic photos of the house's interior.

Wright designed and specified six to eight barrel chairs for the Darwin D. Martin House. One is currently in the Martin House collection, one in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and one was tragically stolen from the Martin House in 1990. There are various indications that other Martin House barrel chairs may reside in private collections. But this rough tally still leaves a few of these iconic chairs unaccounted for. Given that the Martin and Heath families were fairly close, it's possible that a barrel chair was "swapped" between them. Perhaps most plausibly, the Maddigan family might have obtained the chair as a period-appropriate furnishing from Darwin R. Martin, when the younger Darwin was acting as executor of his father's estate (c. 1940).

Further examination and research by the expert staff at the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites collections facility at Peeble's Island may shed new light on this odd barrel chair. Until then, join us in a round of applause for Sandra Maddigan Moore, who was instrumental in bringing this important piece back to Western New York. We may not be able to put this piece of the puzzle in place just yet, but at least it's in hand.

Above: the Heath House living room, looking toward dining room, c. 1907

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Know Your Prairie From Your Jugendstil

Eric Jackson-Forsberg, Ombudsman to the Fin de Siècle

Befuddled by the world of modern design? Many visitors to the Martin House arrive curious (and perhaps confused) about the myriad, overlapping movements in modern design, and come with questions about how Wright's Prairie-era designs mesh with those of Art Nouveau, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the Chicago and Prairie Schools. These questions often require a dissertation to answer; but, of course, you may only have time for the "Cliff's Notes" version.

Never fear, there's a succinct, interactive, and beautifully designed resource to aid in this quest: the Minneapolis Institute of Arts interactive timeline of Modernism.

This online tool is enjoyable to use, and attractively illustrated with exquisite objects from the MIA's decorative arts collection (which includes the Wright-designed table and chairs from the Barton House - see also their online exhibition "Unified Vision: the Architecture and Design of the Prairie School").

This timeline and online exhibition may help to tune-up your understanding of the convoluted map of modern design. Wright's work is certainly "on the map," but stopping at that statement runs the risk of giving visitors the wrong directions.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Wright and the Workplace

by Ashley Takacs, Assistant (to the) Regional Manager

While as a college senior I have yet to experience office culture personally, I hope to join the ranks of the gainfully employed soon (fingers crossed). And, seeing that this is officially ‘Boss’s Day,' I thought it appropriate to look at the evolution of the modern American office building. It turns out that Frank Lloyd Wright and our dearly demolished Larkin building have an important place in this history.

In fact, many cite the Larkin Administration building (Buffalo, 1904) as the first modern office building. Just as Wright championed the open floor plan in his houses, he took the corporate world by storm by breaking down the walls that divided workers in traditional offices. The Larkin building’s innovative plan directed all service spaces to the corners, leaving a large atrium in the center. Unlike his prairie homes, which reached out in to the landscape, Wright’s public and office buildings - from the Larkin building to Unity Temple to the Johnson Wax building - were more insular. They fostered a sense of fellowship by establishing a virtually windowless perimeter. In the Larkin building, views out were limited to glimpses of the sky through high windows, creating an introverted sense of the company as a family dedicated to the ‘sacrament of work,’ as emphasized by the salutary inscriptions around the galleries.

To keep the interior space free from the pollution of passing New York Central trains, the building was hermetically sealed and provided with one of the first primitive air-conditioning systems. Wright’s attention to integrated detail extended to the design of the steel furniture, the first ‘system’ furniture and the built-in cabinets that lined the walls.

Years later, Wright would ruminate on the significance of the Larkin building, not only to his career, but to the way that companies organized themselves:

“It is interesting that I, an architect supposed to be concerned with the aesthetic sense of the building, should have invented the wall-hung for the w.c. (easier to clean under), and adopted many other innovations like the glass door, steel furniture, air-conditioning and radiant or 'gravity heat.' Nearly every technological innovation used today was suggested in the Larkin Building in 1904.” (An American Architecture, Edgar Kaufmann, Ed.).

For better or worse, Wright's innovations led to the advent of the cubicle in 1965 (Robert Propst, the inventor of the cubicle, has since apologized for his often bemoaned creation). Despite this retraction, the cubicle farm has become synonymous with modern offices and has been enshrined in American popular culture through films like "Office Space" and the beloved comic Dilbert. But before we blame Wright for these unsightly office mainstays, remember that cubicles re-erected the boxes that Wright worked so hard to break. So perhaps when you give your employer his or her fruit basket this 'Boss Appreciation Day,' ask him or her to get rid of the cubicles in honor of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

THINGS that go BUMP in the WRIGHT...

by Ashley Takacs, Arts & Entertainment

Wright’s personal life was as dramatic (and full of twists) as the spiral of his Guggenheim Museum. Like any Byronic hero or brooding genius, Wright’s life was infused with a level of mystery and spectacle fit for literary adaptation. Look no further than your local Barnes and Noble (or better yet, the Wisteria Shop) for proof of that -- Loving Frank and Death in a Prairie House were both inspired by Wright’s life.

While Wright’s persona has been known to overshadow his architecture, his designs have also sparked the imaginations of writers and filmmakers. The Robie House spawned a mystery-adventure children's novel – The Wright 3 – and the Ennis House in Los Angeles has served as the location for over 20 films and television shows, including the dystopic noir Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), the cult hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon, 1997-2003) and the 1959 Vincent Price classic, House on Haunted Hill. With its prime location in the Los Angeles hills, the Ennis house site is a logical choice for filmmakers. But it's the design of Ennis that makes this residence ideal for science fiction and thriller film genres. These narratives revolve around constructing an alternate reality, and with it’s mash-up of different cultures and eras, the Ennis House does just that. The imposing, temple-like façade and "textile" blocks reference Ancient Mayan buildings in a decidedly modern structure (the blocks are precast concrete -- a 20th century invention). This meeting of two worlds gives the house an uncanny, mystical aesthetic that sets it apart from the many other modernist homes that dot “the Hills.”

One look at the building on it’s dramatic perch overlooking Hollywood, and it is easy to see why the Ennis house has long fueled the creative minds of generations of filmmakers.

Just Bead It

by Eric Jackson-Forsberg, Business Editor

The hundreds of supporters of the Martin House - volunteers, donors, and friends - are all essential to the grass-roots efforts that have made this ambitious restoration possible. But sometimes the stories of our youngest supporters are the most inspiring. Take, for example, 11 year-old Margaux Charlier, who has launched her own Wright-inspired jewelry line, "The Wright Accessories," through Buffalo State College's Small Business Development Center's "Kid Biz." Better yet: a very generous 50% of Margaux's profits were dedicated to the Martin House Restoration Corporation.

The enterprising Ms. Charlier, displaying her wares

Margaux, daughter of Jim and Leslie Charlier, started expressing an interest in architecture at age 5, which led to her current fandom of Frank Lloyd Wright's work. And she's been beading up a storm since last Christmas, producing beautiful necklaces, bracelets and earrings to sell at one of the Kid Biz tables at the Bidwell Farmer's Market this past summer. Margaux's "angle" to attract more customers was the benefit that her sales would produce for her not-for-profit project of choice: the Martin House. The idea proved to be a win-win situation; Margaux sold $164 of her jewelry (despite one rained-out market) and presented the MHRC with $82. I don't think $82 has ever meant so much to us; you can't put a value on this kind of ingenuity and generosity.

Margaux's dad has commented that "She delighted in helping me determine the differences between verandas, pergolas and porte-cochères. Even if she doesn't become an architect, she'll have a healthy appreciation for architecture." To echo Jim's phrase, we at the MHRC have more than a healthy appreciation for Margaux's inspiring efforts.

Martin House volunteer Phyllis Ludwig,
modeling her Wright Accessories necklace