Sunday, January 5, 2014


Side chair, Darwin D. Martin House

Frank Lloyd Wright, elevation and partial section drawing, dining table and side chairs, Darwin D. Martin House (University Archives, State University of New York at Buffalo)

Visitors to the Darwin D. Martin House often wince at the prospect of sitting down to dinner at one of Wright's formidable oak side chairs, but little do they know that this was the end result of a contentious exchange between the Martins and their architect. Wright's initial design -- a plan and elevation of the dining table and one side chair rendered in a fine, lightly drawn pencil drawing -- called for a chair that consisted of just three basic parts: a tall vertical back slat, a platform for sitting, and a single wide-board support at right angles to the back slat and the seat.     Here are details of the chair drawing:

Side elevation, side chair, Darwin D. Martin House

Plan of rejected side chair, Darwin D. Martin House

Upon receiving a model for the chair Darwin Martin wrote to Wright on December 26, 1905:

Dear Sir:

DINING CHAIR. We received yesterday afternoon the 2nd model for dining chair. After carefully considering it we still protest against any design even approx'g this. Yesterday p.m. a lady of more than ordinary intelligence, sat down in the chair to try it and nearly tipped over. We do not want  chairs that will cause even one percent of our guests to wildly clutch the air and ejaculate, as this design would surely do.
Please do not hug this child you have invented so close to you that you cannot see with others its impracticality... You have shown your capacity of making good dining chairs. Make us some.

The Larkin "suicide chair"

Despite Martin's admonition Wright did cling to his "invention."  He designed a three-legged chair for the Larkin Administration Building even as the Martins objected to theirs. Harry Larkin, Jr., the last president of the Larkin Company told this writer that they called it the "suicide chair." Thirty years later Wright designed a lighter, tubular metal three-legged chair for the Johnson's Wax Company. What was he thinking?

Chair Johnson's Wax Company, 1937
When challenged Wright is known to have responded that such chairs would necessitate sitting with two feet planted firmly on the floor -- hence stability and order (no slouching at the table, or at work for that matter). But he also joked that he was black and blue all his life from contact with his own furniture. The real reason, however, was design continuity. The cantilever was integral to Wright's architecture from start to finish and these chairs were all about the cantilever. If you lived in a house of cantilevers like the Martin House then apparently he felt that you should also sit on one, precariouly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

John and Judy Fisher bought 180 Summer Street back in the 80's. My husband was their lawyer. We were friends so he would not take a fee from the Fishers. There was a really ugly uncomfortable chair in the basement of the house. John offered it to us as a thank you present. Bob declined the offer, saying it was probably valuable since the house was designed by EB Green and was lived in by a Martin relative. John then donated the chair to the Buffalo Philharmonic Auction that we all worked on as John had been on the BPO board. I believe the University of Chicago or a Wright group in Chicago bought the chair for a substantial sum thus enriching the BPO coffers.