MAM Celebrates 150 Years of Frank Lloyd Wright–Part Two: The Potential of Plywood

Frank Lloyd Wright (American, 1867–1959), Usonian Exhibition Dining Chair, 1953. Oak and plywood. Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase, in memory of Evelyn Brindis Demmer with funds from the the Demmer Charitable Trust, Jody Brindis Goisman & Dick Goisman, Dr. Charles Brindis & Debra L. Brindis, and Wayne & Kristine Lueders.

Frank Lloyd Wright (American, 1867–1959), Usonian Exhibition Dining Chair, 1953. Oak and plywood. Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase, in memory of Evelyn Brindis Demmer with funds from the the Demmer Charitable Trust, Jody Brindis Goisman & Dick Goisman, Dr. Charles Brindis & Debra L. Brindis, and Wayne & Kristine Lueders.

Though world-renowned (and Wisconsin-born) architect Frank Lloyd Wright is perhaps best remembered for his work in the Prairie Style, this portion of his career was only the first chapter of a much longer story. And so, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Wright’s birth, the Milwaukee Art Museum is pleased to commemorate multiple aspects of his career—both early and late.

The exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright: Buildings for the Prairie, on-view in the Bradley Family Galleries through October 15, 2017, explores work from the first part of his career, while his later achievements are represented by the acquisition of a Usonian Exhibition House Dining Chair—one of only two such objects that are still extant. The Milwaukee Art Museum is fortunate to have added this rare object to our permanent collection through the support of the Demmer Charitable Trust, Jody Brindis Goisman & Dick Goisman, Dr. Charles Brindis & Debra L. Brindis, and Wayne & Kristine Lueders, who have supported this acquisition in memory of Evelyn Brindis Demmer.

This simple plywood chair was produced for an exhibition held at the Guggenheim museum in New York in 1953, when Wright was 84 years old. Titled The Usonian House: Sixty Years of Living Architecture, the exhibition explored the architect’s efforts in the latter part of his life to produce housing that was affordable, yet still adhered to the high standards of beauty dictated by his philosophy of organic architecture. In fact, the catalog that accompanied the Guggenheim exhibition opened with a forceful statement written by Wright: “I believe a house is more a home by being a work of Art.” In this same publication, Wright even asserted that his approach to architecture aligned, fundamentally, with the principles of American democracy.

The Usonian Exhibition House living room illustrated in House Beautiful, 1955.

The Usonian Exhibition House living room illustrated in House Beautiful, 1955.

Historians debate the precise origins of the term “usonian,” but it is generally understood to be an acronym for “The United States of North America” that refers to the people of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. In Wright’s vocabulary, the term suggested a Utopian social and architectural re-imagining of the United States based on low-cost, de-urbanized housing for average Americans. The topic of affordable housing was of great interest for modern architects, many of whom offered dense, intensely urban solutions. Wright, by contrast, proposed a decentralized model that recalled Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian vision for America, in which each family would have a personalized Usonian home on their own plot of land.

Wright’s dream was never realized on a broad scale, but he did complete 26 Usonian houses from 1937 onward (and designed another 31 that were never built). These homes were characterized primarily by their construction—Wright developed a system of prefabricated wood panel walls, and this “kit-of-parts” could be assembled in an endless variety of ways to meet each client’s particular needs. The Usonian homes also featured an innovative system of underfloor heating—common now, but ahead of its time in the first half of the twentieth century.

The first completed Usonian house, Herbert Jacobs House (Jacobs 1) in Madison, WI, 1937. Photograph by David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. From T Magazine, 29 May 2009.

The first completed Usonian house, Herbert Jacobs House (Jacobs 1) in Madison, WI, 1937. Photograph by David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. From T Magazine, 29 May 2009.

Freed from the restraints of an individual client, the Usonian Exhibition House that Wright created for the Guggenheim is an idealized version of his concept, and was celebrated widely in numerous magazines and newspapers of the time. (It was also the first Wright building ever built in New York City, and occupied the site where Wright’s iconic spiraling Guggenheim building was to be built in the years that followed.) The Usonian Exhibition House, in accordance with Wright’s organic philosophy, was furnished minimally and affordably, often utilizing the same plywood material as the walls. In the case of the Usonian Exhibition House Dining Chair, it is clearly visible where different pieces of plywood slot together, and the chair’s decorative cut-outs fit into the house’s overall design by echoing its simple, geometric character.

Details of the Usonian Exhibition House Dining Chair showing its construction and cut-out decoration.

Details of the Usonian Exhibition House Dining Chair showing its construction and cut-out decoration.

Taken together, Frank Lloyd Wright: Buildings for the Prairie and the Usonian Exhibition House Dining Chair act as bookends to the story of Wright’s legacy. The exhibition examines the first period of the architect career—and the one for which he is probably best known today. The Usonian chair, by contrast, represents Wright’s lesser known efforts to affect social change through a practical system for planning, building, and furnishing homes. The Milwaukee Art Museum is pleased to recognize the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birth in this multidimensional way, and looks forward to continuing the work of preserving Wright’s legacy into the future.

Make sure that you see Frank Lloyd Wright: Buildings for the Prairie in the Bradley Family Galleries now through October 15, 2017–learn more about this exhibition in Part One of this blog post–and keep an eye out for the Usonian chair to go on-view in the 20th- and 21st-Century Design galleries in Spring 2018.

–Hannah Pivo, Curatorial Assistant for 20th- and 21st-Century Design

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