SAN MARINO, CALIF. — For Frank Lloyd Wright, good design demanded the organic whole, the integration of the interior and the exterior. In his early architectural projects, he sometimes supplied built-in furniture. Later, in the 1890s, he saw more clearly the need to eliminate the boundaries between interior and exterior, to create a single organism whose components flowed from one to the other. His solution: furniture and furnishings designed to work with the entire structure.
While the pieces that survive are held tightly for the most part, 13 examples have been acquired by the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. They include a dining table and eight chairs made for the 1899 Joseph J. and Helen Williams Husser House in Chicago. The acquisition also includes four other chairs, one from the Avery Coonley House in Riverside, Ill.; one from the 1902 Arthur Heurtley House in Oak Pines, Ill.; one from the 1913–1915 Francis Little House in Wayzata, Minn.; and the fourth from Wright’s first prairie style house, the 1901 Ward Willits House in Highland Park, Ill.
All 13 pieces have been on long-term loan to the Huntington from the Joyce and Erving Wolf Foundation since 2009. They have occupied the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, located in its own freestanding building at the Huntington, which also houses the museum’s Greene & Greene, Stickley and other holdings of the Design Reform movement. The Huntington is also home to the largest gathering of William Morris material in the United States.
Jessica Todd Smith, chief curator of American art at the Huntington, observes that Wright’s respect for natural materials, his emphasis on beauty in ordinary objects and his interest in simplicity place him within the Design Reform and Arts and Crafts Movements.
As one of the most important architects of the Twentieth Century, Wright began working at the same time the heavy ornamentation of the Victorian era still prevailed. That furniture was often built into a house. Wright, too, supplied his clients with built-in furniture, but of a scale and proportion befitting the entire house. The furniture and furnishings he designed would be integral to the entire architecture of a building, with repeated connections and interconnections. They included leaded glass windows, lighting, metalware and textiles. His deceptively simple furniture was meant to resonate with the entire structure — the interiors and the exterior.
His work, both furniture and furnishings, incorporated nature, the Japanese aesthetic and his own unique geometric balance of scale and proportion. Much is drawn from his youth on the prairie where subtlety and vertical linearity converge in houses that flow with the terrain.
Wright expanded his oeuvre to include moveable furniture and furnishings for his houses almost in self-defense. Some clients had installed their own heavy, late Victorian pieces in his elegantly simple interiors — to him an aesthetic atrocity. He saw the commercially available furnishings as poorly constructed and altogether unacceptable. In his furniture designs, as in his houses, he drew on nature, on the Japanese aesthetic and again on geometry. In this way he achieved his goal of a unified space, with no boundaries between interior and exterior, a house that was more and more open and flowing than his previous projects.
The Husser House was one of Wright’s last projects incorporating Louis Sullivan’s techniques and was one of the first with elements of Wright’s Prairie style. Built in 1900, it was described in 1911 by a visiting architect as “in rough shape,” and it was demolished in 1924, perhaps due to the deterioration of experimental materials. The dining room table and eight chairs are among the few pieces known to have survived that demolition. They were part of an original set of three dining tables that could be laid end to end, depending on the size of the dinner party, and 24 chairs.
The table and eight chairs were purchased in 1923 from a used furniture shop on the west side of Chicago. They remained in the family of that purchaser until 1978 and went to auction at Christie’s in 1987 when they entered the collection of Domino’s Pizza, selling to Thomas Monaghan at a record price, and in 1993 they sold again at Christie’s to art dealer and collector Daniel Wolf. They came to the Huntington from the Wolf family in 2009.
The oak dining table, in a golden hue, is nearly square and carved on the sides in a checkerboard pattern, which was repeated throughout the house, and has molding around each leg. The tall slat back chairs remind one of a waterfall — the splats flow vertically, as does the grain. At the same time, the high backs of the chairs serve as an enclosure, enfolding and sheltering the human activity around the table.
The oak and leather armchair made for the Francis W. Little House around 1903 is a geometric study with flat rectangular planes connected by horizontal bands. The chair is strikingly similar to an actual Prairie house.
Wright designed the oak armchair for the dining space of the Ward W. Willits House around 1902. It is blockier than the Husser chairs, but based on the same principles that governed his Prairie houses.
Wright’s birch and elm reclining chair for the Arthur Heurtley House in about 1902 was made with arms that are supported by angled uprights and taper outward, resonant with the design of the house. For the Avery Coonley House, Wright created a spindle side chair whose pronounced grain contrasts with its spare geometry.
The permanent addition of the Wright furniture crystallizes the Huntington’s Arts and Crafts and Design Reform Movement connections. It is also provides a further explication of early Twentieth Century southern California architecture and design. The museum’s holdings of Greene & Greene material and archives is impressive.
Like Wright, Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene practiced an architecture that was predicated on geography, climate, landscape and lifestyle. The Boston-trained brothers arrived in Pasadena in 1893 where the salubrious southern California climate allowed for the incorporation of terraces and sleeping porches in houses. Their aesthetic resonated with that of Wright: the inspiration of nature and Japanese design. There was also a strong Asian, Spanish and Native American influence.
As the Greenes’ practice flourished, clients who commissioned houses from them asked them to design the furniture and fixtures as well. One such house was designed for David and Mary Gamble, and the Pasadena house is open to view today. The Huntington holds the recreated dining room of the Henry M. and Laurabelle A. Robinson House, erected in Pasadena between 1905 and 1907. The dining table is shaped like the tsuba that Charles Greene collected and its corbelled brackets relate to the joinery in Japanese temples. Its cloudlike decoration is inspired by the Chinese and is a peculiarly Greene innovation.
The Greenes’ mahogany and oak staircase with brass inlay from the 1905 Arthur A. Libby House, which was demolished in 1968, has been reassembled and placed on view at the Huntington.
A profound influence on Greene & Greene was William Morris, called the founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, whose work Charles Greene encountered in a 1901 trip to England and which he brought back to Pasadena. The Huntington’s 1999 purchase of William Morris furniture and decorations makes it the largest in the United States and dovetails neatly with Greene & Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright. Other accessions included important pieces by Charles Rolfs and Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo.
The sequence of Arts and Crafts pieces in the collections of the Huntington establishes the position of southern California in the movement and carves out its own distinctive interpretation of the style under the aegis of the Design Reform Movement. Southern California, with its pleasant climate, was a haven for many prosperous industrialists, particularly railroad men, who came to live there. It was new, and light and bright, and it tempted many to leave behind many of the dark traditions of the East and Midwest.
The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens was created in 1919 by railroad magnate Henry Huntington whose collections of art, rare books and manuscripts and botanic gardens formed the core of the institution. Located on what was once a 600-acre ranch, the Huntington comprises three separate galleries on the Huntington grounds.
The permanent addition of the Wright furniture supports the museum’s plan to move forward with a 5,400-square-foot expansion that will showcase its important collection of Twentieth Century design material.
The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is at 1151 Oxford Road. For information, www.huntington.org or 626-405-2100.