Prairie School Furniture
Frank Lloyd Wright and a number of other young architects who were either students, associates, or friends of his formed a loosely-knit group from about 1900 to 1917 that is generally known as the Prairie School. Their distinction was to evolve, each in his own way, a style of early modern architecture and interior design that was in some degree original, and in some degree derived from the first modern architectural style in America introduced about 1890 by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. The Prairie School architects carried the idea of a new architecture beyond that of Sullivan by insisting that the architect create a totally integrated aesthetic environment. By this they meant that the architect should design not only the building but interior furnishings as well: all furniture, rugs, draperies, lighting fixtures, vases, leaded glass windows and the like. Wright explains in his autobiography how important properly designed furniture was to his houses:
“I believe that no one thing in itself is ever so, but must achieve simplicity—as an artist should use the term—as a perfectly realized part of some organic whole. Only as a feature or any part that becomes a harmonious element in the harmonious whole does it arrive at the state of simplicity…. “I have tried to make my clients see that furniture and furnishings…should be seen as a minor part of the building itself….”
Wright relates in other writings how painful it was for him to see an owner who had rejected his furnishings move in with inappropriate and often contradictory furnishings originally purchased for use in a building of far different character. Whenever possible Wright, therefore, insisted that the building and its furnishings be designed as an aesthetic whole. As not all of the Prairie School architects had either the stamina or powers of persuasion that Wright possessed, none of them could match Wright in the sheer quantity of his production. Two of the most successful in this respect were George Elmslie (of the firm Purcell, Feick and Elmslie; later Purcell and Elmslie) and George Maher. They, with Wright, had known each other as students during the late eighties in the architectural office of Joseph Lyman Silsbee, a gifted designer working in the various styles—shingle, Queen Anne, Richardsonian, etc.—associated with the American Picturesque movement. Maher had gone on his own in 1888 but both Wright and Elmslie were first to have direct contact with the most original American architect of the time, Louis Sullivan, before beginning their own independent practices. Wright served as Sullivan’s chief draftsman from 1888-1893 and Elmslie from 1893-1909.
It is this interesting interwoven relationship between Wright, Maher, and Elmslie, together with their relatively large production of furniture and furnishings when compared with the other Prairie School architects, that was behind the decision to concentrate on their works in the present exhibition. The designs of Maher, who opened his office without first having worked for Sullivan are, as one would expect, somewhat distant stylistically from the furnishings of either Wright or Elmslie. On the other hand, it is obvious that Maher was striving for originality just as much as Wright and Elmslie and, in that sense, his work relates directly to theirs.
Furthermore, because all three founded much of their decorative details—at least in the early works of each—on a stylization of plants and flowers, their works seem frequently to resemble each other at least in some modest degree. The designs of Elmslie and Wright are much more intimately related because of their common background. Especially, one should note their similar use of the straight line, the right angle, and the smooth surface emphasizing geometric shape, all of which they originally learned from Sullivan.
This exhibition will certainly raise more questions than it could ever answer. For example, was Wright or Maher or Elmslie solely responsible for the designs of furnishings for their houses or was there a collaboration and exchange of designs among them? What is the relationship of the Prairie School architects’ belief in a unified conception of architecture and furnishings with William Morris and the English Aesthetic Movement or the American Arts and Crafts Movement? What is the present location of furnishings, known from photographs, which seem to have disappeared. It is hoped that this exhibition will help create a greater appreciation and awareness of a much-neglected but essential part of the American artistic achievement.
This text was originally published in the exhibition brochure.