Excerpted from “Frank Lloyd Wright” by Todd Wilkinson, coming soon in the May/June edition of the Post.
Frank Lloyd Wright is considered, in the eyes of many, the most consequential American architect of the 20th century. But while Wright’s influence can be seen all around us, notes Russell Davidson, past president of the American Institute of Architects, it’s easy to forget how influential he is. Consider this: buildings that emphasize open floor plans featuring large glass picture windows pulling in natural light and fronting views of the outdoors; fireplaces anchoring common areas where families gather; backyards treated as sanctuaries; horizontal roof pitches allowing more sky to pour in; even radiant heating. All these are design elements developed by Wright and his creative teams or inspired by his dictum that the features of a building must be in harmony with the rhythms of daily human life.
Wright identified as a pastoral Midwesterner who craved contact with the outdoors. Famously, he once observed, “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”
Central to Wright’s sensibility was echoing patterns and forms found in nature. Such fidelity did not always extend to human relationships. Thrice married, he was the father of eight children by different partners. “Despite the womanizing angle that some stories have taken, Wright was an early feminist,” notes Timothy Totten, who’s studied Wright for more than 25 years and whose “Night with Wright” presentations help to spread his enthusiasm for the great architect. “He believed in equality for women in his studio — more than 100 women served in his practice as apprentices and architects during his career — and the great love of his life, Mamah Borthwick.”
Owning a Wright home was — and still is — a prestigious thing; being able to claim him as a friend caused clients to swoon. “He was devilishly charming and had a generally bright, sunshiny disposition most times; how else to explain all the clients who willingly gave significant resources for him to build projects that pushed them beyond their own comfort zone?” Totten asks.
“Wright had ideals about the way he thought people should live and work,” Totten continues. “It makes sense that so many clients spoke about their homes and, in some cases, their offices as if they were other members of the family. Because he listened to clients and anticipated their needs, his built projects just seem to ‘fit them perfectly’ and made them feel a greater sense of intimate connection.”
Still, working with Wright was not easy. He was a stickler for detail, and despised having to compromise. As he once wisecracked, “The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines.”
There’s the story of an exchange between Wright and a client, Harold Price Sr., who was building a second project with the great man. Price showed up at an Easter party wearing a new bright-blue sport coat. Seeing it, Wright reportedly said, “Harold, how have I left you enough money to buy a new suit?”
This article is featured in the May/June 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.