This past summer, I joined a group of authors in writing short histories of the world’s most famous chairs for Phaidon Press—Chair: 500 Designs That Matter, coming out on April 6, 2018.
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)’s new exhibition, Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive (on view through October 1, 2017), explores lesser-known chapters from Wright’s 70-year-long career. Reviewers have understandably dwelled on his little-known projects for an experimental farm and a series of rural school buildings in the segregated South. Few, however, have focused on the prominent—and fascinating—role given to Wright’s architectural models in the show itself. “For him, they were presentation pieces meant to seduce the clients or put them at ease, especially if the designs were avant-garde or difficult to picture on paper,” says MoMA conservator Ellen Moody. And when the models failed to woo the clients, Wright, ever the showman, recycled the objects and enlisted them to promote his practice as part of touring exhibits.
Wright continuously tinkered with his models, forcing them to undergo extensive modifications. With the help of archival materials, MoMA’s curators have used the models to analyze Wright’s thought process and the evolution of his ideas. This process also revealed the alterations performed by other stakeholders, including clients and conservators. A model of an early iteration of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1943–59)—distinguished from the built version by a series of small, domed skylights and extensive interior landscaping—arrived at the MoMA in almost pristine condition. Yet, Moody’s research pointed out a series of telling transformations. A cross-sectional analysis of the exterior paint revealed an under-layer of warm ocher paint, clearly different from the cool white found in MoMA’s model. The discrepancy reveals a history of disagreements between Wright and his clients—and how Wright’s preference for a darker color was subsequently undermined, both in the model and in reality. (In alternative renditions, he even depicted the museum in pink.)
The elevation of an object to the category of design classic is hardly ever linear, nor predictable. When Verner Panton devised the concept for his Panton chair in 1959, most manufacturers dismissed his idea, failing to see a viable means of mass-producing a chair made out of a single piece of cantilevered plastic. Finally, in 1965, Panton found a partner in the Swiss manufacturer Vitra and, over the next few years, the designer and manufacturer developed the idea of a hard foam plastic chair that was as aesthetically striking as it was technologically sound. Once released, the Panton chair was quick to become a design hallmark—but this did not stop the team from continuing to innovate in the following decades.
As late as 1999, Vitra engineered a method to replace hard foam with polypropylene and began treating the chair with a special UV-ray protective additive, making it suitable for outdoor use. For Vitra, this story highlights “the importance of a manufacturer’s investment in a designer, both in terms of time and resources,” says Vitra’s Head of Marketing and Events, North America, Adrian Parra. “For us, this is something that we value and we cherish.” Today, the Panton chair is an almost ubiquitous presence in both residential and commercial spaces. However, all too often the original version, still manufactured by Vitra, is substituted by cheaper copies—ones that reduce a chair laden with historical and cultural meaning into a mere visual cue.
Essay on interior design and the idea of women’s work for A Women’s Thing.
Profile of lighting designers at Kugler Ning, full article here.
Today, Josef Frank is perhaps primarily known for the colorful textiles and furniture of his later years, and his substantial impact on design in Sweden, where he emigrated in 1933. But Frank’s work in Vienna, and particularly Villa Beer, which is currently facing substantial alterations to its interior, deserves more than just a cursory glance.
Designed in 1927, Frank envisioned Villa Beer as a collection of interior sequences, layered to produce dynamic spatial effects, as visitors enter through a red door hidden under a large central oriel and proceed through a small anteroom into a spacious two-story hall. The hall, which centers around a dramatic spiraling staircase, reveals the home’s different levels, while floating platforms project outward like branches, providing dramatic views of the space.
The Beers of Villa Beer are Julius and Margarete Beer, owners of a successful shoe factory and fervent music lovers who were eager to make the experience of music the focal point of the home. Frank responded to their requests by housing a grand piano in a floating mezzanine which allows the sounds of music to be carried throughout the house.
Despite what the almost-modern open plan of the central hall and the stark white paint of the rooms might imply, Frank found inspiration for the Villa in English homes of the second half of the 19th century, with their rambling layouts, winding stairs, and cozy inglenooks. Frank also turned to the fabric of historical urban spaces, believing that “a well-organized house should be laid out like a city, with streets and alleys that lead inevitably to places that are cut off from traffic, so that one can rest there.” His interiors offer the visitor a variety of possibilities, providing seemingly natural pathways that lead to nooks and outlooks offering a variety of vantage points from which to experience the space. “The shortest path is not the most comfortable one, and the straight stairway is not always the best—indeed almost never,” Frank wrote.
Frank designed the complex spatial configuration of Villa Beer in the service of producing psychological impressions on the visitor. Much like his contemporary, Adolph Loos, Frank designed his homes from the outside in, believing architecture should provoke a strong emotional response with its complex interrelationship between the spaces, varied room levels and heights, and sensuously articulated interiors where soft and rich materials contrast with the relative harshness of the architecture.
Please take a minute and sign the petition to preserve the original interiors of Villa Beer.
Some additional photos of the beautiful Villa Beer after the cut.
My interview with abstract artist Dale Appleman for A Women’s Thing’s Wild issue is now up on the AWT website.
A feature about Metropolis Magazine’s new office for the June 2016 issue of the magazine. Read here.