Modern Designers

Frank Lloyd Wright

Design Profession: Architect

Building Types: Commercial, Educational, Religious, Residential

Frank Lloyd Wright was one of America's most unique and influential architects. Born in 1867 in Spring Green, Wisconsin, he attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison though he never graduated. Instead, he moved to Chicago to participate in the building boom that followed the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. He first took a job as a draftsman for the architect Joseph Silsbee and then worked for the firm of Adler and Sullivan where he worked from 1888 to 1893. Louis Sullivan, the inventor of the axiom "form follows function," became his mentor and friend.

In 1893 Frank Lloyd Wright opened his own architectural firm in Oak Park, Illinois. His work was centered on what he called "organic architecture," which integrates architectural design with the surrounding landscape or site. Wright's work became known as the Prairie style because the lines of his buildings mimicked the horizontal lines of Midwest prairies. Prairie style buildings typically have low-pitched roofs with deep overhangs, long rows of serial casement windows, deeply raked horizontal mortar joints along the rows of brick, and a narrow or hidden entryway that opens into a burst of space and light. The organic nature of the architecture was further expressed in Wright's use of native materials and wood stained in its natural color. In Michigan, the Meyer May House, built in Grand Rapids in 1906, is an excellent example of one of Wright's many Prairie style commissions.

One of Frank Lloyd Wright's most significant contributions to Modernism was a portfolio of one hundred lithographs published in Berlin, Germany. Known as the Wasmuth Portfolio, it the European architectural world was stunned by the creativity, beauty, and simplicity of Wright's designs. He was an inspiration to early modernists.


During the Great Depression Wright began experimenting with designs for moderately priced homes for the average family, which he called "Usonian" houses. Meant to be relatively inexpensive to build, they were constructed of modular concrete blocks and sat on concrete slabs embedded with radiant heat. They typically had an open floor plan and an attached carport.

In the mid-1930s Wright developed a plan for a community of Usonian homes that he called "Broadacre City." He toured the United States promoting the plan. In Michigan, groups in four communities expressed interest in the Broadacre City concept: Okemos, Detroit, Kalamazoo, and Galesburg. Implementation of the planned communities met with varying degrees of success. Unable to secure Federal Housing Administration (FHA) funding for a full community in Okemos, only one Usonian house was built in 1939-the Goetsch-Winckler House. The proposed community in Detroit was put on hold due to the outbreak of World War II and was never built. After the war two co-op communities were constructed: Country Homes Estates (The Acres) in Galesburg and Parkwyn Village in Kalamazoo. The Acres was established in 1946 by a group of Upjohn Company scientists from Kalamazoo. Eventually, five circular lots were developed, four with houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Parkwyn Village was established in the city of Kalamazoo by a splinter group who felt the Acres location was too rural. Four Wright designed homes were built on Taliesin Drive in Parkwyn Village in 1948 and 1949. A number of individual Usonian houses were also built in Michigan: the Affleck House, Bloomfield Hills (1941); the Harper House, Saint Joseph (1950); the Palmer House, Ann Arbor (1952); and the Turkel House, Detroit (1956). Reportedly only sixty Usonian homes were ever built, and Michigan has one of the largest collections in the nation.

In 1937 Frank Lloyd Wright worked with the Metal Office Furniture Company (Steelcase) of Grand Rapids, Michigan, to design furniture for the S. C. Johnson Wax world headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. The design and production of the office furniture was the result of a two-year partnership in which Wright created task-oriented furniture. Made of steel and formica, the Johnson Wax building furniture was a prototype for the modern workstation.

Frank Lloyd Wright was an inspiration to Michigan architects and designers. Emil Lorch, who created the architecture program at the University of Michigan in 1907, had worked at the Art Institute of Chicago when Wright's Prairie style was revolutionizing American architecture. Lorch promoted the architecture education concept of Pure Design through lectures at the Chicago Architecture Club, which inspired Wright. Lorch and Wright were acquaintances in Chicago; Lorch married the sister of architect George Elmslie, who had worked with Wright in Louis Sullivan's Office. Over the years, Wright corresponded and met with Lorch and often lectured at the University Michigan. Throughout his career, George Nelson, design director of the Herman Miller Furniture Company, was a friend and confidant of Wright. In 1932 Wright established the Taliesin Fellowship in Spring Green, Wisconsin, to train architects in the organic style. Among the first Taliesin apprentices was Alden B. Dow of Midland, Michigan. Though he only spent a short time at Taliesin, Dow translated Wright's principles into his own representation of the organic style. Dow designed residences, churches, libraries, hospital buildings and more in Midland as well as buildings throughout Michigan and the United States. He was named Architect Laureate by the state of Michigan in 1983.

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