Outside in: Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence on interior design

For the editor of a lifestyle magazine, Elizabeth Gordon of House Beautiful was a little wound up. The target of her wrath? “A self-chosen elite that is trying to tell us what we should like and how we should live.”

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American ideals, she wrote in a rabble-rousing 1953 essay, were under attack. Through the lens of today’s politics, the rhetoric sounds pretty familiar. Except the battleground she had chosen wasn’t the political arena, but something that hit closer to home — in fact, it was home itself. And the focus of her protectionist ire wasn’t Asian trade deals or NATO allies, but revered modernists such as Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.

Luckily, Gordon had an all-American, style-saving superhero in mind. Truth be told, this architectural god had his own reputation for being a little dictatorial when it came to design and had been known to sneer at “decorators.” But when it came to Frank Lloyd Wright (who was already old school in 1953), Gordon saw ideas for interiors that made sense.

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“At the time,” says current House Beautiful editor Sophie Donelson, “House Beautiful was still really focused on decorating, but it truly has always been about living with style. The whole idea, from the beginning, is if you live in beautiful surroundings, your life will be enriched by it. And in that respect, Elizabeth Gordon and Frank Lloyd Wright found an affinity. She was sticking up for individualism and individual style and regional style.”

Last year, House Beautiful celebrated 120 years in publication. And this month marks the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birth. But, design geopolitics aside, the core ideas that drove Gordon’s allegiance to Wright and his influence on interiors are highly relevant today.

It’s outside … but inside

Wright’s exploration of nature as a theme in architecture and in decorative elements of his homes is well known. Each home was built in dialogue with its setting, right down to upholstery colors meant to reflect the colors of the earth or sky. His famed Fallingwater, a home still considered to be one of the all-time great architectural works, is not only sited on top of a waterfall, but interior elements — from the natural stone flooring to built-in furniture — maximize every view of the gleaming water below.

“Wright’s architecture is an organic whole; it all relates,” says Fred Prozzillo, director of preservation at Taliesin West. “How everything is pulled together, how it flows outside, they all create this whole experience. A lot of people criticize him for his built-in furniture, as though he was trying to be so inflexible, but that isn’t what it was about. He would set up the built-in so that you would sit in a specific place and capture a beautifully framed view of the landscape.”

Bringing the outside in is so important in today’s interiors that nearly every home aspires to connect with nature, whether through an expanse of windows or just a well-placed houseplant. “It isn’t just a houseplant,” says Donelson, “it’s a way of being.”

Working the angles

Wright’s use of lines and geometric shapes feels almost prescient today, given the overwhelming current trend toward geometric pattern in interior design. But Wright’s genius in creating his own geometry was in his recognition of the harmonious, inherent geometry of the earth itself.

“As part of his connection with nature he would have his students go out and study the landscape and break it down into its base geometric forms,” says Prozzillo, “and translate that into a screen for a home or a pattern in the art glass. The neat thing with Wright and his geometric patterns is he was tying it back to everything else that he did. I think it’s interesting how he came to his geometry — it came from the landscape and surroundings.”

In a collection of fabrics originally designed for Schumacher in 1955 (after Elizabeth Gordon played matchmaker between the architect and the storied fabric house) and recently reissued, Wright gave his patterns a crisp rhythm that still rings true.

“His designs are unique,” says Dara Caponigro, creative director at Schumacher. “There’s nothing else like him that I’ve seen in my career. Obviously they’re modern, but they’re artful; they don’t feel ordinary at all. You really do feel his mark on things. One of the things I’m struck by is the amount of asymmetry in the fabrics. These are like paintings, they’re different.”

The reissued collection, with a range of historic colors as well as fresh blues and yellows, was an instant hit upon its launch this spring.

“It’s very, very hard to find fabrics that feel modern without feeling gimmicky,” says Caponigro. “So many designers turn to solids because there’s nothing else to use. I think these fabrics offer an opportunity for modern houses.”

Decorative diplomacy

A collected look, a mashup of cultural influences, a global mix — all are phrases used to describe yet another idea influencing today’s interiors that can trace its roots through Wright’s work. Highly influenced by time spent in Japan, he embraced tenets of Japanese and Chinese design, including reverence for natural materials and an inherent simplicity and lack of clutter.

“It’s something that I feel is really resonant right now,” says Donelson. “We live in in a world where we can buy anything and get it delivered tomorrow. But I recognize the humbleness and simplicity and purity of really thinking about everything that you bring into your home. That was something (Wright) thought about as an architect, but it’s an idea that can really benefit every homeowner — just slowing down and taking time to choose and enjoy the things you have in your home. Decorating is a word that we use to describe how things can improve our quality of life, and it’s not really about more things; it’s about, maybe, the right things or even fewer things.”

Though he championed a uniquely American style of architecture, Wright’s own homes and those of his clients gained richness and depth from a few treasured pieces of rough-hewn Japanese pottery, a handmade textile from Africa or beautiful Mexican paintings. His display of handmade objects from around the world in the context of modern interiors added a layer of educated elegance to his rooms.

The lesson? “The world is big,” says Donelson, “and there is much to gain from that.”

Wright fathered a new kind of architecture and kept on evolving from there — but more than a century later, it’s the timelessness of his ideas that make his influence so enduring.

“You look at his work today,” says Prozzillo, “and it doesn’t look all that strange or new, and that’s because what he was doing has been incorporated into our daily life. We can relate to what he was doing because it has permeated the way we live today. He was trying to change the way we live and do something different, break through to that next thing. And I think he succeeded.”

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