Frank Lloyd Wright’s Textile Block Houses

Mixing Modern and the Ancient

Designed in 1923 to accompany the synthesized interior of the John Storer House in Hollywood, California, this iron and glass floor lamp epitomizes Frank Lloyd Wright’s deconstructed Prairie aesthetic and its relationship to the organic architecture of modern design movements during the 1920s. John Storer, a homeopathic physician based in Los Angeles, commissioned Wright to create a new home built into the hills of the Hollywood landscape. It was the first residence designed by Wright to use the new construction method of cast concrete textile blocks molded with geometric motifs evocative of Mayan revival styles. His son Lloyd Wright supervised the construction of the Storer residence and designed the landscape architecture for the commission. Wright’s other textile block houses were the Samuel and Harriet Freeman House in Hollywood Hills, the Charles and Mabel Ennis House in Los Angeles, and the Alice Millard House, known as La Miniatura in Pasadena, all completed in the same year, 1923. At the time, Wright stated his purpose behind this new building material was to experiment with cast blocks due to concrete’s low cost, and to infuse the perceived utilitarian simplicity of the raw material with a sense of monumental beauty. The rhythmic linear motifs of the molded concrete blocks were also distinctly present in the interior of the home, and the present floor lamp is a significant representative of Wright’s desire to achieve Gesamtkunstwerk in his architecture, primarily by mirroring formal elements of the building’s facade with all fixtures and furnishings of the interior.

Having the overall effective of geometric rhythm in construction, the new textile block aesthetic of the Storer House evoked Mayan and Pre-Columbian motifs that were based on period publications of archeological excavations in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. This signaled a new formal language for Wright, which deployed ornamentation in a way that transcended principles of the modernist International Style, instead exploring the organic notion that architecture should appear as though a ruin emerging naturally from the landscape. This notion of the romantic ruin was further developed by Lloyd Wright’s lush foliage design of the landscape surrounding the house, allowing the structure to emerge mysteriously from the trees when viewed from the street.

The focal point of the interior was a large second-floor living room with tall banks of windows that flooded the space with natural light; at night, the interior was illuminated with light fixtures such as the present lot. This floor lamp employs a rectilinear construction in painted iron comprising an interconnected grid frame with a cubic shade in frosted glass. The design relates to the distillation of furniture forms down to the essence of Wright’s early Prairie period. The name of this style arose from his article, “A Home in a Prairie Town” published in a 1901 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal. The Prairie aesthetic sought to evoke the natural landscape of the vast plains of the American Midwest through both architecture and domestic interiors, epitomized by horizontal roof lines, soaring vertical furniture and a blending of interior and exterior space.

The floor lamp’s essentialized planes of iron and glass also show parallels to lighting designed by Walter Gropius for his office at the Weimar Bauhaus in 1924, and interior light fixtures designed by Gerrit Rietveld during the De Stijl movement of the Netherlands, which both paired planar frosted glass (or glass tubes) and rectilinear metal frames, often arranged on a grid system. The International Style, famously developed by European counterparts and characterized by the machine aesthetic and rationalized interiors, were often furnished with tubular steel furniture and industrial materials. The International Style reached a moment of crystallization in Le Corbusier’s Pavilion L’Esprit Nouveau in the 1925 Exposition Arts Décoratifs et Industriels in Paris, and was a continuing mode of architectural style in Central European modern housing projects developed through the 1927 Weißenhofsiedlung exhibition of housing and industrial production (organized by Lilly Reich and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Stuttgart), as well as the new Frankfurt city planning commission overseen by Ernst May and Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Textile Block Houses Mixing Modern and the Ancient Wright’s development of the textile block system can be viewed as a combination of technological production espoused by the International Style and organic architecture principles in order to make his designs more economically accessible. The modular of using concrete blocks as opposed to poured concrete for the facade allowed for plans to be laid out quickly and easily. Wright’s Usonian houses also employed native materials and flat roofs with clerestory windows, a similar aesthetic to the textile block houses. His earlier architectural commissions for the Arizona Biltmore Resort in 1918 and the Florida Southern College Campus (built 1938-1954) also employed cast concrete blocks with molded geometric ornamentation.

The blending of interior and exterior spaces is apparent in the design of the Storer House through the lamp’s placement in the main living room heralding the entrance to the outdoor terrace. The molded concrete motifs of the exterior were repeated on the interior walls and mimicked as well in the rectilinearity of furniture forms as well as light fixtures. Wright designed floor lamps in this style for the Freeman House (1923) as well as a variation on the linear iron grid form for a sconce and hanging ceiling light in the Storer House.

Wright’s textile block houses in California signal a distinct moment in California modernism during the 1920s with compelling connections to architects such as Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler, also designing residential projects in Southern California. Schindler was famously employed by Wright in 1918 to run his Los Angeles office while working on the Imperial Hotel project, and Wright would later promote Schindler to supervise the construction of the Hollyhock House for the oil heiress Aline Barnsdall in Los Angeles in the early 1920s. Schindler’s main precepts of modern architecture, “space, climate, light, and mood” were influenced by the approach taken in Wright’s body of work, and these principles lend themselves to an aesthetic reading of the Storer House as well. With its blending of interior and exterior construction through spatial and material fluidity, Wright effectively synthesized the built environment with the natural atmosphere, extending the notion of totality in design to even the smallest details of the interior, especially embodied by the stark modern form and atmospheric presence of this modernist floor lamp.

Frank Lloyd Wright 1867–1959

During his seventy year career as an architect, Frank Lloyd Wright created more than 1,100 designs, half of which were realized and a large portion of which came about later in his life. Wright was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin in 1867. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in 1885 to study civil engineering, completing only two years of the program. After working for Joseph Silsbee on the construction of the Unity Chapel in Oak Park, Illinois Wright decided to pursue a career in architecture and he moved to Chicago where he began an apprenticeship at the famed architectural firm Adler and Sullivan, working directly with Louis Sullivan until 1893.

After parting ways, Wright moved to Oak Park. Working from his home studio, he developed a system of design developed from grid units and rooted in an appreciation of natural materials that would come to be known as the Prairie School of Architecture and would change the landscape of American design forever. Wright devoted himself to teaching and writing during the 1920s and 1930s. 1935 marked the beginning of an immense surge of creativity and productivity as he began work on his most celebrated residential design, Fallingwater. In the 1940s and 1950s Wright focused on his Usonian designs that reflected his belief in democratic architecture, offering middle-class residential options. In 1943, Wright took on his most demanding commission, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The museum, which would open its doors six months after his death in 1959, would be called his most significant work.

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