Drawing connections

Experience Frank Lloyd Wright’s work at the PMA
By IAN PAIGE  |  July 11, 2007
MAKING ROOM: Wright’s attention to detail made his spaces startling.

“In the ancient days of the race, men were close to nature as a child to its mother. They were naturally inspired and taught by her forms. They had no choice... Now, Mankind, as degeneracy looms, needs the refreshment afforded by a consciousreturn to the verities of being — returning to Nature not only in that early obvious sense but with more prophetic understanding and appreciation.” —Frank Lloyd Wright

"From sketch to finish: In 'Maine Architects Design Furniture.'” By Ian Paige.
The Portland Museum of Art’s challenge in presenting an architectural exhibition is akin to the finger that points to the moon. It is potentially confounding to convey a literally immersive art form within museum halls, especially if your subject is the organic architecture of the American master of cohesive structure. The PMA runs the risk of Frank Lloyd Wright turning in his grave upon hearing that his various chairs, fixtures, and glass designs are on display, ripped from their original context of the homes for which they were intended.

But “Frank Lloyd Wright and the House Beautiful” is quick to teach us that the eminent architect felt a mandate to get the people to experience his work. He propagated his principles throughout mainstream America, by full-scale environments designed for public display and sincere pontification for the Ladies’ Home Journal.

The true subject of the show is not any specific site or body of work, but a timeline of modulating efforts guided by Wright’s unwavering personal convictions inspired by his universal and natural insights. Wright adopted the already thriving aesthetic and social concept of “The House Beautiful” early in his career at the turn of the century. The exhibit helps us navigate a lifetime of successes as Wright promotes a design-conscious lifestyle up through his dubious attempts at pre-fabricated furniture and textiles.

As Wright abandoned Victorian vestiges like the attic and basement in favor of opening up a living space unencumbered by partitions and specialized uses, his Robie House compensated for these sweeping changes by providing elements like unusually high-backed dining chairs to insinuate a private space within the open field. This legacy of intimated gestures is co-opted by the exhibition’s designers to create a sense of curatorial unity despite such a variety of objects and information. Different sections of the museum’s main hall are painted in different Wright-inspired tones to emphasize different threads of their thesis. Furniture and fixtures are set together on unassuming platforms, far from being a showroom floor but helping the viewer to place the pieces within the unassuming photo prints that contextualize the material.

What you won’t find here are the usual explorations of signature Wright works such as Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum. Instead, the curators provide microcosms of ornamentation that exemplify the architect’s ideas. Each piece of furniture is stripped to its essential geometry, leaving elegant skeletons intended for the corporate body of his spatial design. Light screens, in contrast to traditional windows, satisfied the architect’s desire to connect the building to place rather than look out onto it. The featured screens are well suited for the museum, often backlit to dramatically display their natural abstractions. Sketches help reveal the planning process and the mind’s eye of their designer. Of note is Wright’s drawing of the Lloyd Lewis House in comparison with a photograph of the finished space. Before his vision was scaled back to a reserved monochrome carpeting, swirling geometric rugs accentuated the room’s relationships in a Technicolor playland like a vibrant, three-dimensional Mondrian composition.

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