Since I first stumbled upon his work in person in a suburb of Chicago like many others, I have been in love with Frank Lloyd Wright. Oh yeah,.. certainly his design work captivates, his love life makes for better reading than any reality show and his creative genius makes others pale by comparison. But it is more than just what he has designed, well over a thousand buildings and structures. It is more than the creation of interior spaces that seem so perfect to live in, so right for each site and so individually, uniquely Wright.
For 92 years, here was a man who continued over and over again to shake off the design norms and break the rules. There were no sacred cows when it came to the design of work and living spaces. Wright was the right man and the right time to force us re-consider how we live and work with a unified collection of materials, designs and methods.
I think it is fascinating to study people who are just different. Wright was different. There is something captivating about individuals who just don't think in the same way as many of us do. Thomas Jefferson was also such an individual, as is Apple's Steve Jobs. These individuals, Wright, Jefferson and Jobs are revolutionaries. They changed the world in their own way. Where does that kind of thinking and creative ideas originate from? I often wonder if this "design thinking" starts deep in the left or right side of the brain.
I am indeed lucky in that I have been able to visit over 80 of Mr. Wright's sites to see for myself, up close and in person his work ...each of these special places of art designed for a variety of clients. Visiting each, I try to image the conversations that Wright might have had with each client about their project, certainly dressed in cape, holding a cane and a perky pork-pie hat. His commanding style most certainly made more than a few clients ponder from time to time if they hired the right person. But once he delivered, few could question his genius.
Recently I had the occasion to visit his Scottsdale home, Taliesin West last week for an evening tour. Colleagues of mine were in town, Sandy, Sue and Lisa and all wanted to see Mr. Wright's creation in far northwest Maricopa County. Arriving before the sun kissed the horizon after a rather warm desert valley day, I grinned like a kid at Christmas at seeing the buildings,... just as I had done so many times before. This time, with the late afternoon light changing to evening amber, each structure seemed to not just be built upon the sand and rock but actually to grow directly from the earth with little effort, roots deep in the bedrock below the desert sands.
We were guided by a rather well-versed docent, an individual who shared his wisdom and knowledge after some ten years of experience as a tour leader for the property. Being on the property and in the spaces as the sun went down behind the distant mountain range was amazing. The buildings began to glow, at first golden in color,...then changing to ruddy red as though they were becoming hot glowing embers. The electrical lighting, something that did not exist when Wright first landed on the site, made me feel secure, comfortable and at home in this desert camp of Mr. Wright's. I tried to envision what a guest might have felt, just waiting in anticipation for Mr Wright to enter the great living room space, perhaps his wife Olgivanna getting ready in their quarters near by to stroll in and to greet their visitors. I imagined classical music floating near the beamed and tented ceiling, likely by Beethoven, being played by an apprentice on the 7 foot grand piano in the living room.
I sat in the living room on the cushions of the built-in seating. Looking around the space, I tried to imagine what Mr. Wright must have been thinking when he purchased the 650 acres out in this far desert location, in fact so far out, that there wasn't even a defined road for the last several miles until one was made to provide access for his Cherokee Red painted automobile. What was going on in his head when he set up camp in this remote space whose only other residents at the time were desert mice, a few snakes, coyotes, and saguaro cactus. Had he designed this desert rock and wood camp in his head as he traveled from Wisconsin with students in tow or, upon his arrival, did it come to him all at once? Was Wright a visionary or genius? Perhaps both.
Being there in the evening at magnificent Taliesin West was such a fine experience. Daylight quickly died out. Night arrived. The sounds of the desert began. The glow of distant Phoenix lighting up the sky to the southwest contrasted with the monsoon storms in the east illuminating the sky like fireworks. And then of course...there I was experiencing these camp grounds. The Wright buildings,... each made of rock, sand and wood, his camp in the desert crafted and all of it together made me love Mr. Wright that much more.
Several months back, a client in Rhode Island asked if he really needed a grab bar in the bathroom. He hated the way they looked and he thought that they would not match his new polished chrome plumbing fixtures with the overhead rain shower. So I asked him how important safety was in the home. He said that he intended to have a state-of-the-art, built-in security system installed as the home was being built. So I began to explain that safety and security goes well beyond an alarm system and that certain features like a curb-less shower and a level threshold at the main entry might help prevent accidents but just as important, would provide the opportunity to return home early from a hospital stay if something were to happen such as breaking a leg or hip.
He said, "Yes, I can see that might be but it's just the thought of other people seeing a bar in my bathroom and thinking that I am disabled." So I replied easily, "This is really about providing you with a measure of personal independence and not about what others may think about you." Then I reassured him that these concepts about aging in place are not a trend not a fad....and would raise the value and quality of life as we mature. By adding certain features in the design of our homes provides us with the opportunity to maintain our personal independence.... something that none of us would want to give up at any age or ability.
So I offered him creative design solutions including a great looking "grab bar" in a snazzy polished chrome finish that would provide the aesthetics he was really asking for but also he knew that in his heart, at 86 years young, he would be able to hang on to something in difficult times. And that something was his independence.
He passed away not too long ago but not after being in a place of his choosing for as long as he was able. We worked so well together in the design of his home and was excited to be able to move into it. He used that shower without a curb and even told me how great it was not to have to lift and step over that barrier. He told me he grabbed onto that grab bar every day because it made sense to hang onto something standing on a wet shower floor. And the last time we talked, he told me to make sure to tell others and have them see the value of having a home that supports one's independence. And with this blog post, I have done what he told me to do. Tell others.
Michael is an award winning interior designer based in Palm Desert, CA. He is a Professional Member of the American Society of Interior Designers and a member of the ASID College of Fellows.
As a Certified Aging In Place Specialist, he creates smart looking spaces that are safe and secure and create homes for a lifetime.
And with thirty plus years in the profession, he has honed his humor, elevated his passion for design and sharpened his wit to not take anything too seriously except his design work.