As part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial my wife and I took a bus tour of properties associated with the S.C. Johnson company in Racine, Wisconsin. Most of the building were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was friends with H.F. Johnson, CEO of the S.C. Johnson Wax Company in the 1930s.
One theme that gets stated and restated constantly on the building tours we were on is how Wright was arrogant to the extreme. Wright, in these stories, seems to have valued aesthetics and his own somewhat incoherent philosophy of design over most functionality. I have never read any biography of Wright, so I have no idea if any of the specific stories are true. Some sounded a little too pat to be real. However, there was sometimes indisputable physical evidence.
Take for example this fireplace in Wingspread, the house Wright designed for Johnson’s family.
The story is that it was only used once. It was designed for the logs to be burning in an upright position as seen here, but when they tried it one of the logs tipped out of the fireplace onto the floor as it burned.
At the S.C. Johnson administration building we were shown a kind of chair that Wright had designed for the use of secretaries. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in that building, but they had a identical chair at Wingspread. Here it is.
The thing about the chair they showed us at the administration building is that it existed in two versions — the later version seen above and an earlier version that only had three legs. So instead of the two legs up front, imagine only one in the center, kind of a tricycle arrangement. Wright’s thinking was three legs on the chair, two legs on the person, that’s five legs, plenty of stability, right? Well, no. As the tour guide was able to easily demonstrate, if you’re sitting in the chair and you lean a moderate amount to the left or right you’ll have both your legs on the opposite side of the front leg from the direction you’re leaning and that front leg will become a pivot point, dumping you out of the chair.
We were told a story about how H.F. Johnson tricked Wright into sitting in one of the tricycle chairs and getting him to fall out of it by reaching for a dropped pencil. That seemed a little too good to be true. But the core of the story must be true, because both three- and four-legged versions of the chair exist. Wright must have designed the chair without testing it or thinking too deeply about how people use chairs.
It’s tough to live in Chicago without hearing all about Wright’s architecture, and I’ve seen some wonderful examples, but I think now I want to read more about him personally.