Limited studio resources left most owners to their own decorative devices
It is widely known that Frank Lloyd Wright preferred to control many aspects of a project, including, often, the furniture that would be placed inside one of his spaces. So when guests visit, we’re often asked if our furniture is original or not. It is not. That should be evident in the above image featuring the so-called “space chair” – a Green and Gold MCM relic that we spar over when getting ready to watch them Packers.
Seriously, the first owners of the Elizabeth Murphy House may have enjoyed only one piece of Wright-designed furniture – a breakfast nook table – and it is long gone. Moreover, that table may be one of only two or three pieces of furniture that Wright designed for his American System-Built Homes. It’s a working theory, shared here in the hopes of learning more.
It appears from the records (drawings, specifications and contracts) that only a table, a bench, and possibly a chair were designed and built specifically for constructed ASB homes – and that other pieces shown in renderings were concepts only, not finished designs. Or, some rendered pieces (possible the chair) originated pre-ASBH or in parallel with it and were drawn to show interior character in sales materials.
Our evidence: none of the construction sets (drawings in the Avery collection with working plans to build a specific model) show in-situ furniture other than the table, benches, and sometimes a chair. Furthermore, Wright’s ASBH specifications are explicit about what should be supplied, calling out:
“All cabinets, ward-robes, casing, base and carpet strips, apron, door lamps, etc., are in included in the contract. The contractor also provides the benches and tables indicated in the plans and all other items of interior finish as shown on the drawings, including medicine cabinet.”– Frank Lloyd Wright American System-Built Home Specifications
Absence of a chair in the specifications suggests that one wasn’t yet designed in early 1917, when the specifications were widely shared for possible home sales. The project was cancelled in July 1917 just months after the specification was published and shared.
Indeed, the floor-plan drawing for this home shows the benches (and a chair) clumsily erased; perhaps because the builder (Herman Krause) hoped to “value-engineer” them out and hoped that the buyer (Elizabeth Murphy) would not catch it. (See the eraser marks in the bottom right corner of this drawing.)
Murphy caught it. In her answer to the Krause V. Murphy/Kibbie lawsuit (1918), she says that:
“the plaintiff (builder) did not furnish or provide for shades, screens, a proper plate glass mirror for the medicine cabinet, benches for breakfast nook, a scoop shovel, our pipe covering in basement…” (Again – absence of chair. Is it a ghost?)
So the home was supplied empty of furniture except for a table, where this one is today. Our chairs are period-appropriate Thonet bent woods, but not in the Prairie or Arts and Crafts Styles, and not, we think, acceptable to our architect. They will one day be replaced with his specified benches.
Incidentally, we’ve learned from experts that the (ghost) chair has reproduced from renderings by the craftsman Stafford Norris, who also snapped the photo on the right:
And this post would be incomplete without a shout-out to Nicole Atkinson, who has been building replica pieces for the tour-able ASB homes at Wright in Milwaukee’s Burnham Block. We hope you’ll go see her work.
Do you know more about ASBH furniture that would help solidify (or nullify) our working theory? Feel free to add your insights below.