Drawn and courted: Wright designs in demand

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), the 20th century’s foremost modern architect, disliked most modern architecture. He dreamed of touching everyday people with the spiritual uplift of good architecture, yet his commissions came mostly from corporations and wealthy individuals. He eagerly embraced the latest advances in engineering and technology while advocating an organic architecture in harmony with the natural environment.

He was a towering figure in his cape and parson’s hat, a curmudgeon who managed to cajole his patrons to see the world through his spectacles. Wright made his employers feel honored that he would condescend to accept their commissions. If he chose to design a building, he usually tried to dictate its contents right down to the teacups and saucers. Wright’s sometime-scandalous personal life enhanced his mystique (especially the 1914 arson and multiple murder committed by a servant at Taliesin, his Wisconsin studio and home, which had the makings of a mystery novel).winsdraw.jpg

This drawing of the Winslow House in River Forest, Ill., was prepared in 1910 for use in the portfolio of Wright’s drawings published in Germany by Ernst Wasmuth.

Wright’s departure from his contemporaries in architecture came from the influence he derived from Japanese woodblock prints. Like many American and European painters, he became an avid collector of the prints, which often depicted exterior and interior architectural scenes. Examining a small temple at the Japanese pavilion of the Chicago World’s Fair (1893) sealed his interest. Many of his buildings, especially homes, would bare the mark of Japan in their elegantly simple lines, floating roofs and free-flowing interiors opening onto the natural world.

Several of his commissions, including the spectacular Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, fell prey over the years to the wrecker’s ball. Nowadays, nearly every surviving edifice is jealously guarded by their owners, who usually happen to be fans of the great man’s work. Wright’s buildings fetch high prices on the real estate market. Likewise, his architectural drawings are eagerly sought by collectors.

Wright and his staff created thousands of architectural sketches, renderings and working drawings. Works on paper and board include the blueprints for his interior floor plans, arranged for the economy of storage and space. Within the interiors were designs for art glass for windows whose objective was the specific filtration of light through a stained-glass scheme. His interest in the channeling of light continued with a series of prism lights he patented in 1897 for the American Luxfer Prism Co. in Chicago. Created to infuse the maximum amount of natural light directed into a room, the design worked well in commercial buildings. Lamps, furniture and decorative items were drafted to comply with Wright’s concept of spatial simplicity within the structures he designed.

Wright’s philosophy extended from cellar to roof. He excluded attics from his homes, believing anything slated to be stored was extemporaneous and a waste of space. Exterior plans of structures often included elaborate depictions of the surrounding site of the building with its place in the neighborhood and natural environment.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation has a substantial quantity of works on paper and board in its archives and has been working continually to restore and preserve its collection. The drawing collection, dating from 1887 to 1959, required the hands of many conservationists to repair fragile paper mended with decades-old acidic tape, as well as fading inks and surface staining consistent with age.

Students of architecture, as well as those who admire Wright’s designs, have enjoyed reproductions of his work in a poster and print market that has been thriving for many years. Reproductions of his works are available for many of his sketches and renderings. The country home Fallingwater in southwestern Pennsylvania; Taliesin, his studio in Spring Green, Wis., and Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Ariz., are among the popular images sought.

Recently, select and specially reproduced portfolio editions of many of his works have been published, with editions printed on high-quality paper using conservation inks. They sell into the hundreds of dollars.

Lithographs and portfolios of his works began production more than a century ago, with a 1910 German portfolio as an example. The unbound two-volume portfolio of drawings, renderings and plans was considered a significant overview of Wright’s achievements in architecture in his first 20 working years. Two plates depict the Robie House (1908), which foresaw the Prairie Style that became his signature contribution to architecture. Individual prints from this series, called the Wasmuth Portfolio, have sold at auction for between $500-$700. In December 1988, the rare portfolio of 100 prints sold at Sotheby’s New York for $30,000 including of buyer’s premium.

A limited amount of Wright’s original studio work has appeared at auction. In June 2003, Swann Galleries in New York auctioned a drawing/watercolor on paper (11 inches by 8 inches) titled Abstract Taliesin for $8,500. including buyer’s premium. Study For Ayn Rand Cottage, a drawing/watercolor on paper (25 inches by 36 inches) and dated 1947 sold at Sotheby’s New York in December 2002 for $11,000 including buyer’s premium.

The bigger the project, the higher the demand for its image among collectors. In December 1988, Christie’s New York, sold An Architectural Drawing for S.C. Johnson & Sons Inc, for $42,000 including buyer’s premium. The 24 inch by 32 inch drawing/watercolor on paper, dated 1944, was commissioned by S.C. Johnson of Racine, Wis. Wright’s design of the Johnson Wax Co. put the corporate headquarters on the tour map of prestigious, seminal works in modern architecture. With its massive brick and glass-banded facility (the windows produce enormous light but no view) and center multileveled atrium, it was a marvel of design engineering incorporating both user-friendly ease and sophistication.

An Architectural Drawing for the William H. Winslow Stables sold in December 1988 at Christie’s New York for $92,000 including buyer’s premium. The 1893 drawing/watercolor on paper measured a mere 4 inches by 12.

Wright remains one of the best known and most revered of major American architects. Virtually anything touched by his hand or his imagination is collectible. That many of his original drawings are jealously guarded and preserved by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation only enhances the value of those pieces that come on the market.

Mary P. Manion is acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, and director of its framing department. For more information, visit www.LandmarksGallery.com, or call 800-352-8892.