Lessons from Frank Lloyd Wright

Rita and I had a really nice summer day last weekend. We’ve  been so busy with DIY projects that we decided to take a day off and make a short road trip. About an hour and a half drive from us in Silverton, Oregon is a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, the Gordon House.

It’s the only one in the Northwest that is open to the public. It was commissioned by Conrad and Evelyn Gordon in 1956 and completed for about 50 thousand dollars, double the original budget. It’s a beautiful example of Wright’s Usonian style house. Although Wright often worked for wealthy clients, his Usonian homes were designed for typical, middle-class Americans.

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This is the view of the house while walking up the driveway. It really is a small house.

We’ve both been to the house before. Rita did a poetry reading there some years ago (Silverton has a thriving arts community), and I had visited probably 10 years earlier. We both wanted to see the house again.

We showed up at 2 for a guided tour, and we weren’t disappointed. The house really is something else. The grand living/dining room is one of the simplest and most elegant spaces I’ve ever been. Wright really knew how to make you feel like you are inside and outside at the same time. The space is actually fairly small by today’s standards but the tall ceilings and the floor to ceiling window glass really invite the outdoors in and make it feel 5 times larger.

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Here’s a view of the great room. I’m standing at the back wall taking the photo so I could capture as much of it as I could. Look at the gorgeous light.

This is the only large room in the whole house. The rest of the rooms are very small. The house has 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. The master bedroom is on the first floor. It has a door that leads out to the patio and a small, adjoining bathroom with a vanity, toilet, and stand-up shower. Wright designed all the furniture in the bedrooms as built-ins. No headboards for the beds and no dressers or night stands. It’s all built in.

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Here’s the master bedroom (now used to show a PBS video about the house). You can see the shelving along the wall and the built in dresser. All the ceilings were red cedar plywood and the walls were simple painted cinder block.

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Here’s an upstairs bedroom. The light in this room was fantastic. The beds were simple plywood platforms designed by Wright. Notice the shelving built into the wall again.

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Here’s the upstairs bathroom. It’s simple and bathed in beautiful light. The pink tiles, tub, and sink all matched perfectly.

We were struck at the simple elegance of the house. Even though there was minimal furniture, it didn’t look empty. Most of the storage was already built in. From shelving to closets, Wright had thought of everything. I loved the library nook that he designed at the back of the great room. It’s a fabulous place to sit, and hidden behind the cushions are storage bins.

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Here’s a view of the seating nook from across the room. The cushions were designed and commissioned by Wright. When he designed a house he took care of everything down to the color of fabric.

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Here’s a detail close up of the seating.

The kitchen is very tiny. There really isn’t much room in it at all. Wright preferred to call it a work area instead of kitchen. The design is all-business. It’s not like today’s kitchens where people hang out  while food is being prepared. No room in this one for that.

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Here’s the original kitchen. It’s hard to photograph because it’s so small.

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Even though the kitchen is a small box the ceilings are amazingly tall. There’s a huge skylight that dominates most of the ceiling space. This is more for function than for aesthetics as the tall ceiling allows all the heat and smells from the kitchen to rise up keeping the room cool.

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With the exception of the dishwasher all appliances are original.

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Here’s a detail of the floors. The downstairs floors are all concrete. The red color is not paint. It’s an additive mixed in with the concrete when it was poured.

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Here’s a good view of the fireplace in the great room.

There were so many great small details, I’ve collected them in the gallery below. Clicking on any of the images will cause a larger version to pop up.

Lessons Learned

Wright’s Gordon House delivers great lessons in simplicity. Everything was simple in design but also perfectly functional. There is an economy of means we found really appealing. There is barely anything decorative or extra to be found anywhere in the house, yet it is one of the warmest and most inviting spaces I’ve been.

Although Wright is (obviously and absolutely) a designer, we see a few key take-away ideas that we’ve been attaching to our idea of UnDesign:

Less is more. I was awestruck with how full the spaces felt even without furniture. The spaces that did have original furniture showed how simple and functional Wright thought of furniture. Take a look at these.

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This is the dining table designed by Wright.

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Here’s a low coffee table.

These are super simple pieces that were likely built right on site. They fit into the house unobtrusively. There was no need for anything more. Sometimes the simplest and most efficient design is the best design, an idea I’ve been playing with in the table and bench I’ve been working on for our kitchen. I can’t imagine a Nagouchi coffee table working better in this space.

Don’t be afraid to work with simple materials. Wright used locally-sourced materials, so this house contains western red cedar everywhere. The walls were simple cinder block. All the cabinets and furniture were made of plywood, as were the intricate cut-outs you see in the windows.  The floors are concrete on the first floor and simple oak on the second. If you notice the light fixtures in the pictures, they are simple recessed lights. There is no marble, or expensive tile, or exotic hardwood floors anywhere. None of the spaces need it. Wright was able to design beautifully with these simple materials.

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 Bigger is not always better. The house is small. The bedrooms are tiny. The kitchen is as small as you’d find in a mid-range apartment. Although the ceilings in the main area and kitchen are high, the ceilings in the bedrooms were very low. Wright felt that high ceilings were wasted space in a bedroom. Despite the small spaces,  none feel cramped at all. Even when we crammed 10 people in the small kitchen or the tiny bedroom it didn’t feel tight.

Wright creates spaciousness by adding access to outdoor spaces and natural light, so that the outside almost seems part of the inside space. He also does this by using space super-efficiently.

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Each bedroom had an outside balcony or patio attached to it.

Don’t over-decorate. If a space is nice adding more stuff won’t always make it nicer. The beautifully designed spaces in the Gordon home would not benefit from more of anything at all. Adding more furniture or art or fabrics or light fixtures or anything would only clutter up the space. The more things you add to a room the less impact the individual things will have.

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There were just a few simple items on most of the built-in shelves.

We had a great afternoon touring the Gordon House, and it definitely gave us some inspiration we’ll be drawing upon as we finalize our design for storage and shelving in our family room renovation project.

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We’re planning to put a desk, media shelving, and office supply storage in this nook and on the wall you see here. We’ll be using simple materials and design.

How about you?

Ever get design inspiration from a house tour? Have you applied any of Wright’s principles to the design of your own home? Would you like living in a Usonian house? We’d love to know what you think about Wright’s work and ideas. Hope you share your thoughts in the comments.