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Meeting Frank Lloyd Wright's Glamourous Side at Taliesin West

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Freelance writer Liz Arnold—whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Dwell, Interior Design, and elsewhere—was shocked to discover that Frank Lloyd Wright's sunny Arizona desert home at Taliesin West was quite unlike his residential commissions in the Midwest. Here, she narrates her discovery of Wright's fun side.

[The Garden Room. Photo by Andrew Pielage for Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.]

It was a gleaming brass shoe on the rear edge of a plywood Origami chair that caught my eye and got me thinking. My tour group had settled into the sunset-hued Garden Room, where low seating is positioned directly across from windows that frame the horizon. Overhead, the ceiling glows with sunlight filtering in through canvas interior panels. The views of the Sonoran desert were alluring, but the shiny brass detail was captivating. Then I noticed that all of the Origami chairs in the room had them, golden shoes on the rear edges and on the front feet—simple decorative accents shimmering across the carpeted floor. The guide was talking about the lavish parties Wright hosted with his wife in this very room, and in my mind I saw ladies in cocktail dresses and gold baubles; I heard ice cubes clanking in tumblers. Was I the last to know that Frank Lloyd Wright was capable of fun and glamour?

These chairs were a departure from the erect, high-back designs I'd seen in Wright's Chicago and Wichita residences, and the thick, square armchairs collected by museums. I couldn't recall seeing such a pretty embellishment—maybe not even a mixed-material—in Wright's furnishings. Then again, on the way into the Garden Room, I'd also stopped to scrutinize a trio of fountains bobbing with colorful glass spheres. They had the patina of age—but they also looked like garden décor from Pier 1 Imports. Surely those were a posthumous addition, right? (They were not.) We were halfway through the tour, and I was starting to get the sense I had Wright all wrong. A visit to Taliesin West changed my views about the architect, and for the better.

[The dining room at Robie House.]

When I think of Frank Lloyd Wright, I think of strong lines, weighty wood, stained glass, and craftsmanship—characteristics of the late 19th- and early 20th-century Prairie School architecture I was exposed to in the Midwest. I've always liked his buildings and concepts, but when I first saw his work in person during a high school trip to Chicago in 1993, I have to admit it didn't quite sit right with me: it wasn't comfortable. The meticulous attention to detail felt uptight and stifling. I remember entering the dining room—I think it was the 1908 Robie House—and feeling practically scolded by the rigid formality of the lines for which he was known and praised. The slats on the backs of the tall chairs dropped to the floor with the verticality of a guillotine, and the way they were pulled in primly to the table created a cage-like density that seemed more exclusive than inviting. The stained glass reminded me of having to go to church, and elsewhere in the house, the broad exterior overhangs blocked light and cast shadows onto the ground. Wright, I thought, was dark, and heavy, and strict.

I don't want to sound like a complete downer—maybe the Robie House didn't strike me as beautiful, but the design had a highly principled order that achieved a sense of harmony. But all those lines read like enforcements, guidelines for staying within—after all, "lined" paper is "ruled;" see also: "Get in line;" "You're outta line;" a police line-up, etc. I got a sense of the rigidity even before we went inside, while observing the house and its low-pitched roof from the street. Perhaps a tour guide explained the influence of Japanese architecture in those broad overhangs, or that Wright's purpose for them here was to extend the feeling of space in the suburbs, but when it comes to understanding architecture, the experiential response outweighs the intellectual one, and the severity of the shadowy recesses looked sinister.

[The exterior of Robie House.]

I'm surprised I didn't look into Taliesin West before, but I think my ignorance can be traced to the regional lens through which I learned about the architect. I grew up outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Wright was from Wisconsin; Taliesin is in Spring Green. Grand Rapids is home to Wright's Meyer May House, a 1909 Prairie School design now managed by Steelcase. (Grand Rapids was once the country's Furniture City; now, Steelcase, Haworth, and Herman Miller are still based in the area.) With Prairie School homes dotting Michigan and neighboring states, Wright became synonymous with blending in with the flat landscape. He was a Midwesterner, one of our own, and his influence on local design, residential and commercial, continues to prevail.

[A panorama of Taliesin West. Photo by Andrew Pielage for Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.]

I was eager to leave the conservative, churchy Midwest, and to leave behind whatever design best exemplified it. (One quote of Wright's I learned in school: "I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.") I see now that the homes I was familiar with were residential commissions—built with clients in mind. It hadn't occurred to me that his own home, one in an arid climate, might be vastly different, but the tone with which people expressed amazement over Taliesin West was one I'd heard before about his use of oak, or stained glass, or the horizon. I wish I'd known sooner about the buoyant glass spheres, or happy hour in the Garden Room.

[Photo by Liz Arnold.]

No wonder I was the last guest to enter Taliesin West, when I stayed behind to Instagram the ceramic Chinese theater scenes embedded in a concrete post outside. I'd signed up for the signature 90-minute Insights tour, which included visits to the Wrights' private spaces as well as Wright's office, the Cabaret Theater, the Music Pavilion, and the grounds. The animated Chinese figurines struck me as oddly whimsical, too cute for what I understood of his sensibility. Didn't he like to avoid anything that had "no real use or purpose"? Wright bought them from City of Hankow Tassel Company in San Francisco's Chinatown. The 12 groupings, which represent the 12 repertoire dramas of the Chinese Imperial Theater, are placed around the property in a playful hide-and-seek. He must've really been in love, I thought—with his new third wife, Olga, 30 years his junior, or with the desert, or with this house, which he began in 1937 and worked on until his death in 1959. Or, I found myself thinking, what else may have influenced his evolution as an architect, from his more conservative Midwestern designs to this one in the West?

Nearby, outside Wright's office, two pairs of blue poles trimmed in red jut into the sky. They're on a perpendicular angle to the slanted roof and don't seem to have a function. I've since learned from preservationists that while the "spires" are now simply decorative, they did have an original purpose: to hold open the canvas flaps of the building before glass was installed. Still, it's quite a jaunty design element—he was having a little fun.

[Photo by Liz Arnold.]

Things took a more glamorous turn with the series of Mandarin red doors around the complex. Compared to the earthier, more sienna-toned Taliesin Red that Wright developed to match the mountains, the doors were fiery backdrops to brass handles of several shapely designs. The most elaborate, sparkling in direct sunlight, was a large Chinese dragon motif emblazoned on the double doors of the (rather flamboyantly named) Cabaret Theater. Inside, the theater passageway features blue and red triangles like pennants, alternating in color and direction, along one slanted wall, the same festive color combination on the poles and around the property.

Looking back, there were always hints of Wright's flair. The Storer House, which sits majestically high off the road in the Hollywood Hills, was on my route to and from a boyfriend's place when I lived in Los Angeles years ago. The detailed design of the textile blocks peeking out from behind the leafy trees was so beautiful that it always held my attention dangerously long, considering there are upcoming curves on either side of the house.

After this trip to Scottsdale, I went back to notes from a trip several years ago to the Allen-Lambe house in Wichita and noticed a telling detail I hadn't bothered to look into then. The guide had told us that some of the interior mortar was dyed "ochre," but when I examined my photos, the mortar had a distinct shimmer. Was it…metallic? Sure enough, the Allen-Lambe house is one of two Wright homes, according to the Washington Post, to feature gilded mortar. Now I'm not surprised to learn there is some at Taliesin West, too.

· Taliesin West [Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation]
· Wright's Taliesin West Set for Major Preservation Effort [Curbed National]
· Frank Lloyd Wright coverage [Curbed National]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed National]