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How Designer Russel Wright and His Midcentury Estate Forecasted the American Home

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The home and quarry pool at Manitoga, Russel Wright's residence in Garrison, New York. As part of the home's artist in residency program, Stephen Talasnik built a series of floating reed structures on view this season. All images provided by Manitog
The home and quarry pool at Manitoga, Russel Wright's residence in Garrison, New York. As part of the home's artist in residency program, Stephen Talasnik built a series of floating reed structures on view this season. All images provided by Manitog

When you step into the secret room Russel Wright carved out for himself at Manitoga, the industrial designer's midcentury estate in Garrison, New York, the vision he had for the site comes into focus. Carefully sculpted from a former granite quarry in the Hudson Valley, it's a home that not only reflects nature, but resides in it. You can admire views of the large, day lily-lined quarry pool, fed by a waterfall Wright specifically designed with 15 cascades for its aesthetic and acoustic properties. If the breeze is strong enough, you can marvel at the movements of the "Martha Graham Girls," a grove of landscaped grey birch trees that move like modern dancers in the wind. And you can view the entire residence, a low-slung, Japanese-style, glass-encased home and studio that seem to organically rise out of the rock.

In 1962, LIFE Magazine featured the property, dubbed "A Wonderful House to Live In," as the first private home ever published in the magazine. Russel Wright was so prolific for his time that Herman Miller mastermind George Nelson once said he was the designer most responsible for the shift to modern design in the 1930s. He worked out of his home studio, but would retire to the "secret room" he designed as part of the landscape, accessible via a hidden path among plants and overgrowth.

Now best known for designing a best-selling brand of tableware, Wright had a genius for organic design that found it apotheosis at the home and grounds of Manitoga. "Anybody who goes to Manitoga can't fail to be bewitched by the whole vision," says Juliet Kinchin, a curator at the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art. "It's such a spiritual, recuperative space, and a comprehensive vision."

The 1962 LIFE Magazine article about Wright's home at Manitoga. His daughter Ann nicknamed it Dragon Rock, due to the shape of the massive piece of granite across the pool.

While the exterior of the home and studio were designed by architect David Leavitt, the interiors at Manitoga—filled with custom furniture and natural materials—were a summation of Russel Wright's career. The home offers a vision of modernity that, like Fallingwater, offers a synthesis of nature and forward-thinking design. It's seen by many as an interesting coda in a career often associated with dishes, specifically the American Modern line of tableware made by Steubenville Pottery, that sold millions and firmly established Wright and his late wife and partner, Mary, as tastemakers. Even Andy Warhol once quipped that he collected American Modern because "Fiestaware was too expensive, and who's good after him [Wright]?"

"The phenomenal success of the American Modern line, which supposedly sold something like 250 million pieces, may be exaggerated," says Kinchin. "But it's an indication of its phenomenal appeal, the functionality. The pricing was right, and it exuded this organic, sensual, humanist appeal."

But in the decades before Manitoga, the Wrights were about more than popular dinnerware; their intuitive, humanist design and marketing savvy built a lifestyle empire that modernized the American home, popularizing ideas of open-plan layouts and outdoor living. They were the Martha Stewart of their day (who, by the way, admits they were big influences), and have a proto-self-help book, the 1950s bestseller Guide to Easier Living, to their credit.

Russel and Mary Wright. A talented designer in her own right, Mary was considered the marketing genius who help make Wright a household name.

Visits to Manitoga/The Russel Wright Design Center begin with a short video narrated by Garrison Keillor. It's a fitting, and comforting, biographical sketch. Wright, born in Lebanon, Ohio, in 1904 to Quaker parents, doesn't necessarily fit the avant-garde profile one might expect of someone who helped bring modern design to mainstream America. He eventually made his mark in New York, but his first passion was the theater.

After studying architecture at Princeton for a year, Wright dropped out and started working in Manhattan with Norman Bel Geddes on set design, later branching off into summer-stock work. Geddes, who would become a famous product designer and the creator of the mammoth Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair, was known for theatrical, modernist set designs and windows displays, and was a formative influence on the young designer. While Wright never enjoyed the success his mentor had in theater, the role of set designer, and the theatrical presentation and concept of creating space for a narrative, would become important aspects of his later design work.

Russel Wright at Work in his New York studio. One of his core philosophies was "good design is for everyone."

It was his wife who saw his potential to go beyond the stage and design for the American home. In the late '20s, Mary Wright (née Einstein), niece of the famous physicist and daughter of a prosperous textile manufacturer, convinced him to take the papier-mâché animals he was building as props and turn them into metal bookends. Wright was soon experimenting with cocktail accessories in chrome, a material that was too expensive for a mass market, which led him to try spun aluminum. It was the first of many insights from Mary, a talented designer in her own right, that would help market the couple's work. According to Donald Albrecht, a design curator who organized a Russel Wright exhibition for Cooper Hewitt, Mary was a marketing mastermind who created a lifestyle brand before the term even existed.

Russel Wright began turning toward more functional objects, creating pieces that managed to look both modern while not alienating the American public with too large of an aesthetic leap. With the mantra "Good design is for everyone," Wright would often rail against "style dictators" such as Emily Post, insisting they were European and aristocratic, as opposed to American and egalitarian. In the Depression, you may not have the money to do a formal sit-down dinner, he'd say, but you can entertain with a buffet: it's equally impressive and elegant. Wright initially started working in silver and pewter, traditional materials for tableware, but switched to spun aluminum to achieve a more middle-class price point. (Which isn't to say it wasn't recognized by the design establishment: Philip Johnson included Wright's aluminum pieces in his landmark 1934 Machine Art exhibition at MoMA.) Likewise, his clean-lined modern furniture was typically made in maple, which Wright labeled "the wood of our forefathers."

"The Wrights would talk about the idea, embedded in our Declaration of Independence, that everyone should have the ability to define their own environments," says Albrecht. "He would apply national ideals to the home, couch it in an Americanist cast. They understood the public didn't want to go 100 percent modern, so they combined it with the traditional. Spun aluminum was less expensive than sterling or pewter, and he rubbed it with an emory cloth to give it the fine finish of pewter. He'd do this throughout his whole career, mix the modern and traditional to appeal to the American homeowner."

The American Modern line of tableware.

A children's set of American Modern tableware.
The apex of this idea was the American Modern line of ceramic dinnerware, introduced in 1939 and manufactured by Steubenville Pottery. The curvy, organic shape of the plates and serving dishes were "Surrealism applied to dinnerware," according to Albrecht, but the pieces became a runaway hit due to the natural forms and approachable price point; it was affordable and just modern enough. The line was so popular at Macy's that new stock signaled a consumer frenzy, and the retailer sought to divert customers to temporary warehouse stores. Once, the company even sold plates out of a rail car that was being used to transport the tableware.

"Macy's, Marshall Field's, Bullock's," says Albrecht. "The big department stores loved him because you could find his work in different parts of the store. That kind of cross-promotion had been done before, but not in a modern way."

Each plate also exemplified the Wrights' marketing savvy; flip one over, and you'll find his signature on the bottom. The couple fit right into the role of domestic icons, constantly marketing their work, writing articles about their design theories, and mastering the art of mass media promotion. During a 1949 presentation at Bloomingdale's aimed at showing off their new dishwasher-safe line, a wise adjustment to the realities of the appliance-filled postwar home, Russel dumped a bin of just-washed dishes on a metal table to show their durability. The New York Times piece hyping the demo noted that "even the most butter-fingered husband could be trusted to wash the Wright's casual china."

By the late '40s, Wright's work, and the couple's growing influence, was at its height, espousing a casually elegant philosophy and looser type of refinement that fit perfectly with the contemporary American mindset. The couple wrote their own Bible for interior design in 1950, Guide to Easier Living, which immediately became a bestseller. Espousing open floor plans and more relaxed and informal dining (the picnic, according to the book, should be the basis for modern dining), the beautifully illustrated book showcased a vision of modern interior design that was a perfect fit for Wright products. It also was the first such guide to tap into the massive societal shift towards modern suburban dwellings, accelerated by the post-war housing boom. "Their book was hugely successful," says Kinchin. "You can trace the tradition of books about household taste and good design right back to the 1860s, to Charles Eastlake's Hints on Household Taste. The idea of talking in a direct way, both to housewives, professional architects and designers, about the need for practical aesthetically pleasing design in the home, it's not a new format."

Russel Wright directing workers moving boulders at Manitoga.

But just as the Wright's creative partnership had reached an apex, Mary died of cancer in 1952. The couple had recently adopted a daughter, Ann, and Russel decided to retreat from the spotlight. Instead of staying at his Manhattan home, his focus turned to developing a tract of land he had purchased with Mary in 1942 in New York, where he would eventually reside full time. Wright would continue working on products, playing with the possibilities of plastics and creating a nature-inspired line called Flair, which embedded real leaves inside melamine plates, but he would devote much of his energy to his home. A master of cool modernism, Wright may have seemed out of step with the coming era of colorful, nature-inspired psychedelic design, but Wright, and Manitoga, may have been more in sync than many admit.

"In the '50s, he's anticipating the DIY, be-yourself, do-it-your-own-way, back-to-nature philosophy," says Albrecht. "What's ironic is after telling everyone what to do and trying to be as egalitarian and universal as possible, he creates this extremely personal home. He clearly says this isn't a demonstration house; it's my individual interpretation of my ideals. Do your own things with my ideas, I'm not asking you to live in a house like this, it's more about the principles that you can apply to your own home."

Construction at Manitoga started in 1957 and Russel and Ann moved in in 1961, though the design was never truly finished. Nicknamed "Dragon Rock" by Ann, due to the massive granite stone across the quarry pond, the home became a testing ground for Wright to learn how to merge the manmade with the natural. Material experiments were the norm: He embedded pressed butterflies and ferns from the property into sliding glass panels in the bathroom, and covered another door covered in birch bark on one side and Formica on the other. One ceiling was covered in green epoxy embedded with white pine needles. His studio (which still contains a vintage pack of Salems sitting on his Formica desk) was illuminated by an early example of fluorescent lighting, covered in burlap strung up on fishing line to reduce the light's harsh glare. Not every idea was a roaring success (the ceiling above the main hallway was covered in styrofoam, for example) but they all informed Wright's continued experimentation.

Built into granite, the multi-leveled, rock-covered home and studio didn't seem built as much as they were shaped and carved. Ever the set designer, Wright was determined to control lighting, sound, and color, starting with the grounds. He meticulously tended the paths surrounding the structure, rearranging trees and even stones. He didn't believe anyone could cut stone as finely as nature, and neighbors remember him hiring them to help move the massive pieces of granite around the yard. The granite on which the home sits rises like a rim around the quarry pool in the center of the site, with hills and rings of paths moving further up the rising terrain. When guests arrived at the house's carport, Wright would bring them toward a curtain of vines covering the adjacent pergola, then sweep it open, providing a dramatic entrance and view of the grounds.

Russel Wright at Manitoga.

Furniture, from doors that snugly fit into the walls and a lounge chair set against a raised platform that uses the higher level as an armrest, encourages flow and circulation. The surface of the dinner table, perched in a corner with views of the waterfall, can be unscrewed and replaced with a larger top for bigger parties. The entire home, from the large window treatments to a flippable panel of paintings (turkey or blackbird), can be adjusted for the seasons. There was a certain oddball charm to Wright's last major work; his daughter once complained about having to sweep up the living room floors, which were basically rocks and boulders. And, of course, the vision of him sitting in his secret room may seem a little eccentric. But, if a central question of modern design is how to create human-centric, natural spaces, working amid the ferns and hemlocks seems like as good a place as any to figure it all out.

"There's a dialogue between the product design and the house," says Albrecht. "He's got pine needles in the walls. He's bringing nature inside. He tries to find an organic way to do it, which is characteristic of modern design."

Why The World Is Obsessed With Midcentury Modern Design [Curbed]