No American architect, living or dead, commands the kind of recognition given to Frank Lloyd Wright.
Now, the foundation tasked with preserving and protecting his legacy wants to build on that substantial brand equity with new product licensing initiatives, expanded educational campaigns, and other efforts to “create more of a lifestyle brand.”
That’s the vision Stuart Graff, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, laid out for Curbed. He said the foundation’s new plans represent a continuation of Wright’s own goals to “help inspire people to live a more beautiful and comfortable life.”
“I think in the past, the focus was on serving the museum shops and serving Frank Lloyd Wright sites by creating souvenirs and memorabilia,” Graff says. “What we’re looking at now is how relevant he is to contemporary living.”
Currently, many potential projects and collaborations—including new furniture pieces, home goods, and even agreements to sell at new retail outlets—are still under discussion, with plans to start rolling out items in the fall and throughout 2020. The foundation is looking in an expanded line of products, including home furnishings, floor coverings, rugs, wall coverings, and home goods, as well as products such as masonry veneers, hardwood flooring, and architectural millwork, all with the aim of getting more of Wright’s work into contemporary homes.
Graff pointed to some existing and previous partnerships as examples of what to expect, such as Shigeru Ban’s reinterpretation of a Taliesin lamp for the Japanese brand Yamagiwa. The foundation is bringing in young designers to “remix” some of Wright’s fabric and other designs, and look at Wright through a contemporary lens.
Graff also envision a more robust, multichannel strategy, with items appearing in retail outlets as well as online. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation already has an Amazon page, but Graff believes online sales can grow.
The proceeds of any new product sales will go to the foundation, primarily to fund preservation at places like Taliesin East and West, and to fund publications and educational initiatives around Wright’s career and work. For instance, when products based on specific designs at specific Wright properties sell, such as the Tree of Life window at the Darwin Martin house, the specific site and foundation split the proceeds. Graff views the licensing platform as a “rising tide that lifts all boats” situation.
Every new product would need to meet the organization’s specific style guide, and receive permission from the foundation, which must also sign off on all packaging and marketing material.
This series of initiatives comes at a time when multiple forces are converging: Wright’s work continues to require funding for preservation, such as work on Taliesin West in Arizona and the recently restored Unity Temple outside Chicago; Wright remains broadly popular, having been the subject of a worldwide celebration of his 150th birthday in 2017; and since Graff took the helm in 2016, a number of new foundation staff have background in consumer products, licensing, and consumer research.
Graff served as a vice president for global paint and coatings manufacturer Valspar and a manager for the Parker and Waterman luxury fountain pen brands. Stephanie Pierotti, who will lead the foundation’s newly expanded licensing division, worked for Scott Living, a brand of Scott Brothers Global—Property Brothers Jonathan and Drew Scott—building it into a $200 million business.
“The one thing that we’ll never do is compromise quality,” says Graff. “The question we’ll ask ourselves is, ‘Does the channel represent Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy well?’ Remember, he spoke about the democratization of design, quality work that everybody can afford. How do we democratize this design and bring quality to everybody?”
These new initiatives, and increased focus on grant raising by Graff—$400,000 was raised last year, and $1 million has been committed this far in 2019—is a departure from the foundation’s troubled times in the 2000s, when a rapid-fire shuffle through chief executives, as well as dwindling finances, led some to suggest the organization would have to close by 2007. In 2005, former vice president Beverly Hart told an AP reporter, “We are an organization in chaos.”
Graff has made this licensing push part of his plans for the year, which include focusing on “evolving” both Taliesins, to make them more accessible and popular tourist sites, and focusing on a “forward-thinking approach to his legacy.”
Graff says that Wright’s design portfolio, ranging from Prairie School to modernist, is still work that’s indicative of the future. He especially wants to focus on designs from the later parts of his career, such as the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and Los Angeles textile block houses through the Guggenheim.
“We like the idea of members of the public who may only know Wright through projects such as Fallingwater becoming familiar with a whole new part of his work,” he says.
In addition, the foundation will assist with a upcoming arts show this summer debuting in collaboration with San Francisco’s Spoke Art Gallery. A group of contemporary artists will create posters promoting Wright’s famous works in the style of the WPA, the New Deal-era program that funded art and artists nationwide. The show will open in Taliesin West in June, then move to New York City in July.
The foundation also sees this new push as a follow-up of sorts to Wright’s own licensing legacy. Beginning in 1955, Wright started licensing some of his designs with brand such as Schumacher (fabrics, wall paper, and rugs) and Heritage-Henredon (furniture). Currently, about 50 brands license and sell Wright products in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, and bring in roughly $1 million annually. Graff wants to double that figure.
“There’s always a risk when you’re dealing with an iconic brand,” says Graff. “People feel if you don’t do it well, you can tarnish the legacy. Frank Lloyd Wright is known by so many people and embraced. We think there’s a big market out there, if we have the right products.”