In 1901, the renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was 34 years old and finally, as he would recall in his autobiography, designing in a way ‘which was now really my own’.
Wright had been running his own architecture practice for nine years and developing his own style, increasingly inspired by nature and natural materials. His Ward W. Willits House in Highland Park, Illinois, completed that year, was the result of this period of experimentation. The building is now seen as the first masterpiece of Wright’s Prairie house style, an aesthetic he continued to champion over the next decade.
Wright’s client, Ward Winfield Willits, was seven years older than the architect and a self-made man. From humble beginnings in a railroad town on the edge of Illinois, Willits had become vice-president of Adams and Westlake, a major manufacturer of railway supplies in Chicago, by the age of 32. Now in his early forties, he was on track to becoming the company’s president — a position he achieved in 1904.
It is believed that Willits and Wright met in 1900 through a mutual colleague called Orlando Giannini, who worked with Willits but designed for Wright on the side. Willits commissioned Wright to build a new home for his family of six. The building was completed a year later, with the interiors and furniture finished by 1902.
The Ward W. Willits House
Wright’s house for Willits drew inspiration from the surrounding landscape. On the outside, the building’s low roofs and extended sides created long, horizontal lines, mirroring the sweeping expanse of the rolling American Midwest prairie — features that earned the Prairie house its name.
Inside, four large rooms were built around a central fireplace, Wright’s symbol of family unity. Wood panelling was complemented by floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out into the garden. While many of these elements had featured in his previous projects, they were fully mastered in unison for the first time at the Willits house.
Wright also designed all the furniture for the house. Of these, his armless dining chairs with tall backrests are now considered among the most iconic and desirable of all his chair designs.
‘Each set of furniture that Wright created was bespoke for that commission. But the Willits dining chairs are unique for being the most skeletal and pared down,’ explains Michael Jefferson, our Senior Specialist in 20th Century Design in Chicago.
Every other dining chair that Wright created before or after contained some sort of embellishment, trim or tapered leg, but he ‘did away with all ornamentation with the Willits chairs’, states Jefferson. ‘Nothing had ever looked this geometric and sparse in chair design.’
Willits’s suite of 11 oak dining chairs — a set of six with very high backs and a set of five with slightly shorter backs — would have been placed around a matching dining table. Together, their tall backrests formed a new space enclosing the diners from the rest of the room.
The shorter ‘intermediate-backed’ chairs, Jefferson points out, were not ‘side chairs’ to be used in another room, as some have claimed. ‘The dining chairs were meant to have this alternating high-and-low composition around the table,’ our specialist explains. ‘It’s a part of the groundbreaking way that Wright wanted to manipulate the space.’
Of this set of five intermediate-backed chairs, four will be offered in two sets of two in our Design auction in New York on 13 December.
Willits continued to live in his Wright-designed house until his death in 1954. Sometime between then and the passing of his wife Cecilia in 1957, the house was purchased by a new owner and the furniture subsequently sold off.
Some pieces in the Willits dining suite have since entered the collections of international museums: high-back dining chairs were acquired by the Saint Louis Art Museum, The Met and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, while an armchair is now in High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
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The four remaining intermediate-back chairs from the set were purchased by a couple who themselves lived in a house designed by Wright, and have remained in their collection ever since.
‘It’s so rare to see an early design by Wright come fresh to the market, particularly in original condition and from such an important commission,’ says Jefferson.
The market for Frank Lloyd Wright furniture
Many such pieces were sold in the 1980s, during a peak in interest for the architect’s work. Indeed, a high-back Willits dining chair set a world auction record when it fetched $198,000 at Christie’s on 12 December 1986. The only Willits oak armchair to have appeared at auction since 1986 realised $127,000 in 2001.
These four chairs should do exceptionally well at auction, says Jefferson. ‘Recently there has been a renewing interest in Wright’s work, particularly with collectors in Asia,’ he explains. ‘We also see collectors who are focused on the very best of any furniture design. These Willits dining chairs represent the best of both.’