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PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE CHICAGO ESTATE
Rediscovery of Lost Masterpieces by Frank Lloyd Wright: Four Chairs from the Ward W. Willits House
Over the course of centuries more was often better than less. Ornamentation signaled richness and richness equaled power. The progression of the arts in painting and within the built environment in architecture in Europe had created monuments to power and city plans that channeled the classical architecture of Greece and Rome. Chicago, however, was an incubator for something new. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 had leveled the City and it created a clean slate for a new urban plan and opportunities for a new American aesthetic unlike anything before.
As a showcase for the newly rebuilt city and the optimism of the age, Chicago hosted the world’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893. A young Frank Lloyd Wright worked for Louis Henry Sullivan, and under his mentorship, Wright gained the confidence to express his genius. Sullivan drew his own brilliance from nature, applying the structures and pattern observable in natural forms to build and adorn his architecture. Wright, starting his own practice in 1895, took the influence of nature as well, refining and distilling it to its essence. Wright wanted something new, not simply an imitation of nature, but works that were in harmony with nature, as if they had grown out of the environment in which they were built.
The Prairie Style that Frank Lloyd Wright created could not have originated in any other city than Chicago and in any other country than the United States. Horizontality was a distinctly American concept, with open, unadulterated spaces that were not possible in Europe whose history was developed for centuries longer than the US. From the landscapes at the edges of cities and a flat, open prairie, Wright drew forth a new creative visual language that revolutionized the world we live in.
Frank Lloyd Wright considered a different embodiment of nature: the sky above, the ground below and the horizon in between. These principle coordinates were then manipulated, creating a plastic space where verticals and horizontals pulled and pushed space away from the central axis. Pure geometry in western architecture up until this point had been inferred though theoretical compositional studies and now stood stark and clear in the built work of Frank Lloyd Wright.
In the final years of the 19th century, Wright pushed his principles of geometric and organic design culminating the greatest masterpiece of residential building of the Prairie style, the Ward W. Willits house of 1901. Situated on a large lot in Highland Park, Illinois, the Willits house, with its cruciform plan that pushed away from the central core of the house, accentuated the horizontal. Decorative line work was applied to the exterior, and long, unified eaves overhang the bands of ribbon windows set with simplified geometric panes of art glass.
Within the space, Wright created a dining room suite that distilled the ideals of pure geometry to the most essential shapes. The extraneous details of the dining chairs found in Wright’s own dining room and applied trim work of the Husser House (1899) and Hickox House (1900) were removed. The Willits house chairs feature a solid trapezoidal seat frame which have no taper to the front legs. The highly vertical backrest is framed by rear legs that taper gently as it reaches its lofty apex at the top. Before this design, chair design had never been so skeletal with such a pure geometric silhouette and with optical properties creating transparency and planar opacity to the backrests depending on the vantage point in the room. Beyond the specific characteristics of the individual chairs the Willits dining room was a plastic and dynamic geometric space where chairs were placed in a non-hierarchical pattern around the table, with six tall back and five intermediate back chairs set at intervals or pulled back to the edges of the room. The verticality of the dining room in the central core of the house drew its energy in contrast to the extreme horizontality of the house into the environment.
The linear geometry of the Willits chair created a revolution in chair design and was a catalyst for change in architecture and the arts. When the early works by Frank Lloyd Wright were exhibited in Berlin in 1910 and subsequently published in the Wasmuth Portfolio in 1911, it triggered a thinking and application of the new, geometric basis for conceiving the world. These designs influenced Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, ushered in the DeStijl movement in the Netherlands leading to paintings by Piet Mondrian and planar chairs by Gerrit Reitveld. Pure geometric painting was distilled to its essence over a decade later by Kasmir Malevich who in 1914, created paintings that were only one shape floating on a ground. Geometric buildings and chairs in the 1920s at the Bauhaus were a further distillation of the ideals Wright set forward two decades earlier. There is no overstatement in declaring that the chairs of the Willits dining room are near the bedrock of Modernism and they stand as one of the most important works of design of the twentieth century.
The four chairs from the dining room of the Ward W. Willits house represent the rediscovery of lost masterpieces of world art. The chairs of the Willits dining room suite had remained in the Willits house from 1902 until the passing of the Willitses in the early 1950s, when the house and its contents were sold to a new owner. Other examples of Willits chairs eventually found their way into museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Victoria & Albert Museum in London, The St. Louis Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Three other tall back chairs remain in private hands. The four intermediate chairs presented here remained in a private family collection since they were acquired from the Ward W. Willits House in the 1950s and as such, no contemporary photographs of the four chairs have heretofore been published. True masterpieces, the works are presented here for the first time to the public.