Prairie School

Marion Mahony Griffin – Breaking Through

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I have a soft spot for Marion Mahony Griffin. A large part of that stems from the fact that Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the biggest jerks in the world, the other part comes from her amazing talent. At a time when women were not career oriented, Marion Mahony Griffin lived and breathed architecture. Along with her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, they helped to reshape architecture here in the United States and spread the “Prairie School” style to Australia and India. It was not always an easy task, but for Marion Mahony Griffin, it was her life.

Born in Chicago in 1871, she became one of the first female architects in the country after receiving her degree from MIT in 1894. She briefly worked for her cousin Dwight Perkins before switching jobs to work for Frank Lloyd Wright in 1895. It was in Wright’s employ that the then Marion Mahony stood out. First, she was Wright’s first employee. Second, her work, influenced by Japanese prints helped make Wright’s career. Mahony became not only an architect but also helped design much of the inside of a Wright home including lead glass, murals, mosaics, furniture, and other assorted fixtures. If it was up to Wright, no one would have ever heard of Miss Mahony. He liked to make people think that the “Prairie School” was all his vision. In fact, according to Mahony, Louis Sullivan was the originator of the style. Wright, however, liked to take credit wherever he could including Mahony’s work. Barry Byrne, a member of Wright’s studio recalled:

“She was the most talented member of Frank Lloyd Wright’s staff … Mr. Wright would occasionally sit at Marion’s board and work on her drawings, and I recall one hilarious occasion when his work ruined the drawing. On that occasion Andrew Willatzen, an outspoken member of the staff, loudly proclaimed that Marion Mahony was Wright’s superior as a draftsman. As a matter of fact, she was. Wright took the statement of her superiority equably.”

In 1910, the Wasmuth Portfolio was published. It was a collection of Lithographs of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work up to that time. However, over half of the 100 lithographs in the collection were actually the work of Miss Mahony. The collection would be influential through Europe on future architects.

Marion's drawing of a Frank Lloyd Wright Home in Springfield, Illinois

It was during her 14 year tenure working for Wright that Marion grew as an architect and in her drawings. It was also where and when she would meet her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, also a Wright employee. In 1909, Wright had up and gone off to Europe in a scandalous affair. His firm had been sold. Mahony and Griffin stayed on with their new employer von Holst for a while before marrying and starting their own firm. They would not stay long in the states. They did however have a huge impact on the Prairie School before they left.

The Griffins in Australia

In addition to Walter’s work, Marion designed homes herself. The Mueller family of Decatur, Illinois had several elegant prairie style homes designed by Miss Griffin. In addition, near Mason City, Iowa at a place called Rock crest Rock Glen, the largest collection of prairie style homes in existence were designed by the Griffins.

A Mueller home in Decatur, Illinois designed by Miss Mahony

Together, the couple wanted to achieve great things. Australia was having a contest to design their new capital city from Scratch. With Walter’s designs and Marion’s drawing of his designs, Walter won the contract to design Canberra, Australia. The couple left the US in 1914. Over the next 25 years, the couple worked together in Australia, India, and the US designing hundreds of homes and buildings. Along the way, Marion took meticulous notes and even more so, meticulous records of their work. In the 1930s, Marion would publish their life together abroad in a book called: The Magic of America. The 1300 page work is staggering in its content and context.

A drawing for Canberra by Marion Mahony Griffin - I just love not only the style, colors, and layout, but look at the font design.
Notice the influence of Japanese prints on her work
Notice the influence of Japanese prints on her work

Professor Alice T. Friedman speaks eloquently of Marion’s work. She states,

For Mahony, who was raised in a world that fostered gender equality and collaboration in a range of pursuits — from progressive educational philosophies that redefined the nature of teaching and learning, to shared household management and economic interdependence among family members and friends, to political activism in campaigns for women’s suffrage and improved working conditions — being an architect and a collaborator were not mutually exclusive conditions. On the contrary, they were the building blocks of her identity as a professional, as a social reformer, and as a woman.

Friedman a professor of the History of American Art at Wellesley College wrote a very extensive piece that goes into more detail than this short little blog.

But here’s the crux of it: Marion Mahony Griffin was a trailblazer. She was unlike any other professional woman from that era. In fact, professional women from the era are few. In addition to her architecture, Marion Mahony Griffin’s drawings have left an indelible mark on design and decor. For several years, as a history fair advisor, I have been trying to get some of my students to tackle her as a topic. She would be difficult. But once a thesis was developed the project would unfold with Marion’s art at the center.

The logo of Marion Mahony Griffin