Marion Mahony Griffin – Breaking Through

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

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7 comments

  1. Excellent article. As a fan of the Griffins, I feel lucky living in Australia which has such a strong link via our nation’s capital as well as suburban Sydney. Of course, I’m also a big fan of Wright and have my own blog on visiting the rebuilt facade of the Imperial Hotel outside Tokyo.

  2. Good that at last Marion Mahony is getting some recognition in her own right. Maybe this blog can be used to see if there is a chance to track down some missing drawings by Marion. It is a long shot but Marion did copies of the drawings she sent to Canberra in 1911 for the competition in silk. These were not sent to Australia but kept by the Griffins. Walter took some of Marion’s silk drawing to France on their trip to Europe before coming to Australia and left them with a city official called Bonnier who was going to have an exhibition on cities.He also sent others – I think these were the Canberra specific ones – for an exhibition in Lyon in the same year. 1914. Not sure but someone by the name of Garnier may have been involved in the Lyon exhibition. One was in May the other in June. The Griffins went to Australia and the First World War broke out. And they never saw these amazing works of art again. It would be great if someone could at least be able to sleuth out what happened to them. Walter wrote to a Paris city official called Bonnier several times including in 1920 to try to get some of them back but to no avail. Maybe the drawings were thrown out, but if there were a slim chance they were in an attic somewhere in Paris or Lyon it would be an historic event for both the US and Australia. Any ideas on how to pursue this? I guess it might need someone with an interest who was also in France to help. I can be more specific if there is anyone interested.
    regards
    Glenda Korporaal
    Sydney
    Australia

  3. thanks for that but I have already been there.
    They only have what they have been donated by marion and others.
    There are three places in the US which have her/their stuff.
    The Art Institute Museum, the Block Museum at Northwestern University and the Avery
    archictural library at Columbia University NYC. I have been to all three looking at Marion’s drawings etc and looked through their finding aides etc
    But all basically only have what has been donated to them or as a result of someone’s thesis eg Mark Peisch.
    And National library has the Nicholls collection but this is again stuff that Marion and Walter brought out to Australia which was left here when she went back home. They did not bring these drawings out with them, they never got them back after sending them to France.
    In this case Walter gave/sent copies of the 1911 drawings to two people/ conferences in
    France in 1914.
    So if they were anywhere they would be in France.
    Anyway thanks for the suggestion if I hadn’t done so it would have been a logical place
    to go. I guess there are not too many Griffin afficionados in France.
    I may try an Australia-France association.
    all the best
    Glenda Korporaal

  4. Thanks for that. There is a more up to date book on Marion called Marion Mahony Reconsidered edited by David Van Zanten a professor at Northwestern who wrote the first article on Marion as a separate person back in 1966. It is worth getting if you are interested in Marion,
    The book David Robertson did the intro for is an older one called MMG Drawing in the form of nature. Robertson is or has been the head of the Block Museum which has some of Marion’s works which were donated by her including some of her Forest portraits. they had a big exhibition of them all there in 2005 and that generated that book. I actually met him this June and he doesn’t know any more than what is in his collection there which was all donated by Marion whose family lived nearby the University in Rogers Park.
    Van Zanten, who is the real Griffin or Marion expert, was in Australia recently and we saw the 1911 original drawings in the archives in Canberra and both realised there were no silk drawings as in the ones talked about by Roy Lippincott in his much quoted comment about doing the drawings for Canberra.
    He, van Zanten, doesn’t know where the silk drawings are either but I think would also like to find them. He wants to recreate Marion and Walter’s trip to Europe in Feb/March/April 1914. I suspect the drawings are long gone but having seen the ones in Canberra if there was the slightest chance of finding the original silk drawings they would be truly amazing.
    Are you in Melbourne?
    There was a local paper in heidelberg which did a story on a man turning 100 there a few weeks ago.
    He said he had actually worked with Griffin. I suspect he must be in a nursing home
    somewhere. I rang the editor of the paper twice and he promised to ring back but didnt.
    If that person could remember something it could also generate something new on the Griffins. I would also love to get a description of the Capitol Theatre which explains it all in plain English.
    There may also be other of Marion’s work here in private collections. Some of her work
    was left in Australia with Eric Nicholls, Walter’s partner. A few years ago some of it was sold into private collections. It would be good if those could at least also be categorised and documented even if they are privately owned.
    all the best
    Glenda Korporaal

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