Frank Lloyd Wright

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


The Wright Way: A Lack of a National Style

“Form follows function-that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union” – Frank Lloyd Wright

Later this week, I will be taking a short trip to visit a Frank Lloyd Wright home in nearby Hampshire, Illinois. I used to drive by the sprawling Dana Thomas House in Springfield almost every night after work. But for me, this Usonian homestead will be a glimpse into the past of what could have been and a glimpse into the future of what could be.

In 1870, Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother told him he was a genius at the age of three. He never forgot that. He never let anyone else forget it either. His career as an architect and designer would see many phases and styles in between  personal catastrophes and affairs of the heart that threatened to bring down his life and career.  Through it all, Wright’s vision of what a building or  a home should be never wavered.

Wright started not with a style but with an idea, a Weltanschauung, a principle, which he called “organic architecture.” What he meant by it was that humans are part of nature, subject to the laws, rhythms and mysteries of nature and happiest if they live in harmony with it, and their dwellings should reflect this unity inside and out.1

Wright’s career started out as a draftsman for the great Louis Sullivan. Wright quickly moved up the ladder at Sullivan’s firm but was fired for moonlighting by designing homes for clients on his own. In what became known as the Prairie Style, Wright’s use of the horizontal proved to be earth shattering in the field of architecture. By 1910, his design made him America’s most ell known architect. For the next 25 years years, personal problems overshadowed Wright’s career. He barely hung on.

By the early 1930s, Wright’s home life stabilized enough that he and his new wife started having apprentices come out to Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. It was here that Wright would revitalize his career with Falling Water. It was also during this time period that Wright began designing what he called Usonian homes. The home itself is a mixture of two things – simplicity and a supposed affordability. While the houses were simplistic, they were not quite as affordable as planned.

Many times throughout his career, Wright had hoped to create a national style of home. First came textile block homes followed by others. They never caught on. Usonian homes did not either. Although, the influence of Wright can be seen in the single level ranch homes built in many subdivisions. But for Wright, his designs for the masses never captured the attention of the masses enough to create a national style. Why is that?
1. Wright was a great architect and designer. But he wanted too much control over aspect of the houses from the furniture to the ornaments to the design of the glass.
2. Cost – Initially, the Usonian home was to only be $5000, but Wright could never manage money very well. Cost over runs along with using sub standard materials meant the houses were having to totally rebuilt within five to ten years.
3. Aesthetics – While pleasing to the eye, the use of space nature in a Usonian home was fine for the family living in it, it’s horizontal design does not mesh well in urban planning. The Usonian home is better suited to wide spaces and should not be confined by the grid systems of most communities.
4. Individuality – Who wants a home like a everyone else? While the ranch home may come close to a national style in American Architectural history, the idea that everyone else has a home just like you is not pleasing. Despite subdivision conformity, even today, the use of landscaping can create that individuality.

In the end, Wright still influences designers today. His horizontal lines and unique meshing of nature and home are taken into account whenever a home is built by many architects. Despite his personal wishes, Wright’s Utopian vision of Usonian homes may have been way ahead of his time and it may never come to pass.

Von Eckardt, Wolf . “Reassessing the Wright Stuff”. Time Magazine. September 12, 1983.