Frank Lloyd Wright is best known for his architecture, but a new exhibition sheds light on his relationship with decorative art

There’s plenty of inspiration to be had at the Kirkland Museum in Denver: paintings, sculptures, among a host of other items, of course. But the gift of a lamp is what inspired a new exhibit with a household name attached.

“Frank Lloyd Wright Inside the Walls” illuminates the relationship between Wright’s architecture – what he is best known for – and his decorative art, including this lamp.

A dozen of Wright’s building projects, including the Imperial Hotel (Tokyo), Price Tower (Oklahoma), and Austin House (South Carolina) are represented in the Kirkland Museum’s permanent collection of decorative arts . But it was the story of the lamp that gave the idea for this unique exhibition.

The lamp, however, did not start out as one lamp, but rather as two separate glass works of art. Frank Lloyd Wright’s glass expert, Julie Sloan, recognized glass art pieces as her designs. She learned that Wright had exhibited them as part of his 1907 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. For years afterwards, they fell off the art world’s radar.

Then in 1964, art collector Lewis Newman’s mother, Bertie Slutzky, found the pieces in an antique store in Chicago.

“She recognized it was Wright. She was a fan of his – a Wright enthusiast, I guess,” said exhibit co-curator Christopher Herron. “And she took the pieces to a local blacksmith and had them made into a lamp.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Kirkland Museum’s assistant curator, Christopher Herron, led the ‘Frank Lloyd Wright Inside the Walls’ installation, which highlights what is perhaps a lesser-known side of the famous architect, with artefacts from decorative arts designed by Wright from the museum’s permanent collection which formed part of his various architectural projects.
220616-KIRKLAND-FRANK-LLOYD-WRIGHTHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Formal tableware designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, part of “Inside the Walls” at the Kirkland Museum in Denver. The exhibition highlights what is a lesser-known side of the famous architect, with decorative art objects designed by Wright from the museum’s permanent collection that were part of his various architectural projects.

The lamp ended up with Newman, who displayed it in his own window for years after receiving it as a graduation gift from his mother.

“He tells this story of how he lived in an apartment in New York City and he had this lamp in the window and it was just shining and people could see it from the street,” said the exhibit’s co-curator. Becca Goodrum. “So it was kind of in public view, but not really, but you could see it in their window, which I think is a really cute story.”

In 2018, Newman and her husband gave it to the founding director of the Kirkland Museum, Hugh Grant, for his collection.

Another highlight of the exhibit is an office chair designed by Wright for the SC Johnson family business headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin, a building he also designed. The exhibition not only showcases Wright’s “total work of art” approach – or gesamtkunstwerk – but also how even he could revise his pieces in the face of practical concerns.

“The curator we spoke to about the SC Johnson company called it a problematic piece of furniture because it had three legs.” said Goodrum. “He wanted this chair to force you to have good posture. And you had to sit perfectly and really not move a muscle so you wouldn’t tip over. He got a lot of complaints, but he was reluctant to change the design…until he fell off a chair. And he finally said, ‘Oh, okay people, I guess you’re right. I will redesign the chair to give it four legs,” like our example at the Kirkland Museum.

The type of branding common to today’s lifestyle brands and designers also has a direct line to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Color was such an essential part of his work that Wright partnered with Martin Senour Paints in 1955. And that was not all.

220616-KIRKLAND-FRANK-LLOYD-WRIGHTHart Van Denburg/CPR News
“Frank Lloyd Wright Inside the Walls” at the Kirkland Museum in Denver highlights a lesser-known side of the famous architect, with decorative art objects designed by Wright from the museum’s permanent collection that were part of his various architectural projects.
220616-KIRKLAND-FRANK-LLOYD-WRIGHTHart Van Denburg/CPR News
A desk chair designed in 1937 by Frank Lloyd Wright for the SC Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin. It is part of “Frank Lloyd Wright Inside the Walls” at the Kirkland Museum in Denver, which highlights what is perhaps a lesser-known side of the famous architect, with decorative art objects designed by Wright from the permanent collection of the museum which were part of his various architectural projects.

“He worked with the Hendon furniture company at the same time, producing a mass-produced line of his own furniture,” Herron said. “So the idea was, I guess you could create your own Wright environment or a Wright-inspired environment in your home. And the paints that we used were from some of his original Martin Senour paint palettes that we were able to So the greens and golds of early arts and crafts give way to… what he called the Cherokee red floors of later work.

The most well-known American architect of our time, Frank Lloyd Wright, built furniture and interior fittings as part of his concept of a complete work of art, in addition to the famous buildings for which he is most known. And at the Kirkland Museum exhibit, Wright’s furniture, tableware and art glass are all displayed in their original settings, giving a glimpse of Wright’s unified vision of a total work of art.

“Frank Lloyd Wright Inside The Walls” is on view at the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art in Denver until January 8, 2023.

About Eric Hudkins

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