Designing a `Total Environment'
IMAGINE the pride, pleasure, - and relief - of commissioning a distinguished architect to design your new home and its furniture, too. This seemingly novel all-in-one approach is hardly a new concept. Gustav Stickley, this country's arts-and-crafts master, did it. Walter Gropius of the German-based, industrial design-minded Bauhaus School often created the furnishings for his buildings. Augustus Welby Pugin codified the Gothic Revival style in this manner in 19th-century England. The California architectural firm of Charles Sumner Greene and his brother, Henry Mather Greene, inspired by Pugin, created ``total environments'' at the turn of the century. And, today, post-modernist Michael Graves is an adherent of the house-cum-furnishings philosophy.
But, chances are, Alexander Jackson Davis and Frank Lloyd Wright are the best known among past American architects who underscored this kind of consistency.
Davis was a romanticist whose ``cottages'' and villas with their crenelated fancies, square towers, and cathedral-like arched and pointed windows were the first hint that the Gothic Revival style, already popular in England, was soon to sweep the United States.
Davis was influenced by Pugin. But, perhaps even more by the effect of the powerful cliff-top overlooking the Hudson Valley, a stretch of land following the Hudson River and an easy trip from Davis' home in New York City. Davis loved the region. He sensed that a forceful yet pictorial type of architecture would enhance it with the bold irregular outlines, emphasis on the vertical, and the deep dramatic shadows of the Gothic Revival style.
As he turned his dream into structures, he punctuated the romantic style with complementary interiors and furnishings. He designed furniture that is bold in concept and strongly architectural. But it also has a delicacy and, sometimes, a bit of whimsy not usually associated with the Gothic.
His chair backs frequently resemble the cathedral-like window shapes of his buildings. Chair legs are similar to octagonal or clustered-column architectural designs. The feet are either modified animal-foot designs, modified spade forms, or covered with vine and leaf carvings derived from Gothic architectural ornamentation motifs.
Lyndhurst, the great marble ``castle'' posed over the Hudson River in Tarrytown, N.Y., is probably the most dramatic remaining example of Davis' creativity - and of the Gothic Revival style. Davis built it for Gen. William Paulding, a former New York City mayor.
In 1838 when Davis began to design the house, he is said to have presented 50 designs for furniture to his client. Davis appears to have designed furniture for ``Knoll,'' as the house was then called, for a decade. By 1848, the building was thoroughly Gothic, inside and out, with both built-ins and movable pieces.
Davis provided Lyndhurst with especially notable chairs, some featuring ``wheelbacks'' with fancy gears, square seats, and Gothic-detail legs. He also designed chairs with typically Gothic pointed backs.
For the estate's second owner, George Merrit, a wealthy merchant, Davis created a dining table in the style of Pugin, the recognized leader of the English ecclesiastic Gothic Revival style.
The table, still in place at Lyndhurst, has a massive center base fashioned with molded columns interspersed by Gothic arched panels and tracery. It is especially well-scaled for the room and appropriate to the social needs of the Merrit family and, from 1880, the last private owner, railroad tycoon Jay Gould.
Twentieth-century architect Frank Lloyd Wright also had strong convictions about the importance of designing the furniture for his houses.
In his book, ``The Natural House'' (Horizon Press, New York, 1954), Wright wrote: ``Every house worth considering as a work of art must have a grammar of its own. `Grammar,' in this sense, means the same thing in any construction whether it be of words or of stone or wood. It is the shape relationship between the various elements that enter into the constitution of the thing. The `grammar' of the house is its manifest articulation of all its parts. When the chosen grammar is finally adopted, walls, ceilings, furniture, etc., become inspired by it. Everything has a related articulation in relation to the whole and all belongs together; looks well together because all together are speaking the same language.''
Wright's buildings featured functional qualities and materials and lines that are integrated with the surroundings. His furniture provides an uninterrupted flow. This includes the pieces he designed for his so-called ``Usonian'' houses intended for people of moderate means. (The word ``Usonian'' is believed to have been coined from ``Usonia,'' the name of a never-completed, affordably priced community in Pleasantville, N.Y., planned by Wright and his apprentices. Wright did, however, create relatively low-cost homes in other areas. It is reported, for example, that, in the 1920s and 1930s he designed smaller houses for approximately $5,000. And in New York City in 1953, he built a demonstration Usonian house for approximately $15,000.)
The 1951-52 Zimmerman house, a recent gift to the Currier Gallery of Art in Manchester, N.H., may be typical of one of Wright's Usonian plans that included the furniture. The house is a strong geometric statement of glazed red brick, cast concrete, and clear red Georgia cypress positioned on a wooded hilltop. The exterior materials are repeated inside. And the furniture, designed for the house by Wright, achieves the consistency he believed vital to the overall effect. The low, flowing pieces are, for the most part, of the same warm color cypress used for the ceiling. The furniture cushions are also in warm tones of russet and gold.
Although Wright would probably have been horrified - and rightly so - at the glaring misfit of a Victorian chest in one of his houses, he was amenable to the individual needs of his clients.
For the Zimmermans who were music lovers, Wright designed a quartet stand to accommodate the chamber-music performances they looked forward to having - and did have - when their home was completed.