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The flaws in Frank Lloyd Wright's design for living

The Portland Museum shows downside of the architect's indoor vision

Frank Lloyd Wright was wrong. Well, not all wrong. He wasn't one of the 20th century's most admired and influential architects for nothing. But some of his primary beliefs about the interior design of private homes are certainly debatable.

The flaws in Wright's indoor vision come to light in a rewardingly informative exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art called "Frank Lloyd Wright and the House Beautiful." Devoted to his ideas about promoting gracious, morally uplifting living through architecture, it presents more than 100 objects, including chairs, lamps, stained glass windows, textiles, and studies for carpet patterns.

As exhibition curator Virginia T. Boyd explains in her excellent catalog essay, Wright was more than just a talented designer of fine things for the home; he was a man on a mission to transform and elevate the lives of modern Americans.

The son of a Midwestern minister, Wright was steeped during his formative years in the literature of American transcendentalism -- Emerson, Thoreau, et al. -- and he brought to architecture a messianic sense of purpose.

Wright's convictions about private homes and interior design came out of the early 20th-century "House Beautiful" trend in architectural thinking. Like the "City Beautiful" movement of which it was a subset, this philosophy was based on the idea that better designed environments made for better quality of life.

As the first part of the exhibition shows mainly by means of photographs, Wright was tremendously innovative in how he changed indoor space. Before Wright, houses were normally divided into many separate rooms, each devoted to a different function. Life in such homes, Wright believed, was fragmented, cramped, cluttered, and inflexible. He proposed instead the open plan: interiors with as few walls and as much uninterrupted space as possible. An expansive living room that included areas for dining, conversation, and other leisure activities became the center of the house. Bedrooms, kitchens, and other rooms were kept small and relegated to the periphery.

Wright further expanded living-room space by building shelves, cabinets, and the like into the structure of the house and by designing low-profile chairs and sofas to fit against the walls or into modular clusters. He designed as though for a ship, trying to ensure that every functional item consume as little space as possible.

The big, wide-open living room is still an ideal for modern homeowners. But Wright was wrong to suppose that a big living room was all people wanted or needed. People also want big master bedrooms, big kitchens, and big bathrooms. People like to have basement rec rooms -- Wright was opposed to basements -- plus in-house offices, art studios, woodworking shops, mud rooms, and laundry rooms. They like to have accessible attics, too, another traditional element that Wright banished, leaving inhabitants of his houses desperately bereft of extra storage space.

Wright thought the open plan reflected a more democratic, flexible, and modern way of life, but it can be argued that his designs reduce privacy and freedom by exposing all members of the family to relatively unimpeded surveillance and control. A family that does so much of its living in one room must be either unbelievably harmonious or very well trained by whoever holds the reins of power.

The second dimension of Wright's program was a drive for aesthetic unity -- what he called "organic architecture." This meant that every part of the environment, from ceilings to carpets and drapes to dinnerware, should be the product of one stylistic system.

Unfortunately, Wright was just not that great a designer of movable objects. His chairs and tables have a clunky, geometric look. They're neither as elegant as those of Charles Rennie MacKintosh nor as massively comfortable-looking as Gustav Stickley's -- two artists whom he borrowed from. He never created any furniture as sleekly modernistic as the chairs of Marcel Breuer or as neatly functional as those of Charles and Ray Eames.

The bigger problem, though, is his idea that everything in the indoor environment should conform to one aesthetic. Wright thought that he was putting people in touch with nature by having all things great and small in the house reflect the same pattern, similar to the way the branching veins of a leaf reflect the branching structure of a whole tree. He favored natural materials -- lots of wood -- and he used windows and glass doors to bring the outdoors in. He wasn't opposed to manufactured materials such as steel and concrete, but he insisted they be used in unvarnished ways.

But nature aside, who wants to live in a house where everything in it reflects one person's taste, even if that person is a genius? Most people like to alter their interior decor to suite their own taste. Wright deplored that inclination -- one of the reasons he began designing furniture was because, much to his dismay, people living in his houses were outfitting them with their own tasteless furniture.

Maybe this objection is too pedestrian. For Marjorie F. Leighey, living in a 1939 Wright house in Falls Church, Va., as she did from 1946 to 1963, was spiritually transformative. In an essay reprinted in the catalog, Leighey recalled initial feelings of rebellion -- "an anger at any dwelling-place that presumes to dictate how its occupants live" -- followed by a kind of religious submission. Because a Wright house does not allow for many extraneous possessions, it enforces humility. "The stripping of accoutrements resulted in a stripping of self or self-hood." And this led to spiritual freedom: "Liberation from things releases deeper imaginative, intellectual, and creative processes and there comes to be a unity among the many compartments of life." And that resulted in a perception that "God is in all and all is of God."

So perhaps we should think of Wright's residential architecture not in terms of how people ordinarily live, but as sacred spaces for transcendentalist soul-making. If you think that houses should correct people's materialistic desires, then maybe Wright was right after all. But if you believe that home is where, for better or worse, you may freely indulge your own idiosyncrasies and you'd rather not be morally bullied by your house, you would probably prefer a less demanding abode.

Wright was not above more profane pursuits. As the exhibition's third and last section shows, he endeavored to turn himself into a national brand: Frank Lloyd Wright Inc., in effect. He published designs for affordable houses in popular magazines such as Ladies Home Journal and House Beautiful, and he wrote eloquently about his ideas in books and magazines.

In the 1950s, he designed lines of furniture for mass production. Judging from the nondescript dining room set in the show, it's easy to see why they didn't catch on. He also designed generically modernistic textiles, wallpaper, and carpets. And, though he was philosophically opposed to covering natural materials with paint, he picked colors for a signature line of house paints. He was the Martha Stewart of his era.

Why Wright embarked on such middlebrow commercial ventures so late in life puzzled some who knew him, but he certainly succeeded in one respect: he made himself American's most famous architect. He became a national icon like Andrew Wyeth and Georgia O'Keeffe.

None of this is to deny that Wright created some beautiful, paradigm-changing houses -- buildings that profoundly altered how people thought and dreamed about lifestyle and residential architecture. Not to mention that he designed one of the great architectural follies of all time: the Guggenheim Museum, a marvelous, fantastical structure that, with its sloping floors and concave walls, is far less hospitable to art than his houses ever were to people. But if you think you'd like to live in a Wright house, you might want to consider renting before you buy.

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

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Frank Lloyd Wright and the House Beautiful

At: Portland Museum of Art through Oct. 28. 207-775-6148, portlandmuseum.org

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