Harmony in Design: The Life of Frank Lloyd Wright

Black and white portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright. He is depicted in a contemplative pose, resting his chin on his hand, with a serious expression on his face. His hair is swept back, and he wears a suit with a light-colored tie. The focus is sharp on his face, capturing the details of his aged features and thoughtful gaze.
Frank Lloyd Wright, 1954

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

Frank Lloyd Wright was born on June 8, 1867, in the small rural town of Richland Center, Wisconsin. He was the eldest of three children of William, an orator, music teacher, and occasional lawyer, and Anna, a schoolteacher.

From a young age, Anna envisioned her son growing up to build beautiful buildings. When Frank was nine years old, she introduced him to a series of educational toys consisting of geometric blocks and shapes meant to teach children about structure, design, and the basics of geometry. The experience proved to be valuable. Frank would say,

“For several years, I sat at the little kindergarten table-top… and played… with the cube, the sphere and the triangle – these smooth wooden maple blocks… All are in my fingers to this day…”

Several other experiences in his youth seemed to carry over into what would one day become his career. The Wright family moved frequently during Frank’s childhood. But throughout these moves, one aspect of life stayed constant: music, thanks to his father’s profession. This exposure, particularly the structured and harmonious nature of compositions, would profoundly influence Franks’s architectural philosophy, leading him to view architecture and music as intertwined.

Another foundational influence came during his teenage years when he spent summers working on his uncle’s farm in Wisconsin. Life on the farm fostered a deep appreciation for the American Midwest’s landscape and natural beauty. “As a boy, I learned to know the ground plan of the region in every line and feature…I still feel myself as much a part of it as the trees and birds and bees, and the red barns,” Frank would say. This appreciation would later manifest in his Prairie School designs, which sought to create buildings in harmony with the natural environment.

In 1885, Frank enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study civil engineering, where, along with his studies, he began working under Allan Conover, a professor in the department, as a drafter. Once more, his mother helped cultivate Frank’s architectural development by securing this position. And with that, his initial foray into architecture as a job had begun.

Frank decided to leave school in 1887 without graduating to pursue work in Chicago. Upon his arrival, the city was still amid the vast reconstruction efforts following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. This presented an environment with a sense of possibility and creativity and a unique opportunity for young architects and builders.

Frank initially found employment as a draftsman in an architectural firm, where he worked on residential projects. However, eager to explore more progressive architectural ideas and seeking a more substantial role, Frank soon moved on to the prestigious firm of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, where Louis Sullivan, often called the “prophet of modern architecture,” became a mentor to young Frank. “He loved to talk to me, and I would often stay listening, Frank would recall.”

It was around this time in his life that Frank began settling down. He married, and he and his wife settled in Oak Park, where Frank designed them a home and, for him, a studio. They started a family. And Frank opened his own architecture firm and grew in stature.

“The absorbing, consuming phase of my experience as an architect ended about 1909. I had almost reached my fortieth year: weary I was losing grip on my work and even interest in it…I could see no way out. Because I did not know what I wanted, I wanted to go away…Everything, personal or otherwise, bore down heavily on me. Domesticity most of all. What I wanted I did not know. I loved my children. I loved my home. A true home is the finest ideal of man.”

Frank would go through a period of much struggle. Marital issues and the Great Depression would take a toll on Frank’s finances, leading to fewer architectural commissions. However, he continued to innovate and challenge architectural norms. During the Depression years, he introduced the concept of the Usonian home, an affordable design meant to be more accessible in the trying times. And he built in new landscapes, such the desert. About which he would say,

“I was struck by the beauty of the desert, by the dry, clear sun-drenched air, by the stark geometry of the mountains – the entire region was an inspiration in strong contrast to the lush, pastoral landscape of my native Wisconsin. And out of that experience, a revelation in what I guess you might call it, came the design for these buildings. The design sprang out of itself, with no precedent and nothing following it.”

In total, Frank designed over 1,000 buildings and left a lasting legacy. The American Institute of Architects recognized him as “the greatest American architect of all time.”

On April 9, 1959, he passed away at the age of 91.

Notes

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To cite: “Harmony in Design: The Life of Frank Lloyd Wright.” Published by Historical Snapshots, https://historicalsnaps.com/2023/10/18/harmony-in-design-the-life-of-frank-lloyd-wright/

“Harmony in Design: The Life of Frank Lloyd Wright.” Sources