In the 1950s, after creating some of the most visionary architecture of the twentieth century, Frank Lloyd Wright went where he had never gone before: commercial homewares. Every building he’d designed, from houses to hotels, was tailor-made to its environment, from the structure to the materials. But these new lines of wallpapers, textiles, and other wares would be a major shift in a practice that had long avoided mass production.
“Of course, the most obvious and immediate question was how Wright, whose contempt for commercialism was legendary, became involved in such an undertaking,” writes Christa C. Mayer Thurman, curator of textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago, in the Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies.
The project coincided with the desire of a number of Wright’s supporters, among them Elizabeth Gordon, editor of the leading interior-decorating magazine House Beautiful, to revive the octogenarian architect’s reputation. Toward this end, she determined to dedicate an entire issue of the magazine to an overview of his work in the fall of 1955.
The creation of what would be known as the Taliesin Line was not a smooth process. As Thurman explores in her research, Gordon reached out to René Carrillo, then director of merchandising at the textile firm F. Schumacher and Co. The first meeting between Carrillo and Wright was caustic, starting with Wright proclaiming his dislike of interior decorators, calling them “inferior desecrators.”
Thurman describes how when Carrillo reminded Wright that he had already designed furniture for a number of his houses, “the architect admitted that he ‘was a terrible furniture designer and that he had never designed a comfortable chair and that he had become black and blue from sitting in his own furniture.’” Still, Carrillo convinced Wright, in the end, to sign on to the Taliesin Line (named for Wright’s home, studio, and school in Wisconsin) with Schumacher in 1954. The folio for the line ultimately included 137 printed and woven samples and twenty-six wallpaper samples, each accompanied with context on what inspired it. “Design 104” was based on floor plans of the spherical homes Wright designed for his sons Robert Llewellyn and David, while “Design 103” had rectangular patterns derived from the windows on Wright’s Carlson House in Phoenix.
The work debuted in the fall of 1955, but not before another Wright outburst. As Thurman writes:
Upon seeing the display rooms with textiles, wallpapers, furniture, and paints bearing his name, Wright exploded: “My God! An inferior desecrator! I won’t permit my name to be used by a decorator. I will have no part of this. You must take off my name. I will tell the world I have been misused.”
But the House Beautiful issue was already on newsstands, and the designs were soon available for purchase. Wright got over his initial fury and made a few more patterns for the Taliesin Line, with one added in 1960 just after his death.
The distribution of “Schumacher’s Taliesin Line of Decorative Fabrics and Wallpaper” was limited, as was the furniture line Wright worked on for Heritage-Henredon to complement these works. “These uniquely modern furnishings were priced to be accessible to the average consumer,” writes Amelia Peck, curator of American decorative arts, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. “However, most ‘average consumers’ were not familiar with Wright’s design vocabulary and did not respond favorably to patterns that seemed radical for the time. Neither the furniture nor the fabric and wallpaper were commercial successes.”
The folio and the fabrics are now rare, although the Met started collecting them in the 1970s. The Antonio Ratti Textile Center at the Met Fifth Avenue in New York is exhibiting these pieces in Frank Lloyd Wright Textiles: The Taliesin Line, 1955–60. The compact exhibition features nine examples of the textiles, as well as the sample book for the Taliesin Line, which is now fully digitized online. Schumacher also released an updated version of Taliesin Line in 2017.
There’s no shortage of mass-produced homewares and accessories inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright in museum gift shops around the country. Wright quite possibly would have been piqued by such commercialization of his visions. Yet as Thurman observes, “this widespread enthusiasm for Wrightian design indicates how pervasive the architect’s ideas have become and the degree to which his work remains vital today.”