How Frank Lloyd Wright Worked

By: Jessika Toothman

A portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright, taken in 1950.
A portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright, taken in 1950.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Lively and mutable, always game to coax potential clients or scold them when they wouldn't adhere to his exacting vision, Frank Lloyd Wright was an ambitious visionary, a groundbreaking pioneer who helped mold American architecture in the 20th century and is hailed by many as the greatest architect produced by America to this day. He designed more than 1,000 buildings over a 70-year time span, about 500 of which were built.

But Wright was more than just a captain of architecture, more than just a name on some historical markers outside aging, if lovely, homes; Wright was a man. He had love affairs and hobbies, he had bad habits and cherished qualities.


For instance, Wright had a great love of Japanese prints. The serene and aesthetic artwork influenced his practice of infusing architecture with the natural beauty of its surroundings, and he would often fully merge the two through his precise choice of location and design elements. His large collection of artwork from the East included gold screens, Chinese paintings, antique rugs and embroideries, woodcuts, pottery, bronzes and sculptures.

Wright also was a fan of fast cars; he was one of the first to own a car in his Oak Park neighborhood near Chicago, where he lived and worked for many years. His four-cylinder customized Stoddard Dayton would roar through the city streets, earning him plenty of speeding tickets.

It was on his fashionable lifestyle and expensive hobbies like these that Wright was forever squandering his money and negotiating with various debtors and patrons. He postponed the payment of bills and paychecks, refinanced mortgages, cajoled extra funds out of clients, friends and benefactors, and his projects notoriously always seemed to run over budget.

­But he always seemed to regain success with his designs. Wright's architecture was above all organic, attuned to the nature around it, whether that setting be tranquil or willful. To look at one of his buildings from the street corner is to be impressed by its beauty and shape, but walk inside and you see where he was the true master -- he ruled interior spaces, down to the last chair and stained glass accent.

Wright was also so particular about the furniture and decorations that accompanied a home he designed, that it often went poorly when he returned to visit, only to find things not to his taste. On at least one occasion, Wright set the decor back the way he liked it, much to the dismay of the lady of the house.

On the next page, we'll discuss some of the basic facts of Wright's life. You'll notice, though, that it's titled the Women of Frank Lloyd Wright -- that's not an accident. Continue to the next page to find out why.

The Women of Frank Lloyd Wright

Olgivanna Lloyd Wright was Wright's third and final wife.
Olgivanna Lloyd Wright was Wright's third and final wife.
Halley Erskine/Pix Inc./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

­Wright was born Frank Lincoln Wright on June 8, 1867, to Anna Lloyd Jones Wright and William Carey Wright in Richland Center, Wis. His parents divorced in 1884, after which Wright changed his name to Frank Lloyd Wright. Monetary care of Anna and her three children was overtaken by her brothers, all part of the close-knit Lloyd Jones clan of Welsh immigrants in the area of southern Wisconsin.

Anna Lloyd Jones was a strong, self-reliant woman who had a huge influence over Wright's life, to the extent that he would always say she had chosen his career path into architecture for him before he was even born. Much more than that, she was a very possessive mother who would maneuver to stay at the forefront in his life, continuing her interference until she died in 1923.


Catherine Lee Tobin was Wright's first wife. Nicknamed Kitty, she and Wright met while he was working in Chicago as a draftsman at an architecture firm, and they married two years later on June 1, 1889 (much to the protest of Anna). Wright started his own practice in 1893, setting up shop in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. The Arts and Crafts Movement swept into town at this time, and Wright and other young architects embraced it, for it gave them a niche: home-grown quality-crafted American architecture. The couple would have six children before Wright left her in 1909. Kitty refused to grant him a divorce for 14 years, but she finally relented, and their divorce was eventually finalized on Nov. 13, 1923.

Mamah Borthwick Cheney met Wright while he was working on a house for her and her husband, and they began an affair. This continued quietly until Wright decided to leave his family, his wife and, perhaps most notably, his practice to sneak off to Europe with Mamah (pronounced Maymah). This caused an uproar at home when newspapers reported the scandal, and while Mamah's divorce was proceeding, she spent the better part of two years in Europe. Wright began construction on a home for the two of them -- Taliesin -- in 1911 in Spring Green, Wis., during which time he also worked on projects like the Midway Gardens in Chicago. Mamah would not enjoy the house for long, however. On Aug. 15, 1914, a manservant at the house, Julian Carlton, inexplicably set fire to Taliesin and murdered first Mamah, then her two children and then four others who were part of a work crew staying at the house.

Wright set about rebuilding Taliesin. He soon took up with Maude Miriam Noel who, among other things, was a morphine addict and a spiritualist. A member of the upper crust, Noel was very stylish and cleverly angled her way into his life in no time at all. The two remained together as lovers until Kitty finally granted the divorce to Wright. The couple married later that month. Their tumultuous time together ended after a two-year separation and an extended, positively gruesome, divorce and legal battle.

While still technically married to Miriam (she had left him after only about six months of marriage), Wright met Olga Ivanova Lazovich, better known as Olgivanna Lloyd Wright. A dancer from Montenegro and soon to be divorced, Olgivanna and Wright hit it off right away, and she moved into Taliesin in early 1925. She became pregnant later that year, and they had one daughter, Iovanna, together. Once they were able to marry, they did -- and remained that way until Wright's death 1959 at the age of 91. Olgivanna, about 30 years younger than Wright, lived until 1985.

Despite his age, Wright's death surprised those around him, for though his life has been speckled with catastrophes and calamities, he had spent most of his long years in generally good health.

Frank Lloyd Wright Homes

The Robie House in Chicago
The Robie House in Chicago
© iStockphoto/Kickstand

Now that we've learned a little more about the man, it's time to take a more in-depth look at his life's work. On the next few pages, we'll delve into a few of Wright's creations and their unique, often groundbreaking characteristics. Impossible to rank, we've assembled a short list that attempts to demonstrate both the diversity of his work, and the beauty and creativity he employed while designing and building his creations.

The Robie House: The Frederick C. Robie House was Wright's prairie style masterpiece. In the first decade of the 20th century, Wright pioneered prairie style homes, which emphasized the horizontal, while at the same time, working to eliminate the feeling of boxiness that is often inherent in the shapes of houses, using features like cantilevered roofs and glass corners. The Chicago Robie House had all of this -- including a roof that cantilevered a full 20 feet (approximately 6 meters) beyond its last support and art-glass details.


It was also around this time that Wright affected his lifelong look -- wide-brimmed hat and superfluous cane. This fashion trend was another part of the long reform from Victorian-era styles, a push made by many in the turn-of-the-century American Arts and Crafts Movement. Wright's prairie style days would come to an abrupt end in 1909 with his departure to Europe with Mamah, although some aspects of it would show up in his later work.

The Ennis House: The Mabel and Charles Ennis House in Los Angeles was one of Wright's textile block houses, which he built in the first half of the 1920s. The Ennis House was constructed of grooved blocks of concrete that slipped together like puzzle pieces with steel bars as stitching -- hence the textile aspect. His textile block house had carved and patterned tiles, strong geometries and a certain castle-like grandeur.

A picture of Fallingwater undergoing restoration in order to preserve the home.
A picture of Fallingwater undergoing restoration in order to preserve the home.
Laura Farr/Getty Images

Fallingwater: Probably the most well-known example of Wright's work -- and the one that put him back on the map in the mid-1930s -- is the Liliane and Edgar J. Kaufmann House nestled in the Pennsylvania Appalachians. Overhanging a waterfall, the cantilevered design (with terraces extending unsupported over the water) includes a staircase extending below the living room all the way to the surface of the water below. Interestingly, the waterfall that so gracefully accents many images of Fallingwater isn't visible from the house itself. One has to hike to see it -- a design plan Wright felt would heighten the excitement and retain the sense of awe one would feel upon making the effort to view the cascade.

­ Wright visited the future site of the Kaufmann's vacation home twice in the more than year-long span between when the Kaufmanns first approached him about the project and when he set about putting any designs on paper. When he did, the plans leapt from his mind's eye fully formed onto his tracing paper. Laying down the designs for one of the most famous homes in America took just two hours.

­ Read about more Wright's architecture on the next page.



Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings

The main entrance of the Imperial Hotel, taken in 1935
The main entrance of the Imperial Hotel, taken in 1935
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

­ We saw a portion of the domestic side of Wright's architecture on the last page. On this page, we'll examine some of the commercial projects that he completed.

The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which has since been demolished, was an impressive building several years in the making. From 1916 to 1922, Wright was back and forth between Tokyo and Taliesin. Miriam Noel, at this point still his mistress, would travel with him to Tokyo.


The Imperial Hotel was shaped like an H, with the main lobby and public rooms located in the central area. Gardens and pools filled each large courtyard. The intricate interior was full of little terraces, balconies and courts, with almost every room different from the next. Famous for surviving more than one earthquake intact, Wright built the Imperial Hotel keeping in mind several considerations for safety during a quake. Floating foundations and flexible wall structures allowed for possible moving and shifting, green copper roofing was installed instead of potentially lethal flying tiles and multiple pools were prepared (in part) for the event of a fire. Walls were built thicker at the base to contribute to the building's low center of gravity and the wiring and pipes ran through trenches in the ground. During the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 that took the lives of 150,000 people, the Imperial Hotel (which coincidentally had been scheduled to officially open that day) was used as a refuge and headquarters for survivors.

The Johnson Wax Administration Building, also known as the S. C. Johnson and Sons Administration Building, was one of a series Wright built for Herbert F. "Hib" Johnson. He also built a 15-story research tower adjacent to the administration building and Wingspread, the home Johnson would live in for two decades before turning it over to the Johnson Foundation for use as an educational conference facility.

The Johnson Wax Administration Building is a gently-edged rolling building with a sleek, streamlined feel. Contained within its attractive exterior is a unique-looking interior space -- an enormous high-ceilinged work room is ringed with a balcony mezzanine, while floor-to-ceiling columns blossom at the top creating a lily pad effect.

The Price Tower in Bartlesville, Okla.
The Price Tower in Bartlesville, Okla.
© iStockphoto/Ben Trussell

The Price Tower is the only skyscraper Wright ever built, which is not surprising with his love of all things homey, organic and horizontal. While the Price Tower departs from his usual design in some ways, it still conforms to it in one way, with its inspiration coming from the naturalness of a tree. The 221-foot-tall (67.36 meters), 19-floor building was influenced by plans for an earlier skyscraper that was never constructed, but Wright finally got to build a version of his vision in Bartlesville, Okla. The building was designed to include office, retail and living space, and now houses an art center, hotel and restaurant. The center is made of four faces of the pinwheel, with each side completely unique. Some have said the building appears more like a sculpture than a skyscraper. The stunning colors on the interior of the skyscraper are in places set in geometric murals of rich red, lime green, sky blue and gold, highlighted by the green-tinged stamped copper plates and gold-tinted glass of exterior of the building.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.
John Lamb/Stone/Getty Images

­ The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is Wright's only Manhattan building. The curvy, spinning top-like exterior of the Guggenheim Museum sets it apart from the boxy edifices it neighbors. First commissioned in 1943, the museum wasn't completed until 1959. Solomon Guggenheim's death and the need for approval from the New York City Building Department were just two of the many challenges the proposed museum faced, but eventually it was built, with four and a half feet (1.317 meters) jutting out over 5th Avenue.

There are still several other important styles Wright's architecture embraced over the years. Read about some more on the next page.


Frank Lloyd Wright's Accomplishments

An aerial view of Wingspread
An aerial view of Wingspread
Frank Scherschel/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Wright designed and built many large estates over his career, as well as many that were smaller and more affordable. And then there were Taliesin and Taliesin West, which not only served as a home for the architect himself, but also for the Taliesin Fellowship and later the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.

Wingspread: We talked a little about the Johnson corporate projects on the last page, but we didn't really discuss the house he commissioned. Called Wingspread (but also known as the Herbert F. Johnson House, the 14,000-square-foot (1,300.6-square-meter) house is appropriately named; it was built with four wings spreading out from a central living space. The designs, which specified a master bedroom wing, children's wing, kitchen wing and guest/garage wing, were part of Wright's architectural philosophy -- houses should be designed in a way so as to support harmony and serve as a sanctuary for family life, allowing people to come together, but giving them privacy as well. Like many of Wright's houses, the interior is colored in a host of organic hues, using cypress, brick, oak and other natural building materials. The central living area is a giant octagonal room with a 30-foot-high (9.14-meter-high) chimney dominating the center, domed with three tiers of windows circling the elevated ceiling. The master bedroom wing overhangs the living room, and from that mezzanine a staircase winds up one side of the fireplace up to an observation tower.


The Lovness House: The Donald and Virginia Lovness House and Cottage is an example of a style of architecture Wright developed later in his career called the Usonian house. Houses in the Usonian style were similar to the large estates that dominated his earlier career, but on a much smaller scale. In the post-Depression years, when materials were scarce and costly, Wright decided to turn his attention once more to affordable housing, but with a much different focus than his textile block house. Unlike those palatial fortresses, the Usonian houses were small but stylish additions to the landscapes they nestled in, maximizing the use of interior space (while sacrificing some closets, among other things) in a variety of manifestations. Despite always striving for improved and less costly building methods, Wright never sacrificed the interior beauty and elegance that stands as the hallmark of his designs.

Wright's Usonian homes became a model for suburban development, although his imitators certainly didn't always produce as elegant or organic a product. His innovations in affordable housing paved the way for a rapidly growing middle-class suburban population. Usonian homes were often built with an L-shaped floor plan, but the Lovness House and Cottage were a variation. Reminiscent of the horizontal lines of the Robie House, the exteriors of both structures were long, textured stone mosaics. Wood and stone also comprised much of the interiors, where natural light flooded into surprisingly spacious-looking living spaces.

Frank Lloyd Wright surrounded by his students at Taliesin West in 1946.
Frank Lloyd Wright surrounded by his students at Taliesin West in 1946.
Ralph Crane/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Taliesin and Taliesin West: Taliesin, meaning Shining Brow, was the name of a Welsh bard and poet, as well as a mythical Welsh seer and visionary. It was an alluring name to Wright, which he used for both his home in Spring Green, Wis., and Scottsdale, Ariz. The original Taliesin was rebuilt several times over the years due to house fires, as well to expand and renovate it when he and Olgivanna began the Taliesin Fellowship in 1932. With courtyards full of wildflowers, Taliesin mirrors the sense of rolling, rocky hills and rugged pasturelands of southwestern Wis., in tans, beiges and greens. Stone, prominent in almost all Wright's work, was not neglected here. The original home of the fellowship, Taliesin was soon used only during the summer months with the rest of the year spent in Arizona.

The first exodus of the fellowship to the land of Taliesin West in sunny Arizona was in the winter of 1938, although the buildings would take several years to complete. Taliesin West has drafting studios, classrooms, exhibition areas, two theaters and workshops for a variety of arts, including printing, photography, metalworking, sculpture, model-making and pottery. The serene complex of buildings also includes living spaces, and all are closely in tune with the surrounding desert, encouraging an appreciation of nature and the ecology of life, and imitating the shape of the land.

The Taliesin Fellowship would become a close-knit group, with many apprentices feeling like adopted sons and daughters. We'll learn more about this dynamic assemblage on the next page.


Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture

Wright advises members of the Taliesin Fellowship, hard at work at their drafting boards.
Wright advises members of the Taliesin Fellowship, hard at work at their drafting boards.
Ralph Crane/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The idea for the Taliesin Fellowship was born in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression. Wright and Olgivanna were looking for a steady source of income and realized that if they could attract two or three dozen students to pay a yearly tuition of $650, they would be better equipped to cover their costs. The project was launched in October of 1932, with Olgivanna at the helm running the estate. She would evolve into a den mother for the pack of students that started to trickle in. During the early years when commissions were scarce due to the economic woes of the depression, much time was spent renovating the property, with the labor of young architects like William Wesley Peters, Henry Klumb, Edgar Tafel, Jack Howe and many others.

Many buildings were designed by Wright and his apprentice draftsman at Taliesin, including Fallingwater, the first Usonian houses and the Johnson Wax building. Wright would create some of his best work in this era; giving his students a shot at designing a commission first, and afterwards, critiquing their work. In between work and chores, Wright (who adored entertaining) hosted many events for his troupe: picnics, foreign films, fine dining, Sunday services, birthday parties, boat trips, charades, concerts and holiday parties.


This atmosphere created strong bonds of loyalty and camaraderie that were almost impossible to break if an architect felt he was ready to leave Wright's flock. Wright would often view this move as the betrayal of a future competitor, and many an apprentice left after a less than harmonious parting.

During this time, the relationship between Olgivanna and Wright was tempered and tested, but the two remained dedicated to each other through the years. A woman with many facets, Olgivanna could be implacable and unyielding, generous and kindhearted, but above all her devotion to Wright was unwavering -- and likely because of this, the marriage worked.

Eventually, the Wisconsin winters started to wear on everyone, and in 1937, Wright bought land in Arizona with the idea of Taliesin West in mind. The annual pilgrimage was typically an adventure. On one occasion, Wright wanted to see the north side of the Grand Canyon but a sandstorm in Death Valley delayed them. Coming up to the canyon without headlights, Wright finally called for a halt -- 15 feet (4.572 meters) from the rim!

Hands-on building experience is something the apprentices definitely got out of their time at Taliesin West in the early years. The entire complex was built by the Fellowship from scratch. Magnificent buildings, terraces and pools were all part of the oasis at Taliesin West -- much of it designed on brown wrapping paper and built the following day. The local flora was treated with respect, and cacti were often replanted if they were in the way. The desert camp provided the group with a cathartic release and a new perspective each year the party arrived to avoid a winter in Wisconsin.

On the next page, we'll look at the state of Wright's work and the legacy of his Taliesin Fellowship as they are today.

Preservation and Restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture

The ongoing restoration of the 12 Wright buildings at Florida Southern College is one example of people working to save Wright's aging legacy. This photo of the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel was taken at the campus in 1948.
The ongoing restoration of the 12 Wright buildings at Florida Southern College is one example of people working to save Wright's aging legacy. This photo of the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel was taken at the campus in 1948.
Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Wright's architecture and construction wasn't always perfect -- leaky roofs and structural problems were often part and parcel of a Wright building. The Johnson Administration Building, Wingspread and Fallingwater are all examples of buildings that exhibited problems after they were built. Despite these flaws, all are in use today, albeit not all for their original purposes.

Whether the prairie style homes of his early period or the Usonian and ultramodern homes of later years, the large estates or the commercial projects of all sorts, Wright's buildings are cherished by many. Numerous groups today are striving to preserve his works, many of which are hitting the century mark or will in the near future, but several challenges and hurdles often lay in their paths.


According to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, nearly 20 percent of Wright's works have been lost. The most common culprits are simply fire, neglect or new developments. Plus, erosion can be an issue along with other weather-related concerns. Owners careless of the history of a building might make renovations that detract for the original features of the home -- though these can be largely restored with enough time, energy and money. One example is the Grand Beach, Mich., W.S. Carr House, which was built in 1916 and demolished in 1999, much to the dismay of many working to save the house, despite the poor condition it was in.

The Taliesin Fellowship has evolved into Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, a school that carries on Frank and Olgivanna's vision. Wright established the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in 1940, deeding all of his intellectual property and archives to the organization, of which Olgivanna was president until her death. This umbrella organization now includes the activities at the architecture school and the work of Taliesin Preservation, Inc.

Other groups working to preserve Wright buildings and honor his memory with preservation and educational efforts and tours (some of which overlap in organizational structures) include the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, the Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin Heritage Tourism Program, Inc., and several national and state historic preservation offices and nonprofit agencies around the United States and in Japan -- the only country besides America that can lay claim to Wright architecture.

Wright hobbyists abound, and hundreds of books and articles have been written about the architect both during his lifetime and posthumously. He has also been the recipient of many awards and acknowledgements, including being named the greatest American architect of all time by the American Institute of Architects in 1991. To say that Wright has been something of an influence on the styles of other architects today would certainly be an understatement. For lots more of the Wright stuff, all things architecture and related topics, design your eyes on the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


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