Dec 2, 2008
Russel Wright House and Studio, East 48th St
In my last blog entry, I mentioned a possible connection between architect William Lescaze’s house on East 48th Street and designer Russel Wright’s house on the same street. Geographically, the connection is closer than I’d imagined – Lescaze lived and worked at 211 East 48th St, while Russel and Mary Wright lived at 221. Historically, while both were designer home-cum-offices in midtown Manhattan, Lescaze’s 1934 house can be seen as a continuation of a certain austere and uncompromising version of prewar International Style modernism, while the Wright’s 1949 house might represent a alternative attitude towards modernism, with an emphasis on informality, relaxation and an intimate relationship between interior and exterior. The Wrights’ townhouse on East 48th St is also significant as it served as a kind of laboratory for their ideas about modern American lifestyle that culminated in their 1950 bestseller, Guide to Easier Living.
American Modern Lifestyle
Although best known as an industrial designer, Wright began his design career in the 1920s designing sets, props and costumes for Broadway productions. In the early 1930s he shifted into product design, creating a series of bar and serving accessories from spun aluminum. Marketed and successfully sold during the Depression years, Wright’s serving accessories were designed for informal dinners or cocktail parties rather than formal dinners or afternoon teas. Wright’s most commercially successful and best-known design was for the ceramic dinner service, American Modern. First marketed in 1939, American Modern quickly became the best selling dinner service in the United States, and remained so until the mid-1950s. The dinnerware was innovative in a number of ways: it was marketed as flexible (as consumers could mix and match pieces within a range of modern colors), easily washable, durable and importantly, inexpensive. But most of all, it appealed to an emerging informal lifestyle, characterized by a shift away from the excessive number of delicate and decorative pieces needed for formal entertaining.
The hand-crafted look of the American Modern pieces belied their mass production, allowing them to retain the aura of human craftsmanship in an increasingly mass-produced and mechanized world. A further key to the success of the American Modern line was its marketing, largely overseen by Russel’s wife Mary. She created “stage sets” for department stores and promotional material (see photo above). In these, domestic life was portrayed as theater and its commodities were sold as part of a new, casual American lifestyle, free from formal European models that had been the mainstay of an aspirational American middle class for generations.
Staging American modernism: The Guide to Easier Living
After creating some of the props for this emerging lifestyle, Russel and Mary Wright published the script in 1950. Their Guide to Easier Living focused on not only how to design interior spaces that would be suitable for modern middle-class living, but also as a guide to housekeeping and casual entertaining. Their proposals included open floor plans which flowed seamlessly between kitchen, dining room and living room, and an emphasis on open, flexible interior spaces with lightweight modern furniture. There was not only an emphasis on practical, easy to clean and maintain homes but also a shift away from the formal, rule-bound Victorian lifestyle of previous generations to a more relaxed, spontaneous way of living.
Rather than a guide to taste, the Wrights’ book functioned more as a Do-It-Yourself manual. While they emphasized modernism in general, the Wrights were not too proscriptive as to precisely which furnishings, appliances or décor to adopt. Instead, the book contained detailed analyses of many new materials and their properties – new textiles, flooring materials, synthetic coverings for furniture – all analyzed in terms of their practicality, durability, cleanability and comfort (rather than their aesthetic appeal). Of course, Russel’s own American Modern dinnerware was a perfect fit for the Easier Living lifestyle, as were his various furniture designs of the time, particularly the Easy Living range.
East 48th Street: the Easier Living Laboratory
During the late 1940s, the Wrights’ renovation of a New York city townhouse functioned as a laboratory for this new vision of a more relaxed and casual, yet distinctively modern lifestyle. In 1949, the Wrights moved to their newly renovated townhouse at 221 East 48th Street. It included a design studio on the first floor, living space on the second floor, with the third and fourth floors rented out. Rather than a machine for living, here was postwar modernism American-style, where efficient and functional meant easy to maintain, flexible and comfortable. Rather than the purity, abstraction, universal truths and technological fetishism associated with prewar modernism, the Wrights’ were creating modern life as style. Although this was a New York townhouse situated in dense midtown, the modernism is perhaps closer to a Californian suburban model (and not surprisingly the Guide features various references to Californian designers and architects, particularly Richard Neutra and Harwell Hamilton Harris).
The first floor design studio included a small reception room and conference room as well as the working studio at the rear. The reception area featured a frosted glass partition and built-in desk, while the conference room was similarly spare but both revealed a careful attention to lighting and presentation as these were public spaces for meetings with clients. The rear studio space featured an S-shaped wall comprised entirely of six foot high double hung windows overlooking the garden (see photo above). This curved window wall not only created a distinctive effect from outside but also shaped the studio from inside as a kind of garden pavilion as much as a rational modern workspace. An anonymous writer in a contemporary issue of Interiors described the studio floor like this: “It is difficult to find a single non-functional object, and extraneous ornament is conspicuous by its absence.” Although sparse and functional, the studio was also described as “unexpectedly poetic” due to the lemon yellow ceiling and the intimate connection with the exterior garden.
However, upstairs, Mary’s bedroom combined modern built-in cupboards with pink lace curtains, pink walls and a deep green carpet. The Interiors writer continued: “The uncompromising puritans of contemporary design may be disturbed by the fact that the Wrights have set redolently Victorian rooms side by side with pristine modern ones on the upper floors of the house … the melange suggests that the Wrights are practical people (they had a number of Victorian pieces) and that they have a sense of humor. Or perhaps they decided that it would be stimulating and not at all unpleasant to step from the Hardoy chair and raised fireplace of the living room, into a quaint bedroom (Mary Wright’s) where festoons of Nottingham lace dyed solid pink adorn the windows, and thence back to a terrace curved like the desk of an excursion steamer.” It may also be because their vision of modern design was not primarily aesthetic nor technological, but about how individuals could style and inhabit spaces to suit their particular needs.
The Wrights’ living spaces were open and flexible, with built-in desks and cupboards (to maximize both storage space and floor space) and fluorescent lighting hidden under bookshelves (to create an intimate atmosphere). Idiosyncratic innovations included a storage wall that concealed both a piano and a movie projector which could project onto a window blind opposite which doubled as a movie screen (see photos below). This was modernism from the inside out, transforming a small living space into a movie theater, its furniture designed for comfort, ease of cleaning and ease of moving. The living space continued almost seamlessly onto the terrace outside which featured outdoor furniture covered in yellow sail cloth to contrast the lush greens of the carefully designed garden.
A link to Lescaze’s house on the same block was mentioned in the Interiors article when the writer added that Lescaze’s staff had dubbed the house “A Streetcar Named Desire” due to its curved studio windows and spiral metal stairs which resembled a contemporary streetcar. However, I believe this resemblance was short-lived. An inconsistency in the photographs I have of the ground floor confused me for a while (see the photo above of the rear of the studio and the one below it of the living room looking out onto the garden) and I can only assume that the curved studio was replaced by a living room between the visit of the Interiors writer and the photograph above taken from Albrecht’s book. Perhaps this adds to the Wrights’ ideas about the flexibility of modern living! With Mary’s death in 1952, while Russel continued to live at East 48th St, he devoted increasing time and energy into creating the ultimate stage of his lifestyle vision: the designer house and landscape, Manitoga.
Albrecht, Donald, Robert Schonfeld and Lindsay Stamm Shapiro, Russel Wright: Creating American Lifestyle, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.
Wright, Russel, Good Design is for Everyone: In His Own Words, Garrison, NY: Manitoga/Universe, 2001.
Writer unknown, “Idyll on 48th Street: The Russel Wright Homestead”, Interiors, No 109, 1949.
The website for the exhibition "Russel Wright: Living with Good Design" has some excellent essays on Wright's life and work.