Art Deco lovers often date the emergence of that geometric, streamlined style from 1925 and the historic Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes. But if you take a leisurely stroll at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through the reconstruction of Frank Lloyd Wright's 1912–14 living room from the Francis W. Little house, you can see much of the geometry that was later to distinguish Art Deco design.
Wright had already repudiated the luxurious, foliated style of Art Nouveau. It may have delighted Louis Comfort Tiffany and his clients, but Wright, always a daring innovator, would have none of it. Even if Wright's work at this time could be considered a transition to the Art Deco sensibility, all aspects of this famous living room testify to his interest in clean lines, spaciousness, functional practicality, warm and light colors, and a Japanese-inspired simplicity. Before the chromium sleekness of the Chrysler Building, this room and this house were dedicated to modernity, to an early form of the streamline.
When the house was torn down in 1972, the Metropolitan Museum saved what it could from this gem of Wright's Prairie Houses. Some of its rooms have been reconstructed at other museums. The Met was waiting for the right space in which to install this sizable Wright interior. It measures 30 by 45 feet, with a 14-foot ceiling. The room is a permanent installation in the American Wing of the Met.
On the shores of Lake Minnetonka, in Wayzata, Minnesota, the Little house was, in fact, no little house on the prairie. It was quite large, built as a summer home, set on two levels into the sloping terrain by the lake. Wright's specialty in such homes was to adapt them to the landscape and then make them even more rooted to the spot with effective plantings. They looked as though they always belonged where Wright sited them.
Mary Little was a patron of fine music, so the living room was made big enough for concerts. It was also designed so that light flooded in from both sides, giving views of lake and landscape through a series of leaded glass windows––once again, a precursor to Art Deco geometry. Beneath these two ranges of windows run window seats, and under them, run concealed heating elements. Above these two windows is an indented white oak ledge, above which are ranges of leaded clerestory windows on each side. A deeper continuation of the wooden ledge at each end of the room provides space for displaying sculpture and vases.
The room is a soft, warm yellow, with the light brown accents of oak in floor, framings, and decorative ceiling strips. The ceiling has six leaded glass skylights. In the museum's reconstruction, these are lit artificially, and one side of the Little living room does look out on Central Park. The other windows open out on a corridor. Wright, as was his custom, designed everything for the room, including the dried leaf arrangements––all of which have been recreated. A huge, thick, long library table is a major piece of furniture, as is an ingenious wood print table. Chairs recall the "Mission Style, but Wright gave them arms broad enough to rest books and snacks on with ease. A settee has even broader arms that run around its back, providing a shelf for magazines and books.
Insiders say the reason the Little heirs had this wonderful house torn down was connected with an old animosity toward the architect. Whatever the cause, the house had been weathering and deteriorating. It was overlarge for modern needs and means. Fortunately, the Met saved much, gave some of it homes elsewhere, and did a marvelous job of restoring the most impressive part of the Little house to its initial freshness. The not-so-little Little living room is going to be at the Met for a good long time.
Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 1983, Volume 3, Number 1, edition of the Art Deco Society of New York News.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 4, Issue 1, Winter 2019. View a digital version of the full journal here.