Russel Wright (1905-1976) was the first superstar of industrial design. His extraordinary vision transformed the American home, bringing modernism to Mom and Pop and the kids, too. Wright didn't shock the bourgeoisie, he seduced it with design that is beautiful, warm, and remarkably practical. His modernism wasn't based on the shock of the new, or a strict regime of form follows function, but on a vision of life lived artistically in harmony with nature. His designs look as contemporary today as when they were first produced. Trained as an architect, he began his career as a theatrical designer, but he is best known for his tableware, furniture, and housewares. Wright was the first designer to sign his products, and when his new creations arrived in department stores customers would line up for them.
In 1942 Wright discovered an abandoned quarry property of 75 acres in Garrison, New York, about an hour north of Manhattan on the Hudson, and he began creating there a very special home, studio, and landscape. He called it Manitoga, which means "place of the Great Spirit" in Algonquin. Wright built a fantastic house and studio there, in collaboration with architect David L. Leavitt. The design of the house shows the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Bauhaus, and Japanese aesthetics, but its situation in the grounds and its interior decor is all Russel Wright. The house overlooks the quarry, which Wright turned into a swimming pool by diverting a stream. He also laid out four miles of hiking trails and spent countless hours improving the look of nature, in a natural vernacular. Manitoga isn't manicured. It has the random look of pristine landscape but it has been manipulated subtly, with a great sense of theater. Mostly working alone, Wright planted and transplanted native trees, plants, mosses, wildflowers, and ferns, and he moved rocks and boulders to subtly improve on nature. There is, for example, a stunning corridor of moss in the woods overlooking the house that was painstakingly transplanted by hand. Manitoga is now the home of the Russel Wright Design Center and it is open to the public. It's best to make an appointment for the tours, as I was once turned away because there were too many visitors.
The house is currently under repair and is not completely accessible. We got just a peek into the double height living room where boulders blend with furniture and the roof beam is supported by a cedar tree trunk. The studio, however, is pretty much as it was when Wright worked there—demonstrating his ingeniously simple design solutions. The studio ceilings are quite fantastic, with pine needles embedded in black paint creating an extraordinary surface. Fluorescent lighting fixtures are concealed and dimmed by grommeted burlap panels. Sections of ceiling in the house are paneled with Styrofoam. An extraordinary luminous wall was crafted by sandwiching cut sections of cardboard tubing in fiberglass. He also created beautiful translucent panels containing butterflies, flowers, and leaves that he collected. I highly recommend visiting Manitoga, even if you can't get the complete experience with the house under repair. I was really inspired by Wright's landscape architecture, and the fact that he did most of the work on it himself. I may ask for a backhoe for Christmas, so I can start rolling the big boulders on my land around. I'm also trying to think up a name for the place. I wonder if there's an Algonguin word for "Round Table."
Here is a view of the house and studio (foreground) overlooking the quarry pool, and a view of the moss corridor.