Frank Lloyd Wright Furniture
Completing the Artist’s Vision

Furnishings designed by the architect play an integral role in Frank Lloyd Wright homes, completing a picture of how people—and their things—were meant to occupy his iconic buildings.

© Jim Kruger/LandMark Photography

Frank Lloyd Wright
Furniture

Completing the Artist’s Vision

Great room interior view, Olfelt Home
Furnishings designed by the architect play an integral role in Frank Lloyd Wright homes, completing a picture of how people—and their things—were meant to occupy his iconic buildings.

Furnishings designed by the architect play an integral role in Frank Lloyd Wright homes, completing a picture of how people—and their things—were meant to occupy his iconic buildings.

Ⓒ Jim Kruger/LandMark Photography

Dining room complete with Wright-designed furnishings, Olfelt Home

“Wright designed all the built-in furnishings, which was most everything: desks and their drawers in all the bedrooms and living room, chairs, lighting, book shelves, dressers (in closets) and the dining room tables, chairs, dining room pendant, living room chairs, an integrated sofa and stools, and kitchen table and stools.”

John Olfelt

In a 1931 lecture, Frank Lloyd Wright said, “I have been black and blue in some spot, somewhere, almost all my life from too intimate contacts with my own furniture.”

Consequently, the architect designed furnishings fully integrated into his interiors. Less likely to bruise and more apt to appease his overarching aesthetics, Wright’s furnishings are as admirable as his buildings.

After moving into their Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in 1960, Dr. Paul Olfelt and his wife Helen bought only a few pieces of furniture.

“Other than beds and nightstands, I think the only furniture my parents ever purchased were two swivel chairs in the living room,” said John Olfelt, an architect for 3M. “In the overall environment of the space, Wright’s furniture is an integral part.”

As the architectural world celebrates the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birth, the Olfelt House, located near downtown Minneapolis, is for sale, currently listed at $1.3 million through Coldwell Banker Burnet's Berg Larsen Group.

In signature Wright style, the uncluttered residence features both built-in and freestanding furnishings that contribute to the artistic unity of the home.

“Wright designed all the built-in furnishings, which was most everything: desks and their drawers in all the bedrooms and living room, chairs, lighting, book shelves, dressers (in closets) and the dining room tables, chairs, dining room pendant, living room chairs, an integrated sofa and stools, and kitchen table and stools.”

Olfelt admired both the form and the function of Wright’s furnishings in his parents’ home.

“All were reasonably comfortable, but with straight backs, the chairs made you sit up straighter. The chairs had 90-degree backs and therefore were more formal,” he said.

“The long living room sofa was originally designed to have a back 90 degrees off the seat, but was changed to have about a five to ten degree offset from the 90, to be more comfortable. This change was done through the Taliesin apprentice and contractor.”

In an article published in 1969 in Northwest Architect, Olfelt’s late father, a radiologist, wrote, “We hoped for a refuge from the world for part of our day, a place where we could enjoy nature and the beauty of man’s creativeness in harmony with nature. We wanted a home that by virtue of its character would help us and our children be dissatisfied with the ordinary.”

The house so powerfully influenced his son that in college John Olfelt switched majors from pre-med to studio arts and architecture.

“I think any good design has some aspect of being ‘dissatisfied with the ordinary.’ Design should challenge our established perceptions and expand our thinking,” said Olfelt, who was three years old when his family moved into the house.

“As I got older, I began to appreciate how everything was integrated, from floor to ceiling, the lighting and the furniture. Wright was consistent, ” Olfelt said.

Wright’s furnishings designed specifically for the Olfelt House reflect the house’s blueprints. Just as his cantilevered sofas and chairs mirror the terraces of Fallingwater, the Olfelt House includes geometrical influences from the residence’s footprint.

“The home was designed on a parallelogram with a 60 and 120 degree grid,” said Olfelt. “That means that nearly all the walls fell on that grid, as well as the furniture. Even the desk drawer pulled out at an angle following this grid — not 90 degrees, as expected. The dining room table got an extension from an adjacent table that is integrated into the bookshelves.”

Asked whether he had a favorite place in the home to sit, Olfelt said, “Definitely. The living room: a beautiful space with warmth, sunlight and views. A lot of daydreaming could — and did — occur there.”

Exterior View
Ⓒ Jim Kruger/LandMark Photography

Exterior View, Olfelt Home

Exterior View
Ⓒ Jim Kruger/LandMark Photography

Exterior View, Olfelt Home

Exterior View
Ⓒ Jim Kruger/LandMark Photography

Entryway view, Olfelt Home

living room
Ⓒ Jim Kruger/LandMark Photography

Great room view, Olfelt Home

living room
Ⓒ Jim Kruger/LandMark Photography

Great room view, Olfelt Home

living room
Ⓒ Jim Kruger/LandMark Photography

Great room view, Olfelt Home

foyer
Ⓒ Jim Kruger/LandMark Photography

Foyer view, Olfelt Home

basement
Ⓒ Jim Kruger/LandMark Photography

Basement view, Olfelt Home

kitchen
Ⓒ Jim Kruger/LandMark Photography

Kitchen view, Olfelt Home

bedroom
Ⓒ Jim Kruger/LandMark Photography

Bedroom view, Olfelt Home

bedroom
Ⓒ Jim Kruger/LandMark Photography

Bedroom view, Olfelt Home

bathroom
Ⓒ Jim Kruger/LandMark Photography

Bathroom view, Olfelt Home

bathroom
Ⓒ Jim Kruger/LandMark Photography

Bathroom view, Olfelt Home

Northwest Architect is the publication of the Minnesota Society of Architects. Its July-August 1969 issue included a story about this historic residence, written by Dr. Paul Olfelt.

“In September, 1958, we discussed the preliminary drawings of our home with Mr. Wright at Taliesin. He was very warm and friendly toward us, putting us quite at ease. He seemed anxious that we liked the house. He showed his pleasure over the house and seemed to encourage us with remarks as, “beautiful little nest.” He said the home grew from “within out” and yet was appropriate to the hill of the site. He took the time to discuss organic architecture. We proposed changes, which for the most part he accepted, since they did not interfere with his original concept. We proposed a basement for additional space under the living area. The preliminary drawings had all of the house on slab with no basement. Because of the existing grade, a basement could easily be achieved. He agreed but cautioned us never to put anyone down there. It would be all right for a shop and storage space but that would have to be all. We also wished not to have doors directly to the outside terrace from the bedrooms, in an effort to control the children. He agreed but told us not be so rigid with our children. He said that the children usually turn out just like the parents, “usually no better and no worse.”

Wright originally designed furniture for his family home and studio in Oak Park. He designed innovative, site-specific furnishings for his subsequent homes: Taliesin in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona.

At the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation since 1990, Margo Stipe serves as curator and registrar of collections. She’s the author of “Frank Lloyd Wright: The Rooms: Interiors and Decorative Arts.”

“Wright wanted the house or the space to be an integrated whole aesthetically, and believed the only way to do that was to design all elements of the space,” she said. “Throughout his career, he designed custom sofas, chairs, library tables, side tables, sideboards, dining sets, desks, display cabinets, lighting, hassocks. The 1955 commercial Heritage Henredon line included a full line of furniture, much of which was designed to be interchangeable in different rooms.”

The architect preferred oak, mahogany, cypress, maple, birch, elm and American walnut. Seats were made of leather or upholstery fabric. Stipe noted that Wright also redesigned pieces of purchased furniture.

Wright also invested his imagination in other elements of interior design. The Olfelt family dined on china designed by Wright.

“He also designed vases, stunning art glass lighting and windows during the Prairie era, perforated board designs for clerestory windows for the later houses, china for Midway Gardens and the Imperial Hotel, and murals for both,” Stipe said.

“He designed a number of fabrics, including upholstery, rugs, and a line of textiles and wallpapers for Schumacher in the mid-1950s, as well as a paint palette for Martin Senour Paints.”

Wright’s original furnishings can be purchased at auction. Stipe said, “I believe early pieces do very well, and the later pieces seem to be going up.”

For one of America’s most celebrated architects, the home was an art form.

“Wright believed a house should be a complete work of art — all parts relating to whole, all of it working together, a whole greater than the sum of its parts,” Stipe said. “To accomplish this, he believed the architect should design the house and its furnishings. The result should be both a functional and a beautiful space. Beauty was not only important, he believed it was essential.”

As for the architect’s opinion of client furnishings not of his design, Wright is on the record. In a lecture titled “The Cardboard House,” he said, “But when the building itself was finished, the old furniture the clients already possessed went in with them to await the time when the interior might be completed. Very few of the houses were, therefore, anything but painful to me after the clients moved in and, helplessly, dragged the horrors of the old order along after them.”

Wright’s ideal clients granted him full influence over furnishings.

Stipe said. “Early houses where budget allowed this include the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, IL; the Martin House Complex in Buffalo, NY; and the Meyer May House in Grand Rapids, MI. All of these houses have been beautifully restored and are open to the public.”

Enjoy a virtual tour of the Olfelt home here.

About the Author

Colleen Smith

Colleen Smith is a longtime arts writer based in Denver.

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