New Furniture Collection Reintroduces and Reimagines Designs by Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright meticulously designed every aspect of a space—right down to the furniture and decor—and now a new partnership will bring back iconic pieces, along with new interpretations and designs. Wright’s foundation and Steelcase have joined forces to release furniture and textiles beginning in 2023. The debut Racine Collection includes a desk and chair, along with a never-released lounge chair, originally designed for SC Johnson and produced by Steelcase in 1939. The project helped re-establish Wright’s architectural preeminence. Now, it will introduce him to a new generation, says Sally Russell, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation’s director of licensing. “He was a revolutionary and constantly evolving in his own style,” she says. “The Racine Collection is a very good representation of design that’s just as modern and breaking with convention now as it was then.”
Here, Russell and Meghan Dean, director of product marketing for Steelcase, share how this collaboration came to be and preview the forthcoming collection.
Steelcase and Frank Lloyd Wright have a long history of collaboration. What made the timing right for this new collaboration?
Meghan Dean: In the summer of 2020, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation CEO Stuart Graff connected with Allan Smith, who’s our chief revenue officer. There was an opportunity to really dig in, not only to Frank Lloyd Wright’s archives and the work he was able to do during his career, but also to really expand thinking around the organic design principles and create novel design and reintroductions and reinterpretations based on his thinking and his original design work.
Steelcase has always had Frank Lloyd Wright as part of our DNA, from 1939 when we were the manufacturer of the original furniture in the SC Johnson Administration Building in Racine (Wisconsin) all the way through 1985, when we purchased and became the stewards of the Meyer May House, which is an absolute jewel of a Prairie-Style home here in Grand Rapids, where we’re based. It was a natural fit.
Sally Russell: Through our entire path, it’s always been Steelcase and Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s just been a matter of time. There’s a lot more interest in innovation and seeing creative reinterpretation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design; I think Steelcase is a good partner with their ability to innovate as well.
You’re starting this collaboration with the Racine Collection, drawing on the first pieces Steelcase made for Wright. Tell people about what they can expect in this collection.
MD: There are two parts in the collection. One is reintroducing the original design that Wright had for the building— we’re calling that the signature line. We did painstaking research around the original design. We had the original archival shop drawings that helped us immensely as product developers. We color-matched the original red paint color that was used throughout the building. We even had our textile division, Designtex, do a very close match of the original textile that was used on the chair. So, all of those different components led us to have the ability to offer consumers a very close facsimile to what was originally produced back in the ’30s by Steelcase. The one main difference is that we did have to increase the size of the desk in terms of the height because people in 1939 were a lot shorter than they are now.
The modern collection is our reinterpretation of this design, so taking all the important design signatures but playing around with sizes to make them more appropriate for homes in 2022. You’re going to see a writing desk size and a couple of other size options. This desk was only ever produced in that wonderful burnt red color, but we know that a lot of our modern consumers want something that will fit more harmoniously into their environments, so we’re introducing some dark bronze, sandy creams, black and beautiful wood veneer. We’re also including a lounge chair in the collection, which we’re really excited about, because that was designed by Wright for the SC Johnson Building but it was never produced. We were able to find it in the archives and make it commercially available for the first time. It will be available to consumers in early 2023.
SR: Our store here at Taliesin West is planning on carrying a floor sample and then people can order custom to their liking.
Why start with this collection first?
MD: We really wanted to start where our relationship originally started. We always knew the reinterpretation of this original work was going to be an early part of this relationship.
SR: Another reason the Racine Collection was a good one to start with for us is that it breaks with people’s presumptions of what Frank Lloyd Wright is. Generally, Wright is associated with the Prairie School, but that was just one design style that Wright worked within. He was a revolutionary and constantly evolving in his own style, so I think the Racine Collection is a very good representation of design that’s just as modern and breaking with convention now as it was then.
What was the impact of the design of the SC Johnson Administration Building at the time?
SR: I think even at the time Wright was trying to break up the convention of offices. Even though he was assigned by this client this particular plot of land that was an industrial space—it wasn’t near nature and Wright always preferred to work close to the environment—so he had to create his own environment within this space. I think that’s something we think a lot about today in office and work spaces, trying to let in nature, but Wright was able to do that all the way back in the ’30s and have these relationships with the natural world as well as the people within the office, having this open office plan where you can see everyone and interact regularly.
What was the co-creation process like?
MD: In terms of working together, it’s been delightful. Steelcase takes this as a serious part of our heritage. We have the benefit for this first project that not only did we have the archive of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation but Steelcase has our own archivist and our own archives that we could tap into to find some of those original drawings and original correspondence.
SR: Any of these relationships involve a lot of trust between each partner. It’s fabulous that we’ve been able to find someone that’s so able to take on that mantle.
From a design perspective, how did you balance paying homage to the past and modernizing pieces for the needs and tastes of people today?
MD: We worked with a team on this particular project that was very dedicated to making sure we got the authenticity and the integrity of the design nailed. As we move forward, we have had conversations about, if Frank Lloyd Wright was doing this now, he would have access to technology and to capabilities and materials that he didn’t have access to in his time, and, how would he use those? Would he use those? So we have really thought-provoking conversations about how we can think in the future about these projects.
We wanted to make sure we always worked within the parameters of what Wright’s taste and his design vision was while still saying, this is what modern people want or need or desire.
SR: For SC Johnson, Wright designed the desk to be relevant to the needs of the user, so some of the desks had modifications where a typewriter would fit, or a rolodex. There were all these considerations made for the user at that point, and I think we’ve done a good job of thinking through the users today and what they would need.
Frank Lloyd Wright was always coming up with novel solutions. What’s your favorite interior design innovation of his?
SR: One thing that’s pointed out a lot at Taliesin West is the use of lighting. There’s recessed lighting and path lighting. Wright thought a lot about light, both natural and artificial, and how he would use it to guide people through their properties and show the passage of time.
MD: That’s hard to answer. Wright’s career spanned so many decades—everything from turn-of-the-century work in Oak Park all the way through the Guggenheim. I would have to say that his office in Taliesin in Wisconsin is so beautiful. It has a little Japanese-inspired garden outside of it with a water feature and incredible views of plant life. It seemed like such a soothing place.
I spend so much time at the Meyer May House—there’s a dining table with tall-backed dining chairs and lights in each corner. It really creates a room within the dining room. It’s the most intimate and stimulating setting to have a meal. Thinking about how he used the furniture in the space to create that psychological comfort and that incredibly warm environment is really inspiring.
SR: Furniture for him was really small-scale architecture to create individual spaces and areas and guide people to enjoy the homes and buildings he designed.
What will be available in future collections, and do you have a timeline for those releases?
MD: We’re already well underway on development of a second collection, which is going to be sofas and lounge chairs. Designtex is already underway with the first textile and wallcovering collection, which we’re very excited about. It will have pattern and design inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. Our Designtex collection will be available next year. The lounge collection will also be available the later part of next year. The intention is that we continue to have this level of momentum.
Will people see reinterpretations and reintroduction of previous pieces in future collections?
MD: People will continue to see a blend of that—some reintroductions, some reinterpretations, and, then there’s a third category that we haven’t explored yet, which is novel design that’s inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. That’s what we’re anticipating for the third wave of this. We’re really excited about that and can’t wait to see what the years ahead produce.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.