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June 10, 2012

Designing for Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple

This Is Folly's own John Moes is a Frank Lloyd Wright super fan. We're not kidding. Not only does he have a room full of books dissecting the works of the famous American architect, he started designing his own original furniture based on Prairie School principles. He even started a furniture company called Organic Design Operatives (ODO) in 2010 to produce and sell his Prairie-style home furnishings.

Imagine John's excitement when he received a call from the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation (UTRF), inviting ODO to design and produce custom Prairie-style tables and cabinets for Unity Temple's restoration gift shop. Chicago's Unity Temple is one of Wright's greatest works, considered by many historians as the first truly modern public building in the United States. John and ODO were, to say the least, honored.

Following are a few images that document the project from research and design exploration to production and delivery of the finished pieces in June of 2012. And John still gets the warm fuzzies when he thinks about his work being in one of Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple
Unity Temple (1905) Oak Park, Illinois.
Unity Temple Details

First, we set out to understand as much as we could about the building and its design. We were lucky to already have a ton of great reference books and images. And it was a good excuse to hop on the internet and order a couple of more books! One invaluable reference was Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple: A Good Time Place by Patrick F. Cannon. Unity Temple Restoration Foundation (UTRF) also sent over photos of their current make-shift shop, a list of requirements and some measurements of the relevant spaces. Following are some key ideas and understandings from our research.

The Seed-germ
Louis Sullivan, the legendary American architect that Wright affectionately called "Lieber Meister", set down the idea of the seed-germ in his volume A System of Architectural Ornament, According with a Philosophy of Man's Powers. This seed-germ, like its natural inspiration, is the main ordering idea behind a design. From this, a design grows organically according to its purpose, environment and available resources. In the case of Unity Temple, the square appears to be Wright's seed-germ. The square is evident in everything from plans and elevations to the art glass and furnishings. Presumably from Wright's perspective, the square was also a logical choice for a building to be made of concrete that would, for economic reasons, require the reuse of construction forms.

The Unit System
Wright liked to use a unit system, or underlying grid, when designing to "keep all to scale and ensure consistent proportion throughout the edifice" (A Testament, 1957). Later in his career, he employed grids of diamonds, triangles or circles. Here, the grid was made up of—you guessed it—squares! In this case, each square in the grid measures 6'-10", according to Joseph Siry in Unity Temple: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Architecture for Liberal Religion, 1998. One fun fact is that Unity Temple's 6'-10" module makes an appearance in the length of the our table tops!

Unity Temple Project Sketches and Plans
Sketches, plans and computer model proofs.

To the best of our knowledge, Wright did not design any freestanding cabinets for the building. Maybe this was a sacrifice to the lean construction budget. However, there are plenty of examples and documentation out there about how Wright did work out the furnishings for many of his other buildings.

Wright's approach to designing furnishings appears to be the same as his approach to designing buildings. The parts were to the whole as the whole is to the parts. So the furnishings were designed using the same design language and materials as was the building at large. In many cases, art glass designs reflected a home's floor plan or a table would be an abstraction of a home's elevation. So, furnishings for Unity Temple should reflect the same design language as the building itself—the square, the cube, the cruciform and the assembly of a whole out of seemingly independent parts. 

After a few days of ideation and sketching, we latched on to a few key concepts (see sketches above). 1) The cubes and cuboids that make up Unity Temple should be the basis for our designs. 2) We loved the ideas that played with the cruciform in plan. This seemed to us to be a strong characteristic of this building and would link these new pieces to it. 3) Inspired by Unity Temple's horizontal tiers and broad roof overhangs, we hit on the idea of increasing functionality and heightening drama by adding display shelves below overhanging table tops. 4) Like Wright, we loved the idea of celebrating the "breaking of the box" by incorporating rifts between the legs and side box volumes. These rifts would create shadow and could contain art glass, or just be backed with wood. As in the building, the rifts also foster the illusion of independent forms exploding outward in all directions, frozen in time.

With our rough designs in hand, we set out to translate those sketches into preliminary plans via CAD drafting and modeling software. As in Wright's day, we started with a plan, then moved to the front and side elevations.

Unity Temple Table Construction
Scrap wood mockups (two Images on left) and final construction out of red oak.

After some revisions to the preliminary plans, we whipped up some roughly-crafted full scale mockups out of scrap pine and plywood (above two images on right). While computer modeling gives you a pretty good idea of how a piece will look, we have found that mockups are the surest way to check proportions and functionality. In response to the mockups, we decided to refine the proportions of the designs a bit. With approval of the revised plans, stain samples and hardware by UTRF, we moved into the construction of the final tables out of plain-sawn red oak to match existing Unity Temple millwork (five photos on the right).

Unity Temple Tables
Finished display table in situ (left). Reception table (lower right). Note the ODO Arrowroot octagon table (upper right).
Unity Temple Tables
The project was featured on ODO's home page and documented with a special blog.


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