The Wright Stuff: Manitoga
TWENTIETH-CENTURY DESIGNER RUSSEL WRIGHT arranged the footpaths cutting through the woodlands of his property in Garrison, New York, to be filled with small surprises. From up high, you look down to a sliver of meadow or find yourself walking beside carpets of moss. When you get to a cluster of cascading ferns, you hear a waterfall hidden behind a screen of trees. Wright’s house and studio, with low flat roofs planted with sedum, are situated as discreetly as swallows’ nests on the ledge of a cliff. They come shyly into your field of vision and vanish as you walk along. Though you might feel a flutter of excitement, it’s not about the view so much as a growing intimacy with the setting. That was Wright’s plan, to direct his guests to experience the natural world as part of his work of “living art”—the modern house, studio, and wilderness garden he named Manitoga, today a National Historic Landmark.
As a young man, Wright worked as a theatrical set designer but he became famous as an industrial designer of organically styled modern furniture and housewares. His 1932 so-called “pony chair” was used by board members at the Museum of Modern Art before being transferred into the permanent collection in 1958, and more than eighty million plates, cups, and saucers from his American Modern dishware line were manufactured between 1939 and 1959.
In 1942 Wright and his wife, Mary, herself a designer and sculptor, purchased seventy-seven acres in Garrison that included an abandoned quarry and adjacent hillside covered with second-growth forest—the land having been clear cut for logging in the 1800s—as well as a hodgepodge of brambles, rocks, and vines. It was their intention to use the place as a weekend retreat, staying in a small shack on the property until they built a house that would reflect their experiences in theater and design. As Wright began repairing the scarred landscape, he became one of the pioneers of American environmental practice, shaping the woodlands while preserving the human history of the site, even leaving iron quarry-cable hooks in the rocks. He dammed up the old quarry and reoriented a mountain stream to fill it for swimming. He dynamited ledges of granite to make steps for a waterfall. Gradually, he began cutting vistas, making room for selected plants that he discovered on the property and cultivated, and allowing hemlock and gray birch to grow in stands with mountain laurel and wildflowers flourishing underneath.
In 1950, the same year they adopted their daughter Annie, the Wrights published Guide to Easier Living with ideas for a modern, efficient, and casual lifestyle. They intended Manitoga to be their laboratory, but Mary died in 1952, leaving Russel in transformed circumstances with an unfinished project. Because he had come to love the property, he continued to sketch concepts for an idiosyncratic and highly individualized house for himself, his daughter, and their housekeeper. He wanted sleeping quarters situated in opposite wings of a central living space, with his bedroom and studio connected to the main house by a wooden pergola, and he wanted the structures to fit respectfully into the land. In the mid-1950s, he hired David Leavitt, an architect who had worked on major projects in postwar Tokyo and was known for a Japanese approach to American architecture. According to their agreement, following the outlines of Wright’s general plan, Leavitt would be responsible for the exterior while Wright served as general contractor and interior designer. Years later, Leavitt called it a “once-in-a-lifetime dream commission.” The multilevel complex they constructed—the main house and studio together—is sited into the edge of the quarry, with sliding Thermopane doors extending along granite slab terraces rising off the quarry pool. From certain angles, the house almost disappears, or, rather, turns into a clear container showcasing both the rugged sculptural fireplace made with uncut boulders that Wright referred to as the “burning heart of the house” and the principal structural support, a cedar tree stripped of its bark, rising off the flagstone floor of the living and dining areas. From other vantage points, the quarry pool, its stones, and the surrounding woodlands reflect onto the glass as in a mirror.
Wright filled the interior with objects that he designed, collected, adapted, and even handmade. In his study are a simple Formica table he designed with a circular top that revolves like a lazy Susan and a Valet chair by Hans Wegner. In the dining area, Eames chairs were adjusted to stand on three legs rather than four, so they would rest better on the uneven stone floor.
Wright enthusiastically experimented with unexpected combinations of natural materials and synthetic ones with which he had become familiar during his years in industrial design. He fused pine needles and epoxy resin for one ceiling treatment and he embedded pressed butterflies brought back from Brazil and Taiwan in a translucent sliding door panel for Annie’s bathroom—where she hung her towels on the upright branch of a dogwood tree. Every room linked to the outside with private patios and terraces. He designed the windows in his studio to slide down into the walls so that he could feel himself directly in the garden while working at his desk. The kitchen and dining area were conceived for modern efficiency, divided by a long cabinet with doors opening on both sides. Above the Formica countertop, Wright built an ingenious movable cupboard that could be raised so one could look out to the landscape while cooking. In Japanese fashion, he changed the fabrics, dishes, and even artwork according to the seasons—reds, browns, and oranges for winter contrasted with blues and greens in warm weather. Devising it at an optimistic moment in American design, Wright understood his project as a continuous celebration of natural beauty indoors and out. It is a pleasure to visit Manitoga and be reminded of his passion and ideals.