December 2, 2022


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Russel Wright: Nature’s Scholar, from Residence to Desk

American Trendy water pitchers designed by Wright. Photograph by Masca.

For a designer with as diverse an output as Russel Wright, summing up his work in a single object or assortment is a troublesome problem. Manitoga, the 75-acre web site he conserved in New York’s Hudson Valley and the place he constructed his dwelling, Dragon Rock, comes near exemplifying Wright’s design aesthetic and philosophy. A surprising web site the place indoors and out, dwelling and nature effortlessly merge, this was not simply the place Wright known as dwelling but in addition his office and the perfect showcase for the designer identified for creating lovely, sensible and reasonably priced housewares and furnishings, a lot of which have been impressed by nature.

Donald Albrecht is vice chairman of the board for Manitoga/The Russel Wright Design Middle and curator of structure and designer on the Museum of the Metropolis of New York. He’s co-curated reveals on Wright’s work for the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Artwork on the State College of New York in New Paltz, in addition to curated reveals on different midcentury artwork and design figures together with Eero Saarinen and Dorothy Draper. Right here, he shares his insights on the lasting affect of Wright’s work and why we must always all plan a visit to Manitoga.

Russel Wright. Photograph from Manitoga Archives.

Atomic Ranch: What specifically attracts you to midcentury figures and designers?

Donald Albrecht: It was a really dynamic, fascinating interval in American life and Russel Wright was a significant determine throughout that period who tried to meet American beliefs of egalitarianism and what he would name “good design for everyone.” With a burgeoning center class that was occurring after the Second World Battle, there was an try to succeed in the widest viewers, not

that simply the elite would have however that everyone would be capable of take pleasure in. I discover the cultural and social dimensions of the work of those architects and designers like Russel Wright significantly compelling—they’re not simply formalists who simply make shapes, they really participate in tradition and historical past.

AR: When did you first uncover Wright’s work?

DA: There was a e-book by William Hennessey [Russel Wright: American Designer, released in 2000] and I bear in mind studying it. Then Wright scholar and collector Robert Schonfeld introduced the thought to Cooper Hewitt about doing a Russel Wright present and a e-book. I co-curated it with him and he then contributed to the e-book. The Cooper Hewitt museum at the moment was significantly focused on [showcasing] these American figures, they’d achieved a present on Henry Dreyfuss, the nice industrial designer, and they also have been focused on American design and the notions of fine design for everyone.

Melamine tableware designed by Wright. Photograph by Masca.

AR: As a result of Wright did have such a wide range of work all through his profession, beginning in stage design and structure and all these various things for the house, and likewise a bit of bit of commercial work, how did you go about choosing the items that might greatest symbolize him within the exhibition?

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DA: We targeted totally on the home atmosphere, Wright did [design] merchandise for companies however his actual focus was the American dwelling. Particularly through the early years of the Despair when folks didn’t have some huge cash, he wished to discover a approach for folks to entertain elegantly and graciously with out a number of value. He and has spouse, Mary Wright, who was in some ways the enterprise genius behind Russel Wright, developed a collection of merchandise that might be utilized in a buffet service and they’d say, “You could not have the cash for a elaborate full sit-down dinner however you possibly can nonetheless have a sublime dinner by doing it in a buffet and it is going to be cheaper,” and so they [created] merchandise that fulfill that.

On the finish of the Second World Battle, as many individuals have been transferring to suburbia, they addressed that viewers and wrote a e-book known as Information to Simpler Dwelling which lays out menu plans, desk settings. It exhibits you new methods of residing that have been extra communal. He did about 11 traces of dinnerware all through his profession, and typically it was plastic, typically it was ceramic. After the struggle they did a line known as Iroquois, which was dishwasher-proof, as a result of that was one of many new home equipment that was being promoted after the Second World Battle and so they wished to have dinnerware that folks might use within the dishwasher, so that they have been very trendy in that approach.

[H]e’s a modernist, he’s focused on new supplies, however he all the time knew that most people wished some hook again to custom. In case you have a look at the American Trendy dishware, for instance, it’s mass-produced but it surely has glazes that look considerably handmade. [I]n the early Nineteen Thirties he created a line of merchandise known as Spun Aluminum, he had come to comprehend that sterling silver and pewter have been too costly for the market he wished to succeed in, so went to aluminum. He got here to comprehend, nevertheless, that the typical individual didn’t need the chilly, iciness of the aluminum of a hospital mattress and so he spun the aluminum, which suggests he rubbed it with an emery material [to give] it the softer end of pewter. He would promote it that approach, he would say that is cheap and it’s trendy, it’s aluminum but it surely has the attributes of the magnificence of the previous, it has the smooth end or patina of pewter. It additionally meant that you may combine and match … Russel Wright’s trendy items and the items of the previous.

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Wright’s Spun Aluminum assortment. Photograph by MASCA.

AR: Do you bear in mind your first go to to Manitoga and what that have was like?

DA: At the moment his daughter, Ann Wright, was nonetheless residing in the home … and I went to interview her in anticipation of [the Cooper Hewitt] exhibition. It’s outstanding, it’s very eccentric, which is ironic on condition that Russel Wright wished to enchantment to the overall viewers in his product design however when it got here to his own residence he created a one-of-a-kind expertise. He would argue that the house was a spot the place you may categorical your individuality and weren’t supposed to repeat his dwelling however you have been to take concepts he had introduced in his books and his merchandise and you may make your personal interpretation of the house, you may do your personal factor.

A winter view of Dragon Rock, Wright’s dwelling at Manitoga. Photograph by Vivian Linares.

AR: What do you assume that followers of his work can find out about him by going to the house versus simply having items from his collections?

DA: The house can present you how one can stay with nature comfortably and in concord, that was considered one of his main themes. Additionally you find out how the house could be a laboratory to your personal concepts, how one can take management of your personal dwelling and categorical your character. You additionally get a deeper appreciation for anyone. Russel Wright is predominately identified for his product designs for the house, that’s what’s within the public thoughts as a result of that’s what’s seen in museums, it’s what’s provided at auctions, you should purchase it on eBay. The truth that he additionally synthesized product design with structure, inside design and panorama is one thing most individuals don’t find out about, and so additionally, you will get a richer expertise of this crucial American designer.

It’s a 75-acre web site and he designed it additionally, he diverted a stream into an previous quarry pond [and] made a pool out of it, he carved particular trails. He had been a theater designer and whereas Wright left the theater, the theater by no means left him, so there’s a really theatrical dimension to the home, it’s very a lot of a showmanship sort of expertise, you’re on a stage in some ways. We do occasions wherein the general public sits on the rocks across the quarry pond and you’ll see the way it kinds a sort of amphitheater, and this was all created by him. It had been a logging and quarrying web site and he transformed it into a non-public residence and a nature protect.

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AR: Why do you assume his work continues to resonate so many many years later?

DA: I feel it embodies a selected second in American historical past, and significantly the late Forties and into ‘50s and ‘60s, when there was an optimistic, expansionist view of American life, and likewise the best way we will stay with nature. One of many issues he does, which is sort of uncommon, he doesn’t cowl over the proof of the previous makes use of of the positioning, initially it had been a quarrying facility and a logging facility, he leaves proof of that, so that you’ll discover all through the positioning steel parts that have been a part of the quarry, which is a really humbling factor to do. He’s letting you realize that’s he’s treading evenly on the land and that others had been there earlier than him and he’s not erasing the historical past of the land, he’s revealing the historical past of the land. That’s a really environmentally pleasant method to do issues, he doesn’t bulldoze over the historical past, he retains the historical past after which he modifies it and works inside it, and we’re attempting to do the identical factor, we’re attempting to additionally work evenly on the land there.

Wright directs workmen at Manitoga. Photograph from Manitoga Archives.

AR: How are you and the opposite board members carrying on that preservation work?

DA: [W]e’re now within the strategy of restoring the panorama. We’ve simply developed a relationship with the Open House Institute and there at the moment are easements that can maintain the paths in perpetuity, so if anyone have been to purchase the property, they might not shut the paths to the general public. We’re persevering with that public entry to nature that Russel Wright wished by making the land extra accessible.

On the similar time, we’re restoring the home, we’re launching into an enormous street program that can make entry to the home a lot simpler for buses and excursions. We’re additionally selecting up on one thing which Russel Wright himself did, which is to make use of the home as a showcase for artwork installations and performances, so yearly an artist comes and does an set up on the home after which there’s a live performance. Individuals can come and see the home in motion, so we’ve picked up on that concept of utilizing the home as a venue for the humanities, and [that’s] very fashionable. [T]he concept of the artwork installations … goes again to one thing Russel Wright himself did, so there’s a bodily legacy and there’s [also] an mental legacy that we’re attempting to protect and advance.


For extra info on Manitoga/The Russel Wright Design Middle, go to