THE WILLEY HOUSE WAS WRIGHT'S FIRST HOUSE DESIGNED SPECIFICALLY FOR THE MIDDLE CLASS.
“The Garden Wall”, the Malcolm and Nancy Willey House of 1934, was built during the Great Depression. To make ends meet, in 1932 the Taliesin Fellowship was formed, wherein 23 young students paid handsomely to “learn while doing” from the master. In that same year An Autobiography was first published, a romanticized telling of Wright’s life and career up to that point, destined to inspire a new generation. The Willey’s were the first to respond. This small and entirely new kind of commission for Wright, became an incubator for forward-thinking ideas related to housing the emerging middle class. Ideas Wright developed for the Willey House while specific to time and place, were employed, expounded upon and refined over the next 25 years of his architectural practice. The Willey House was celebrated as the first actual commission on the drawing boards in the early years of the Taliesin Fellowship. And the first building in the prodigious body of work that constituted Wright’s last great period; Usonia.
The second Willey House scheme is notable for the new sense of informality it brings, the way rooms seamlessly flow into each other and then effortlessly blend with the outdoors, often blurring the distinction between inside and out. Dining and living spaces are not separated by partition walls but zoned using built-ins as cues, within a common space that makes the 1,350 square foot house seem much larger than it actually is. A major departure from all that preceded it, is the startling way that the kitchen is fully exposed to the living space, for the first time ever in a Wright house, or any architect designed home. Wright is credited with this particular innovation as well as others that began at the Willey House and are now among the most common features associated with modern living. The manner in which the rooms flow into one another creates not only a sense of unrestricted freedom of movement, but also lends a casualness to the environment, a response to the emerging societal trends of the 1930s.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s collaboration with the new breed of client he found in Malcolm and Nancy Willey, provided him a breakthrough he needed both creatively and in his intuitive understanding of how best to serve the needs of the rising middle class. The determined enthusiasm of Nancy Willey in particular, helped Wright reinvent the modern home, paving the way to Usonia, the final, triumphant period of his career, and consequently, driving innovations that influenced domestic architecture for generations to come.
TOTAL WORK OF ART
The Willey House is a prime example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s mid-career work. It epitomizes his principals of organic architecture made manifest. In addition, the Willey House is a rare extant example of a total work of art by Frank Lloyd Wright, it is unmodified and complete, with all the original furniture produced for the home, as well as additional furniture and built-ins designed by Wright for the house during the 1930s, but left uncompleted by the original owners, due to financial constraints.
A NEW SENSE OF SPACE
The monolithic application of the same types of red brick, inside and out, on walls and floors along with the use of a color impregnated plaster creates living spaces that flow into one another.
THE FIRST OPEN KITCHEN
Perhaps the most common attribute of any modern house today, the open kitchen plan was unheard of in 1934. In university life, the Willeys needed to entertain frequently, but could little afford a domestic servant. So the kitchen was exposed to the living/dining area making it possible for Nancy to stay connected to her guests while at the same time preparing for them.
TEMPLATE FOR USONIA, MODEL FOR THE AMERICAN RANCH HOUSE
The Willey House was the template for the scores of Wright-designed Usonian houses to come, but on another level, features Wright developed specifically for the Willeys; the open kitchen, zoned living/dining rooms, in-line arrangement of rooms, each opening to an outside terrace to promote casual indoor/outdoor living, had a persuasive influence on everything that followed.
Color photography © Matt Schmitt Photography