NEW YORK - Two masterpieces of modern American furniture make a rare New York appearance on December 18, when a Frank Lloyd Wright desk and armchair from the S.C. Johnson Administration Building will be featured in Sotheby’s Important 20th Century Design sale. When Wright’s “modern cathedral” opened in 1939, its streamlined curves announced a dramatic aesthetic change from his more rectilinear Prairie School works. The Administration Building’s sleek furnishings were as integral to Wright’s vision as the architecture, and the Johnson company has honored that vision by keeping most of them on site in Racine, Wisconsin; the last time one of the desks appeared at auction was in 1984. The desk at Sotheby’s was acquired around 1950 by a chemist who worked at a company connected with S.C. Johnson, then passed down to his son and grandson. It has never before been offered at auction.
“These are defining icons of American modernism,” says Jodi Pollack, head of the Sotheby’s New York 20th Century Design department. “Everywhere we’ve showed them, they just stop people in their tracks.” And no wonder. The desk and armchair are magnificent examples of Wright’s genius for industrial design: elegant, efficient, and practical. (The desk drawers, for example, are set well above the floor, making it easy to mop underneath.) While the furniture still in use in Wisconsin has necessarily been extensively repaired and reconditioned, these pieces are virtually intact. The enameled steel on both is in its original condition, as is the armchair’s upholstery. The desk’s wood surfaces are made of black walnut, which indicates the desk was originally located in the Administration Building’s executive offices. (The clerical staff’s desktops were maple.)
“This is Wright in the late 1930s, really entering modernism,” comments Pollack. “The desk and chair are immediately recognizable images that resonate with everyone.”