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20th Century Design

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kindergarten Utopia

According to his autobiography, Frank Lloyd Wright was born an architect – at least, that is what his mother famously prophesized. “The boy, she said, was to build beautiful buildings,” Wright recounts in his autobiography. To encourage her son’s nascent talents, she gave him a set of play objects called Gifts, designed by Friedrich Froebel, the inventor of kindergarten whose progressive education model Mrs Wright taught her children. Through such activities as folding and cutting squares of colored paper and arranging smooth wooden geometric blocks, Wright had an epiphany, thrilling at the “small interior world of color and form now came within grasp of small fingers.”

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FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT, AN IMPORTANT CLERESTORY WINDOW FROM THE AVERY COONLEY PLAYHOUSE, RIVERSIDE, ILLINOIS, CIRCA 1912. ESTIMATE $150,000–250,000.

Some 40 years, it was Froebel’s Gifts that would inform Wright’s plan for one of his most important commissions – the Coonley Playhouse, a 1912–13 addition to the 1908 estate Wright built for Chicago industrialist Avery Coonley and his wife, Queene Ferry. The commissioned building housed a kindergarten for Queene’s daughter and other local children and featured a band of 22 clerestory windows with shapes suggesting balloons and confetti as well as American flags in a design that Wright called a “Kinder-Symphony.”

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FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT, AN IMPORTANT CLERESTORY WINDOW FROM THE AVERY COONLEY PLAYHOUSE, RIVERSIDE, ILLINOIS, CIRCA 1912. ESTIMATE $150,000–250,000.

The windows were removed in the late 1960s during a restoration of the Playhouse and have been dispersed among private and public collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corning Museum of Glass and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has the finest examples. This spring, five Coonley Playhouse panels from the collection of American entrepreneur Thomas S Monaghan will be offered in Sotheby’s Important Design sale (24 May, New York).

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FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT, AN IMPORTANT CLERESTORY WINDOW FROM THE AVERY COONLEY PLAYHOUSE, RIVERSIDE, ILLINOIS, CIRCA 1912. ESTIMATE $150,000–250,000.

The Coonley Playhouse windows are singular in Wright’s career – he never repeated any variation of the circles and squares in glass. This was largely due to the complexity of the design and the challenge inherent in cutting glass circles and executing rounded zinc cames.

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FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT, AN IMPORTANT CLERESTORY WINDOW FROM THE AVERY COONLEY PLAYHOUSE, RIVERSIDE, ILLINOIS, CIRCA 1912. ESTIMATE $75,000–100,000.

Similarly, the palette is unique. Never again would Wright combine a selection of such vibrant colors in a similar composition. The effervescent yellow, red, blue, and green glass, called opak, was made exclusively in Germany and completely new to him. Characterized by a graphic, brilliant quality that was unaltered by the passage of light, opak was Wright’s favorite colored glass until he stopped using leaded glass in 1923.

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FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT, AN IMPORTANT CLERESTORY WINDOW FROM THE AVERY COONLEY PLAYHOUSE, RIVERSIDE, ILLINOIS, CIRCA 1912. ESTIMATE $75,000–100,000.

Designed soon after Wright returned to Chicago from after more than two years in Europe, the windows indicate the influence of modern art movements he saw there, including Vienna Secession, Cubism and Futurism, but their design is unlike anything that had been seen before in art, graphic design or stained glass. Gone are pendant chevrons and the warm, sunbaked colors of the Prairie Style that featured in his work before 1910, replaced by vivid primary and secondary hues. From a key turning point in Wright’s unique approach to abstraction, the windows represent not only his personal artistic reinvention but also a pivotal moment in the development of modernism.

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THE AVERY COONLEY PLAYHOUSE, RIVERSIDE, ILLINOIS, 1912–13.

“I have been a champion of his work for my entire life,” says Thomas Monaghan. “It is a joy for me to share my passion for his work with collectors worldwide this spring.’’

 

Adapted from a text by stained-glass consultant Julie Sloan.

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