Only complete Frank Lloyd Wright interior in Europe installed at the V&A

After twenty years in boxes a friend of the patron’s family funds its display

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The only complete Frank Lloyd Wright interior in Europe opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum on 20 January after nearly twenty years in storage through lack of funds. An entire office complete with walls, floor and ceiling forms the centrepiece of a new gallery devoted to the work of the American architect. The room was originally designed for the Pennsylvanian department store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann from 1935. Wax-finished cypress plywood was the basic material, including a large relief, unprecedented in his oeuvre, covering the entire wall above Kaufmann’s desk. Wright’s yellow on white upholstery—wool carpet and mercerised cotton, rayon and cotton chenille—was made by Loja Saarinen, head of the weaving workshop at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Detroit.

Following the death of Edgar Kaufmann the office was dismantled and moved to the headquarters of the family’s charitable trust. In the late1960s approaches were made to the Avery Library, Columbia University and to the Met. In 1972 Edgar Kaufmann Jr formally offered the office as a gift to the V&A; it arrived in 1974. After a brief showing that year (it proved extremely difficult to reassemble all the small pieces of plywood in the mural without a proper plan) it was packed away. The decision to install it in the museum’s new Henry Cole Wing in 1989 led to its restoration and trip to Japan for the Wright exhibition in 1990.

The funding for the present installation comes largely from Paul Mayen, a family friend of Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr. Also on show in the new space will be furniture, metalwork, prints, books and graphic designs. With the assistance of the National Art Collections Fund the museum has recently purchased a stained glass window made for the Avery Coonley Playhouse in Riverside, Illinois (1912), featuring a geometric design based on balloons, confetti and American flags. The installation of the Kaufmann office is examined in detail in a new book by Christopher Wilk of the museum’s woodwork department (88pp. 67 b/w 4 col. ills. £14.95). Drawing on the 100,000 letters and 21,000 drawings in the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Mr Wilk provides a detailed history of the construction and later fortunes of the office, and sets it within the context of Wright’s career.

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