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AROUND HOME : Notes on Passion Fruit, Bushtits and Frank Lloyd Wright Chairs : HIGH STYLE : The Wright Stuff

January 17, 1988|DAVID LASKER

INTEREST IN FRANK Lloyd Wright has never been higher. An original Wright chair was recently auctioned for $110,000. For less affluent fans of the late architect, reasonably priced reproductions are now available; the mystery is why it took so long.

The answer lies in Wright's perfectionist approach: He thought of a house as a design totality with interior furnishings reflecting his architectural form. Prosaic concerns like comfort and lower back support came second. Consequently, many of his chairs with their ramrod-straight backs are downright clunky today. Then, too, Wright's highly principled widow, Olgivanna, held out for many years against selling reproduction rights. That's where Cassina, the high-end Italian furniture manufacturer, comes into the picture.

In 1971, Rodrigo Rodriquez, Cassina's vice chairman, journeyed to Taliesin West, Wright's sprawling home and design institute outside Phoenix, Arizona, seeking permission from Olgivanna to produce a line of Wright furniture. He sat next to her as a guest of honor at dinner that night. She rose to deliver a speech and, he recalls, "I saw her legs knocking against the front of the chair so I pulled it back." Mrs. Wright's sudden move caught him unawares, and he put his hand out to prevent her falling to the floor. Mistaking his good intentions, "She shot me a look as if to say, 'Oh, those lecherous Italians.' " The deal was off.

Fifteen years later, coinciding with a renewed interest in the late architect, Cassina has finally obtained reproduction rights and recently added six Wright designs, ranging from 1895 to 1956, to its I Maestri series (which also includes furniture by Le Corbusier, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Gerrit Thomas Rietveld). Of particular interest is the Midway, 2, chair, created for a Chicago beer garden, which anticipates a virtual catalogue of 20th-Century design trends. The jazzy triangles running up the back presage Art Deco ornament; the spindly steel rods and ball feet are reminiscent of '50s chair bases, and the lighthearted, garish color combinations foretell Memphis--a remarkably prophetic chair for 1914.

The Midway, 2, chair is available through architects and interior designers from Atelier International at the Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles 90069, (213) 659-9402. The cost is about $900.

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