The seminal American architect Frank Lloyd Wright began designing a house for a wealthy newspaper publisher, Kansas Governor, and eventually Senator, Henry J. Allen, in 1915. The only residence designed by Wright in Wichita, KA, the Allen House was completed in 1918 and is considered the last of Wright’s celebrated Prairie Houses. Wright employs his signature architectural language for the residence: an emphasis on a horizontal order, muted, organic colors, and an all-encompassing roof.  However, the Allen House is distinct because of its strong correlation to traditional Japanese architecture; the two-story elevation of the house encloses a garden and lily pool, hidden from any exterior view. Furthermore, Wright did not use any solid colors for the interior, but instead opted for gossamer autumnal shades. The Allen House’s unique integration of a balanced composition and color also reveal Wright’s interest in traditional Japanese woodblock prints.[1]

Frank Lloyd Wright first encountered Japanese ukiyo-e prints in the 1890s as a young architect working in Chicago, Illinois. Wright was immediately enthralled with the medium; he admired Japanese artists’ manipulations of abstracted, geometric forms to illustrate natural landscapes. Wright began to collect prints in the 1890s and in 1905, he traveled to Japan for the first time and returned with a large collection of woodcuts. Japanese woodblock prints, made available after the opening of Japan to trade in 1852, were particularly appealing to Western enthusiasts for their portability and modest prices. Over the course of his life, Wright came across approximately 20,000 Japanese prints and established himself as the most influential ukiyo-e collector in the Midwest. Thus, Wright spent the early 20th century selling prints and frequently encouraged his architectural clients to decorate with the exotic objects.[2]

Just three years before commencing his work on the Allen House in 1915, Wright wrote and published a book about Asian prints, The Japanese Print. Wright expounds on Japanese artistry and states, “With all its informal grace, Japanese art is a thoroughly structural art, fundamentally so in any medium…. The realization of the primary importance of this element of ‘structure’ is also at the very beginning of any real knowledge of design. And at the beginning of structure lies always and everywhere geometry.”[3] For Wright, this emphasis on composition extends beyond the two-dimensional medium and is essential to his own manipulations of space.

This drawing by Wright in Cooper Hewitt’s collection, Piano Bench and Taboret, Henry J. Allen Residence, Wichita, KA, 1917, may not be an explicit imitation of Japanese prints, however it does share a similar visual vocabulary. Notwithstanding that the bench and table both consist of sharp, rectangular panels of wood, Wright sustains a light atmosphere through his expert employment of negative space within the objects. The geometric piano bench and taboret also stand in stark opposition to the large bonsai tree sitting atop the taboret. The tree is the only curvilinear form in the drawing; its branches seem to erupt from the vase, extending beyond the table’s edges. The bonsai tree is an explicit reference to Asian flora and became popular in the West by virtue of their presence in Japanese prints. Moreover, the cylindrical vase is the only object with any painterly ornament and the illustration suggests a rendition of a woodblock print. Although the figurative details are small, the blue and orange hues recall the idiosyncratic representation of landscape in Japanese art. Wright’s inclusion of Japanese motifs in this preparatory drawing testifies to his fascination with the printed medium and his efforts to synthesize foreign artistry with his own architectural vision.


[1] Pamela D. Kingsbury, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Allen House,” Structurist, no.35-36 (1995-1996), 36-39.

[2] Julia Meech, “The Early Years of Japanese Print Collecting in North America,” Impressions, no. 25 (2003), 15.

[3] Frank Lloyd Wright, The Japanese Print, (Paris: Klinckieck, 2012), 15.

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