Early Years and Career
It came as a surprise to me that such a renowned architect as Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was a fan and collector of Japanese woodblock prints and that especially in his later years, he relied on the profit from selling these prints. He attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison like I had, so I felt something in common with him. I go back in time to his early years and how he came to associate himself with Japanese woodblock prints, and how he became an architect of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan in the early 1920s.
Frank Lloyd Wright was an American architect, interior designer, writer, and educator who designed more than 1,000 projects which resulted in more than 500 completed works. His work includes original and innovative examples of many different building types such as offices, churches, schools, hotels, and museums. He was the architect of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan and spent almost three full years in Tokyo between 1917 and 1922 to design the hotel. During this time, he acquired thousands of woodblock prints for himself and other prominent American collectors. In his later years, he sold these woodblock prints to support himself financially.
Frank Lloyd Wright was born in the farming town of Richland Center, Wisconsin in 1867. He changed his name from Frank Lincoln Wright to Frank Lloyd Wright after his parents' divorce in 1881 when he was 14 years old, to honor his mother's Welsh family, the Lloyd Joneses. Prior to his parents' divorce, Anna, his mother, had been unhappy for some time with his father, William's inability to provide for his family. After the divorce, Frank assumed financial responsibility for his mother and two sisters as the only male left in the family.
Interest in Japanese Art
Wright attended a high school in Madison, Wisconsin but there is no evidence he ever graduated. He was admitted to the University of Wisconsin at Madison as a special student in 1886. He took classes part time and in 1887, he left the school without taking a degree, although he was granted an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University in 1955. He moved to Chicago and joined an architectural firm of Joseph Lyman Silsbee in 1887. While working for Silsbee, Wright meets Silsbee's cousin, Ernest Francisco Fenellosa, who happened to be America's foremost expert on Japanese art. Fenellosa stayed with Silsbee on his visits and at one meeting, Wright was shown the Japanese woodblock prints which Fenellosa had brought with him. Wright later recalls that "when I saw the fine prints, it was an intoxicating thing". Seeing these prints sparked an interest in Wright on Japanese art and architecture. What especially interested him was harmony with nature, simplification, honest use of materials and minimal decoration.
As background information, Japan had been closed to foreigners for more than two centuries beginning in the 1630s; this foreign policy remained in effect until the arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1853. This led to the opening of Japanese ports to foreign trade and the artistic benefits which came from it were to be seen almost immediately in Europe. By the 1870s, there was a steady flow of Japanese art and artifacts to Europe, particularly France. The Japanese woodblock prints, or the "uki-yo-e" (meaning "pictures of the floating world") especially inspired the leading artists of the time, such as Manet, Degas, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. What was happening in Europe, particularly France, eventually made its way to America. In America, at this early stage, until the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, interest in Japanese art was confined to a few artists and collectors in the major cities.
Wright's first direct experience of Japanese architecture came at the World's Colombian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World. Carpenters from Japan were sent to reconstruct a replica of Ho-o-den, a residential temple complex which had been the private home of the imperial regent Yorimichi Fujiwara (990-1074). It was the merging of religious and domestic forms in the building that appears to have made a lasting impression on Wright.
Wright's architecture was influenced by the Japanese concept of architectural space where "space was one of total flexibility. The ceiling,columns, and floor were the only fixed structural members of a building: what little there was in the way of furniture was easily movable and rooms could be completely changed by addition or removal of screens and doors and the temporary placement of appropriate objects, as the occasion demanded". (from Margo Stipe, "Frank Lloyd Wright and the Inspiration of Japan",p.6)
Similarly, Wright's houses rejected the idea of the house as a large box which contains smaller boxes and introduced the idea of continuous space. He was one of the first architect to introduce this concept.
Visit to Japan
Wright visited Japan for the first time in 1905. By that time, Wright had undoubtedly become familiar with Fenellosa's ideas on Japanese art and how its aesthetic principles could be applied to architecture. Apparently, not much is known about his three month stay in Japan in 1905. He stayed in various cities, including Shikoku, Nagoya and Kyoto. When Wright sailed back to America, he took back a head full of architectural ideas and boxes of woodblock prints, several hundred by the artist Hiroshige alone. Hiroshige was one of the most famous woodblock print artist of his time.
While Wright was still married to his first wife, he began an affair with Maymah Cheney, the wife of Edwin Cheney for whom Wright designed a house. In 1909, Wright abandoned his first wife and six children and left for Europe with Maymah. They stayed mainly in Italy and upon his return to the States a year later, Wright began constructing his home called "Taliesin" in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The term "Taliesin" in Welsh means "shining brow".
The Imperial Hotel
In 1913, Wright and Maymah Cheney, his mistress, visited Japan. Wright asserted that the trip was the invitation of the Emperor, but the real purpose of the trip was to purchase Japanese prints for re-sale to American collectors. During the course of the visit, Wright was contacted by the representatives of the Emperor who informed him of of the Court's wish to replace the old Imperial Hotel in Tokyo built in the 19th century by German investors with a new, deluxe building which would attract foreign visitors to the city. The commission was important to Wright because it gave him the opportunity to design on a grand scale, something which had been denied to him until then.
The following year in 1914, the fire at Taliesin devastated Wright's blossoming professional and personal life. While Wright was away in Chicago, one of the servants set fire to the house and killed Maymah and her two children. After this tragedy, he started a self destructive relationship with Miriam Noel, who took drugs and was emotionally unstable.What saved him was the commission to design the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which became official in 1916. Wright came to Tokyo in 1917 with Miriam. Until 1922, Wright basically lived in Tokyo with occasional trips home.
Wright's version of the Imperial Hotel was designed in the "Maya Revival Style" of architecture. It incorporates a tall, pyramid-like structure and also loosely copies Maya motifs in its decorations. The main building materials are poured concrete and concrete block, and it was completed in 1923.
In the same year, the Kanto Great Earthquake struck Tokyo and the surrounding area. The earthquake measured a magnitude of 7.9.
A telegram reported the following:
Hotel stands undamaged as monument to your genius. Congratulations.
In reality, the building had damage; the central section slumped, several floors bulged, and four pieces of stonework fell to the ground. The major damage was on the foundation. The foundation was an inadequate support and did nothing to prevent the building from sinking into the mud to such an extent that it had to be demolished decades later. But most importantly, despite the damage, the hotel remained standing.
In 1968, more than 40 years after it was built, the facade and pool were removed to the museum called Meiji Mura, a collection of buildings mostly from the Meiji Era located near Nagoya. The rest of the structure was demolished to make way for a new hotel on the site.
Wright began collecting Japanese woodblock prints when he first visited Japan in 1905. He became an active dealer in these prints and frequently served as both architect and art dealer to the same clients after he returned to the U.S. For many years, Wright was a major presence in the Japanese art world, selling a great number of works to prominent collectors.
His last visit to Japan was in 1922, the year before the earthquake. He was unable to buy more prints during his visit so presumably, he bought prints off one collector and sold it to another when he returned to the U.S. Wright, however, he had the tendency to live beyond his means and this led to great financial trouble for him. He was forced to sell off much of his art collection in 1927 to pay off outstanding debts. The Bank of Wisconsin claimed his Taliesin Home the following year. Wright continued to collect and deal in Japanese woodblock prints until his death in 1959. The sale of these prints saved him financially throughout his life. Wright's life work was architecture, but dealing in these prints paid Wright's bills.
Wright received a Gold Medal Award from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1941. The American Institute of Architects awarded him the AIA Gold Medal in 1949. He designed over 400 building structures of which about 300 survive as of 2005. Five have been lost to forces of nature and several notable Wright buildings were intentionally demolished.
After Wright`s death, most of his archives were stored at the Frank Lloyd Foundation in Taliesin (in Wisconsin), and Taliesin West (in Arizona).
He still remains one of the greatest architects of the 20th century.
David J Gill from Oakland, California on October 23, 2014:
Good article and well chosen images, but you do not mention the superlative book by Julia Meech. It is "Frank Lloyd Wright and the Art of Japan: The Architects Other Passion."
Takako Komori (author) from Yokohama, Japan on August 23, 2012:
Thanks all, for your thoughtful comments!
Vanderleelie on August 23, 2012:
An interesting story, linking Wright's personal interest in Japanese art and aesthetics with his professional architectural practice. Voted up and shared.
Anders R on January 14, 2012:
Frank Loyd Wright was a taste maker in the US.
His way of displaying Japanese prints in the houses which he built added to the unique experience for the owners as well as the visitor. His love for Japanese prints made him into a dealer of Japanese prints rather then anything else.
Today's dealers of Japanese prints you can find here:
Several of these present day dealers have prints which used to be owned by Frank Loyd Wright.
Luke Faragher from London on December 15, 2011:
Interesting, very informative!