props for the good life

This past weekend, I was in Arizona, and had the opportunity to tour Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert winter camp.

Never before was I so cognizant of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ability to pair an understanding of the way objects and space influence the way we relate to each other with a sensitivity to our impact on the environment. Wright’s Taliesin West is the perfect example of how we can care about stuff and still be respectful environmental stewards.

Our tour guide at Talisien West was phenomenal, both knowledgeable and entertaining, and she shared a Wright quote that’s been burned in my mind every since:

“Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities.”

Our tour guide explained that Wright had six pianos on the property before they installed electricity.

Being in a Frank Lloyd Wright house is very much about the experience, and Wright understood that the things we surround ourselves with, the spaces and objects that are constructed by humans, have a huge impact on the quality of our experience.

Talisien West served not only as the winter home of Wright and his wife, but for all the students in his architectural fellowship program. As our tour guide led us into the smallest of the property’s theaters, she explained that students who attended the program in the 1930s were instructed to bring two things – a sleeping bag and a tuxedo or ball gown.

Once a week, in that small, intimate theater, they would hold Taliesin Nights, events where students dressed up and got together for fellowship and merriment, a welcome respite from and reward for a week of hard labor.

As our guide explained this, she turned off the room’s main lights, to show us the lighting as Wright had envisioned it. The space was immediately transformed into a small, intimate space, and I immediately pictured dressed up architecture students mingling and talking. I have never wanted a time machine so much in my life.

Being in the space, and knowing what I know about historical clothing, I was able to construct that scene in my mind. It is telling that Wright instructed the students to bring ball gowns and tuxedos – dressing up was a key point in setting the stage for the event. Wright understood that the things we surround ourselves with serve as essential props for experiencing life and communing with the people around us.

Since leaving Taliesin, I have a desire to recreate that moment for myself. The closest thing I can imagine to this that I have ever experienced were the Friday night parties at the Alt Design Summit.

As I processed my experience at Taliesin, I started thinking about Pinterest, and it’s meteoric rise in popularity. What is it that has drawn so many people to the site so quickly?

Most of live in a world lacking in luxury. And by luxury, I don’t mean yachts and mansions. Most of world live in a world where nothing around us feels special. Not the things in our homes. Not the clothes we wear. Not the spaces we inhabit or the events we attend.

As a society, we’ve become pretty casual and pretty generic. And that behavior is reinforced. Overdress for an event, and inevitably somebody will ask you, “why are you so dressed up?”

But I believe that many of us, like Wright, crave a little luxury. We want the things in our lives to feel special and transformative. But we don’t want to be seen as too extravagant or different from the herd. We don’t want to break any social taboos.

Enter Pinterest.

Pinterest lets us indulge our desires for luxury and beauty and specialness. It lets us dream about having things, not because a corporation told us we should, but because they fill some innate desire that isn’t being met in our everyday lives.

My trip to Taliesin West absolutely reinforced for me that Stuff Does Matter. And that belief is reinforced every time I look at Pinterest. The things we surround ourselves with absolutely have the ability to transform our experiences, but most of what we have, what we’re told is acceptable to have, is too mundane to be transformative. The stuff that really matters is that stuff that is special and transformative and helps enhance our social and private experiences.

And wanting this stuff is not inherently bad.

If I learned anything from Wright and my trip to Taliesin West, it’s that it’s possible to use things and spaces to enrich our every day lives, while still being cognizant of the environment that surrounds us and makes it all possible.

2 responses to “props for the good life”

  1. Sami

    My degree exhibition (called “The certain charm of quirky ordinariness”) was all about collections of items in the home and what value they have had and have now, so I definitely see where you’re coming from. I looked at Gaston Bachelard’s book “The Poetics of Space” which is an interesting (if a little heavy-going) book about spaces we exist in.

    I looked at the jars and jars of nails and screws in my Grandad’s shed as an example- they were once really valuable, as he couldn’t nip down to the DIY store in post-war Britain and grab what he wanted- they had to be picked up from under cabinets if dropped, and re-used if possible. They were valuable. Now, the shed is like a time capsule to me- it takes me straight back to my childhood, playing with offcuts of wood and half-dried up paint with my Grandad. These objects are now so full- to bursting- with imbedded memories and, weirdly, love. Yep, love… in a rusty old nail. They’re still valuable, but in a completely different way.

    Sorry for the completely random blab! Hope you enjoy Poetics of Space- it’s a nice book to dip in and out of.

    Sami x

  2. ks sunflower

    Sami, that was not a “random blab.” You shared an intimate, meaningful anecdote that underscored the theme of this blog. I just discovered the blog by browsing Design Sponge, and am grateful I did.
    This blog has power – of vision and remembrance.

    I grew up in Kansas in the 1950s and 60s. I remember those little jars of nails and screws as does my husband. Our grandfathers, uncles and fathers all collected them. Our daughter grew up around them as well.There is such a sweet universality about these memories. They recall hardship, strength of survival, the value of the commonplace and love for those who lived understanding what it means to truly value the small things in life.

    Thank you for sharing, and thanks for the reference to the book.

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