Thursday, January 7, 2010

What you can learn from Frank Lloyd Wright...

If you ask most people in this country to name a famous Architect, I have found that nine out of ten people will say 'Frank Lloyd Wright'. If you probe further and ask them to name a building by this famous Architect, you might get 'Guggenheim' but more often you will get a blank stare followed by 'I'm really not sure'. I was always curious how Frank Lloyd Wright became so famous without anyone really knowing much of his work. Practically every book store has a book about him on their 'SALE' shelves, yet beyond a few notable buildings, most people are generally clueless about his work. As Designers and Architects, we aspire to be acknowledged and compensated for our work. I believe that Frank can offer us a little insight into how to do a better job of it.

-'Well now that he's finished one building, he'll go write four books about it' - Frank Lloyd Wright talking about Le Corbusier

This quote illustrates several of Wright's successful attributes. First, he detested any Architect who was gaining fame during his reign. He referred to himself as 'the World's Greatest Architect' and lashed out at anyone who suggested otherwise. Secretly, he was happy that 'the International Style' was making it's way to America and often copied the ideas of his contemporaries to make them better. Publicly, he said that he hated Architects such as Mies Van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius, but privately, he studied their work and learned from them. In this way, he was constantly able to re-create himself professionally without anyone thinking he was a plagiarist. You could say that Apple uses this same technique. They don't always invent the technology that they use, but they find a way to improve it and make it their own. This is a very FLW trait.

Secondly, this quote talks about self promotion. Wright could very well be guilty of the same thing that he is accusing Corb of. During the depression, when there was no work, he decided to write an Autobiography and embellish many of the details to make it read more like a novel. Wright was a tireless self promoter, often doing TV and radio spots in addition to maintaining two studios and dozens of projects at a time. When he had no projects,he conjured up a program for apprentices to come study with 'The World's Greatest Architect' and rich kids paid handsomely to live and work on FLW's farm. While the curriculum was focused on Architecture, he also had them working the fields and building his house. Genius.

'Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves.'

This is truly counter-cultural. During times of crises, most people would probably make sure that they have the necessities. But not Frank. When his family couldn't pay their food bills, he went out and bought a grand piano on credit. He believed that the small stuff would take care of itself. He always maintained the appearance (through his cars, clothes, and residences) that he was doing quite well, and therefore attracted the types of Clients who would pay his bills and indulge his eccentricities. As Designers, we rely on attracting the kinds of Clients who will allow us to do our best work. To a great extent, appearances are important. So if you think you can't afford that great web site, or that extravagant ride, think again. Frank wouldn't hesitate.

'The next one'

When asked what was his favorite building or his greatest project, Frank would always say 'The next one'. This almost always ensured that he would stay on the radar because everyone would always be waiting to see what was next. As George Costanza would agree, you have to always leave them wanting more. As Designers, we often focus on what we've done as a barometer of how well we're doing. Maybe it's time to re-direct that focus on what is to come as way of getting people interested in our work. Frank would often dream of 'larger than life' projects that of course, would never get built, but they did get him attention. His designs for a mile high building or the ideal city are the stuff that museum exhibitions are still made of.

'Maybe we can show Government how to operate better as a result of better Architecture.'

Being the ego maniac that he was, Frank never believed that anything was beyond his grasp. I have written about this before, but it was never more true than in the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. He was the true Renaissance man. He enjoyed writing, music, art, architecture, cuisine, travel, culture, and he had an opinion about it all. He painted his own car Cherokee Red because at that time cars only came in black. He felt that he could do or improve upon anyone's work and he never took no for an answer. When building the Guggenheim, he stayed at the Plaza hotel and re-designed the suite to meet his needs. Can you imagine?

'Mr. Hotel Owner, I'm going to be staying here for a bit, so I'm going to bring in some construction crews to re-do my room while I'm here. That's OK, right?"

As a Designer, you have an opinion. A perspective. Use it. Madonna once wrote that most people don't get what they want because they don't say what they want. I'm not a Madonna fan, but I couldn't agree more. I think Frank would have agreed too.

So if you are into fame and success, perhaps you should take some cues from Frank Lloyd Wright. More than 50 years after his death, people are still talking about him and celebrating his work. Remember that every day is an opportunity to slam your competition, promote yourself, and address your adoring public. Just remember to exit on a high note and keep them wanting more.