Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Next Generation of Flooring: Magnesite, Star Trek and Frank Lloyd Wright's Favorite Material of the "Buffalo Venture"

It wasn't easy, but I've found a connection between the Star Trek and Frank Lloyd Wright universes:  magnesite.

Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes)
While watching an old episode of Star Trek:  The Next Generation (thank you, Roku), I stumbled upon a familiar term: Commander Riker exposed an elicit cargo of magnesite, smuggled by Klingon femme fatales, Lursa and B'Etor in the episode "Firstborn."

At first, I scratched my head and thought it must be one of those exceedingly rare and fictional elements they're always referring to (e.g. dilithium - fictional in the Star Trek universe).  But no, magnesite is simply magnesium carbonate, a compound relatively common on earth, and used in steel and synthetic rubber production a binder in flooring material.  
Magnesite (magnesium carbonate) crystals

This is where Frank Lloyd Wright and his Buffalo buildings come in:  Wright specified a building material commonly called "magnesite" - though it's really an aggregate of magnesium carbonate and other materials such as excelsior ("wood wool") - for both the Martin House and the Larkin Administration Building.  In the Martin House, "magnesite" was used as a flooring surface in the basement level and second floor.  In the Larkin building, it was used even more extensively, incorporated even in some of the desk tops and other Wright-designed metal furnishings (see Quinan, Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Building: Myth and Fact, p. 56).  

The light court of the Larkin Administration building.
In both buildings, "magnesite" was specified primarily as a fireproofing, and thus contained one of the most fireproof materials known at the time:  asbestos.  Rest assured that the magnesite in the Martin House was removed under safe abatement protocols, and the replacement material is asbestos-free.  In the Larkin building, "magnesite" was also employed to absorb the cacopohony of sound generated by hundreds of typewriters and other business activity.  

So perhaps a universal translator is required to distinguish magnesite from "magnesite," but it's one term shared by Frank Lloyd Wright's 20th century "Buffalo venture" and the Enterprise's 24th century star trek. 

And, if I may introduce a new definition for the term:   

magnesite - a substance known to create confusing quantum singularities in the blogosphere.


Friday, February 17, 2012

It's been a long road to completion, but well worth it:  the art glass skylight / laylight has been installed in the Bursar's office!

"Taliesin" Takes Shape

Nina Metz discusses the progress of "Taliesin," the Frank Lloyd Wright biopic in development, in today's Chicago Tribune.

Hunter Gets Graphic

Image: Pomegranate
Pomegranate, publisher of a growing line of books on Frank Lloyd Wright (including Frank Lloyd Wright Art Glass of the Martin House Complex) announces a new book on one of Wright's Roycrofter contemporaries:  Dard Hunter.  Along with Denslow, Hunter was one of the most distinctive designers to work with Elbert Hubbard's East Aurora Arts and Crafts collective, infusing Roycroft products with deft reinterpretations of British Arts and Crafts, Mackintosh and Jugendstil motifs.  Lawrence Kreisman's new book, Dard Hunter: The Graphic Works focuses on Hunter's distinctive design contributions to the Roycroft Press and stained glass.

Image: Pomegranate
Coincidentally, Hunter's designs are represented in the Martin House by way of a reproduction tea set - Dard Hunter Studios' "Viennese Pendant" pattern - shown in the Reception room. While the pattern is not original to the house, it provides a period-inspired replacement for the unidentified china pattern shown on the tea table in historic photos. In 1908, Hunter spent his honeymoon amidst the Judendstil splendor of Vienna.  Surrounded by designs that resonated with his own aesthetic sensibilities, he purchased some china with forms and decorations characteristic of the fin de siecle style on both continents. Inspired by Hunter’s Jugendstil finds, Dard Hunter Studios has created their "Viennese Pendant" line of china with careful attention to such antique precedents, while incorporating an original design by Hunter for the “pendant” ornamentation.  The design, originally drawn by Hunter for a Roycroft advertising brochure, is an elegant, organic motif influenced by Hunter’s time in Vienna.

"Viennese Pendant" tea set in the Martin House Reception room.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Another Benchmark

by EJF with Steve Oubre

The latest addition to the tout ensemble - the suite of furnishings that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for the Darwin D. Martin House - is a custom oak piano bench to complement the Martin's oak-veneered Steinway in the living room.

Dorothy and "Aunt Polly" at the piano, 1912.
The original bench appears in only one historic photo of the Martin House interior - a photosecession-esque image of Dorothy Martin playing the family piano in 1912.  The intentionally murky photo reveals some detail of the piece - a probably Wright design - but many details and proportions were unknown.  Enter Jamie Robideau of Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects, who produced a sketch of the bench based on the photo, known details from other Wright-designed pieces in the house, and some well-educated guesses.  Armed with this drawing, John McCampbell, Martin House volunteer and design student at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) took-on the challenge of fabricating the bench for the Martin House.

John utilized the facilities at RISD as well as Master Cabinetmaker Steve Oubre's shop to create the bench, under the supervision of both.  Steve explains the process thus:

John and I met to go over general construction methods and consider the nuts and bolts of it.  John then returned to RISD and, armed with HHL’s CAD file, he generated new working drawings for my review.  After a few minor revisions he was ready to start fabrication.  On a holiday break, he came to my shop where we selected the stock to be used and he collected some of the standard ogee shoe moulding to be used on the bench as well.  At RISD, he utilized shop lab time to build the inner structures of the legs and the stretcher system. On subsequent trips home John utilized my shop to fabricate the seat, legs, run the shoe moulding and ultimately assemble and sand the piece.  Finishing was performed by Hulley Woodworking, who has finished all the trim and reproduction furniture in the house.

The results of this collaboration are impressive:  the bench's construction, geometry, proportions and attention to detail complement the other Wright-designed pieces in the house beautifully.  Our thanks to John, Steve and Jamie for their talented contributions and teamwork on this project.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Clusters' Last Stand

Fuermann & Sons photo of pier cluster "B," 1907.

 Work on the many built-in bookcases that occupy the pier clusters in the Martin House - those groups of four brick piers that Frank Lloyd Wright designed to support the structure and define the "tartan grid" of the plan - continues apace.  Steve Oubre, master cabinetmaker for the Martin House Restoration Corporation, is the craftsman-in-residence at the house, working on completing built-in cabinetry in pier clusters B, D, E and F.  The installation of Oubre's reproduction cabinetry requires precision, sensitivity to the historic context, and not a little patience.  Fortunately, Steve has all these qualities to spare.

Whereas all indications are that the pier cluster storage held the Martins' extensive collection of books a century ago, today, some of them incorporate communications and security equipment, audio-visual equipment (including two flat-screen monitors for interpretive video programs) and storage for collections-related supplies such as the piano cover.  When complete, a few strategic locations will be shown with books on display, to demonstrate the original function of the units and restore the bookish ambiance of the house, circa 1907.

Mr. Oubre, demonstrating some of his handiwork.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A young visitor to the Martin House Complex made good use of a recent snowfall by building a "Wright" snowman outside the Greatbatch Pavilion.  Photo:  Janet Akcakal.