An Ode to the Humble Prairie Weed

Important Works from the Bagley Family

Rarely appearing as a matched pair at auction, these important weed holders were presented to Frederick Bagley by Frank Lloyd Wright and passed down through the family ever since. A marble importer who supplied materials to Wright, Bagley was not only his business contact but one of his earliest clients. In 1894, shortly after Wright had established his independent practice away from Louis Sullivan, he designed Bagley’s house in the village of Hinsdale, west of Chicago. Stylistically varying from Wright’s typical Prairie School structures, the Dutch Colonial-style Frederick Bagley House featured classical domestic architecture of nineteenth century America. It is speculated that Bagley, being a marble importer, wanted to incorporate marble elements in the house—hence the addition of columns supporting the covered veranda. At the same time, the house presented some unusual design elements, namely its octagonal library built outward on one side. Architectural Review from June 1900 noted, "The polygonal libraries of the Bagley, Devin and McAfee houses and of Mr. Wright’s own studio, with their above-head or direct top light and air of quiet seclusion for study and reflection, are noteworthy features."

The Frederick Bagley House, Hinsdale, IL

The weed holders were patinated in thin layers of lacquer, the same treatment used on the bulbous copper urns, another important form of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed metalwork from the end of the nineteenth century. Wright extolled the merits of copper in his seminal article, In the Cause of Architecture, which he wrote for the Architectural Record in October 1928. Wright described copper as "the only sheet metal that has yet entered into architecture as a beautiful and permanent material… Copper is more nearly permanent than anything we have at hand as an architect's medium." In the article, referring to James Miller, Wright said, "At that time [1895], I designed some sheet copper bowls, slender flower holders and things for him, and fell in love with sheet copper as a building material." The slim obelisk shape is a prime illustration of Wright's philosophy in practical and organic design that incorporates the local landscape—in this case, for holding prairie weeds commonly found in the Midwest.

The weed holders appear in several period photographs and original drawings, including a classic photograph taken around 1895 of a pair placed on either side of a Wright-designed chair and a statue of his son, John. John Lloyd Wright reminisced in his My Father Who Is on Earth (1956) regarding the design, "Not satisfied with the bric-a-brac of the day, Father designed his own. Father liked weeds!"

Wright-designed weed holders were utilized in some of his most important commissions, including Isidore Heller House (Chicago, 1896), Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio (Oak Park, 1889), Joseph and Helen Husser House (Chicago, 1899), Susan Lawrence Dana House (Springfield, 1902), William Martin House (Oak Park, 1903), Browne's Bookstore (Chicago, 1912) and Avery Coonley House (Riverside, 1912). There are a total of approximately 19 known examples. Many of these examples are found in the collections of various prestigious museums, such as the Museum of the American Arts & Crafts Movement, St. Petersburg, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the British Museum, London, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

A pair of weed holders shown in the Frank Lloyd Wright Room, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Every great architect is — necessarily — a great poet. He must be a great original interpreter of his time, his day, his age.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright

During his seventy year career as an architect, Frank Lloyd Wright created more than 1,100 designs, half of which were realized and a large portion of which came about later in his life. Wright was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin in 1867. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in 1885 to study civil engineering, completing only two years of the program. After working for Joseph Silsbee on the construction of the Unity Chapel in Oak Park, Illinois Wright decided to pursue a career in architecture and he moved to Chicago where he began an apprenticeship at the famed architectural firm Adler and Sullivan, working directly with Louis Sullivan until 1893.

After parting ways, Wright moved to Oak Park. Working from his home studio, he developed a system of design developed from grid units and rooted in an appreciation of natural materials that would come to be known as the Prairie School of Architecture and would change the landscape of American design forever. Wright devoted himself to teaching and writing during the 1920s and 1930s. 1935 marked the beginning of an immense surge of creativity and productivity as he began work on his most celebrated residential design, Fallingwater. In the 1940s and 1950s Wright focused on his Usonian designs that reflected his belief in democratic architecture, offering middle-class residential options. In 1943, Wright took on his most demanding commission, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The museum, which would open its doors six months after his death in 1959, would be called his most significant work.

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