Japanese company keeps the Frank Lloyd Wright flame burning
Yamagiwa capitalizes as fresh attention is lavished on late US architect
TOKYO -- A fresh wave of attention is being bestowed on Frank Lloyd Wright, the late American architect.
The 150th anniversary of Wright's birth came earlier this month, and as the milestone approached some of the institutions he left behind geared up to celebrate his designs.
The anniversary came on June 7. That day, more than 250 people gathered at the Imperial Hotel here in the Japanese capital for an exhibition of Wright-inspired lighting. The exposition was held in a banquet room featuring Wright's architectural concepts.
Wright designed a previous iteration of the hotel, which famously withstood the devastating 1923 earthquake.
Yamagiwa, the lighting fixture maker and the exhibition's organizer, was coincidentally founded in 1923. The event features items from Yamagiwa's Frank Lloyd Wright series of lamps and other lighting pieces, including reproductions.
The fixtures reflect Wright's design aesthetics, speak with graceful geometrical patterns and come framed in exquisitely shaped wooden structures.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation long ago designated Yamagiwa to reproduce the prolific architect's designs in a series of lighting fixtures.
The foundation and Yamagiwa launched their joint project in 1994. Influenced by Eastern cultural traditions, Wright created a wide array of delicately designed fixtures composed of wood, metals, stained glass and other materials.
The foundation chose its partner because of Yamagiwa's appreciation for traditional Japanese craftsmanship -- and the finesses and delicate sensibilities that go into it.
Yamagiwa's Taliesin lamp, based on a wooden table lamp designed by Wright for his Taliesin house in the state of Wisconsin, has been popular for 23 years.
The foundation and fixture maker have gained mutual trust, thanks to the success of the project. And for years now, the two parties have been working closely together to improve and expand the series. They agreed to add new items to commemorate the big anniversary.
"There are 850 Wright designs left, including those that are only in photographs and plans," said Tsutomu Kawamura of Yamagiwa's product development department. Kawamura has been involved in the project since its inception.
Perhaps the most unique piece in Yamagiwa's Frank Lloyd Wright series is the Lamberson Pendant lamp, inspired by the design of a hanging basket in the Jack Lamberson House, in the state of Iowa. The light is a tribute to the geometric design themes that often appeared on the roofs and in other elements of Wright-designed edifices.
"We can reproduce Wright's works in the true sense of the word by using design details characteristic of the architecture," Kawamura said.
The inspiration for the Beth Sholom Wall Scone is a bracket used in the Beth Sholom Congregation, a synagogue in the state of Pennsylvania. The fixture is designed to re-create the image of the original, which was used as a light attached to a wall of the synagogue. The new product is smaller so as to better suit homes and is made of wood. The original is metallic.
Developing mass-produced, commercially viable products based on fine artistry requires a great deal of design prowess.
Asato Satake, a young designer who works on the Frank Lloyd Wright series, has proposed using black as a theme to add a modernist twist to the series.
"Wright was fastidious about using local materials like wood," Satake said. "Back then, people didn't think of coloring [wooden furniture]. Now, black is a popular color for interiors and furniture. Lamps from the popular Taliesin series go quite well with modern architecture when colored black."
All plans for Wright series products were developed with the architect's way of thinking in mind. Teams from Yamagiwa and the foundation held careful and exhaustive discussions on which elements of Wright's designs the new products should feature.
"Our ideas were then checked by a person who knew Wright personally," Kawamura said. "And some of these were then killed off. As a result, we can be confident that the ideas that have been adopted through this process are imbued with Wright's architectural philosophy."
One idea that was "surprisingly" accepted by the foundation became the Robie Ceiling lamp. It was inspired by a ceiling light in the Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago, which has a square frame to emphasize the clean horizontal line of the ceiling, a main feature of Prairie School architecture. Wright was a leader of this movement.
Drawing on the design essence of the Prairie School movement, the Yamagiwa team has developed a product suitable for a typical Japanese room by replacing a spherical light with a thin square one.
"Compared with the spherical light, which has a strong character, the thin, square design is more suitable for a typical Japanese home or modern architecture, offering the potential to appeal to many consumers," Kawamura said.
Joe Suzuki, a journalist versed in the designs of vintage furniture and lighting equipment, said one factor behind the success of the Frank Lloyd Wright series has been Yamagiwa's ability to fabricate products with world class quality. In addition, Suzuki said, "since the inspiration for these products' designs is clear, [the lamps] can satisfy discerning Wright fans around the word."
Despite the amount of craftsmanship poured into these products, most items are priced from 50,000 yen to 100,000 yen ($450 to $900). Custom-made products cost more.
The series is gaining popularity elsewhere in Asia and in Europe, too, according to Hazuki Oda, a Yamagiwa public relations representative.
To commemorate the anniversary, Wright museums, historic sites and other places touched by the iconic American architect are hosting special events. The Museum of Modern Art in New York is holding a Frank Lloyd Wright memorial exhibition, for instance. And this autumn, Yamagiwa is to hold an exhibition focusing on Wright's design philosophy.
Miki Honma is a lifestyle journalist.