I continued my fall 2017 visits to 20th century historic properties, by touring Manitoga, Russel Wright’s home in Garrison, New York.  (Supported by the Valerie Moran Memorial Grant, from the IFDA Educational Foundation!)

Russel Wright was a 20th century American designer – he is perhaps best know for his pottery designs, including his “American Modern” dinnerware for Steubenville Pottery Company.   

Partnering with his wife, Mary Strong Einstein Wright, also a designer and a marketing whiz, Wright’s designs took off.  After a career in theatrical design, starting in the late 1920’s, Wright produced everything from a spun aluminum line of housewares, to wooden serving accessories.  Furniture followed in 1935 and by the late 1930’s, “American Modern” dinnerware was introduced, which was Mary and Russel’s first major success. 

Mary and Russell Wright

As you walk onto the property, (which was originally a granite quarry without much vegetation) the buildings appear to organically be part of the hillside, that is, part of the landscape.  A highly individual creation, Wright designed the buildings (working with architect David Leavitt), their interiors and the landscape.  

Wright and his wife, Mary, purchased the land in 1942;  Mary died from cancer in 1952.  The house, which Wright called “Dragon Rock” was built from 1956 to 1962; Wright moved to Manitoga full time in the mid-1960s and lived there until his death in 1976.  The house is composed of two separate structures;  one for family living (which includes the bedrooms for his daughter Ann, who was adopted in 1950, and the housekeeper) and one for Wright’s studio and bedroom.

Wright himself felt that the property should be a combination of natural and machine-made items.  To my 21st century eyes, nature is still the predominant influence;  Wright even changed the linens and interior color selections to match the seasons;  warmer colors for the fall, cooler for the summer.  

According to one of the docents on the tour, Wright coordinated all the exterior landscape design, as well as all the interior design;  he wanted all the components of the property to work together, and in his own words, ” My aim was to have this unusual piece of land be the most important part of the whole project. In other words, I didn’t want there house to dominate the land.” (Taken from “Russell Wright: The Nature of Design.”)

Particularly in this time of Covid-19, connecting with nature, even looking at photos of nature and natural settings, is calming and centering.  Wright showed his connection to the land at Manitoga in every room in Dragon Rock!   While most of us might not want large stones in our living room, or large pieces of slate on our floors, we can access nature with something as simple as having plants in our interiors and/or selecting paint and other finish colors and patterns that are found in nature.  If we are designing a new home, or renovating an existing one, perhaps we could see the landscape outside our doors with new eyes; and see the connections we could make with the landscape and the home interior!

 Also, in designing our homes today, sustainability is something we are now focusing on more than ever;  Wright was ahead of his time in many of his interior selections.  The selections that were “man-made,” including fiberglass, formica, foam rubber, metal foil and styrofoam were chosen for their durability, ease-of-maintenance, and those that are not recyclable today, could be replaced with more sustainable choices.

Perhaps what struck me the most, was how nature predominated in every room;  for example, in Wright’s bathroom, in his studio, he could lower the entire window over his bathtub to its sill, and I imagine feel more like he was outside than inside.

How do you see the communication from landscape to interior (and back) as you join me walking through Manitoga and inside, through Dragon Rock?

Photos by KDZ Designs unless otherwise noted