Exploring Frank Lloyd Wright's early career and architectural identity

A new exhibition on Frank Lloyd Wright at the Elmhurst Art Museum, titled ‘Wright before the ‘Lloyd'', explores the celebrated architect's early career and trajectory as he defined and built his, now well-known, architectural identity 

Hand drawing of a modern looking house above a waterfall by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Fallingwater, Bear Run, Pennsylvania 1937. Image: Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation
(Image credit: Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)

At the end of the 19th century, the architect who would later be known as Frank Lloyd Wright was still seeking his architectural voice. A new exhibit at the Elmhurst Art Museum, by City of Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson, titled ‘Wright Before the ‘Lloyd'', chronicles how Frank Lloyd Wright was influenced by early mentorships with architects J. Lyman Silsbee and Louis Sullivan and other design disciplines in the development of his own distinctive style.

Samuelson assembled the exhibit from his private collection of photographs, computer-aided reproductions and material scraps, several of which were rescued from demolition sites or the dumpster. The exhibit is mounted in three adjoining galleries, beginning with Wright’s childhood in Wisconsin and progressing chronologically to conclude with the first designs signed as ‘Frank Lloyd Wright'.

‘You could see his work evolving, then there is a period (between 1896 and 97), and he turns 30 years old. He figured out where he wants to be... but you can still find the essences of all those other influences if you know where to look,' Samuelson says.

Art gallery with white walls, black floor, fireplace and paintings on the walls.

Wright Before the ‘Lloyd' installation. Photography: Steven Koch

(Image credit: Steven Koch)

Much of the exhibit focuses on Frank Lloyd Wright's collaborations with Louis Sullivan, with whom the architect shared a special gift, he says. ‘He was able to synthesize a solution drawn from all of those things just the way Google works. It's an unusual comparison to make but it absolutely works perfectly,' he adds.

Wright also had a special ability to think in three dimensions and visualize space, giving his buildings a dynamic effect, Samuelson says: ‘The idea of how a human being can experience three-dimensional space by moving through it. He knew how to orchestrate this. The buildings were functionally efficient but they were inspiring, and you would get the sense of smaller spaces opening into large spaces. Light became part of his palette where it would penetrate the spaces.'

‘Wright before the ‘Lloyd'' runs through to 14 February 2021 and is free with museum admission.

Old photograph of a young Frank Lloyd Wright.

During the early years, the architect signed his name ‘Frank L. Wright’. Image: Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust

(Image credit: Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust)

Three paintings next to each other on a white wall of various architectural patterns.

Wright Before the ‘Lloyd' installation. Photography: Steven Koch

(Image credit: Steven Koch)

Architectural painting on a wall by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright Before the ‘Lloyd' installation. Photography: Steven Koch

(Image credit: Steven Koch)

Drawing of a large house by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert W. Roloson House drawing, 1894, Chicago, Illinois. Image courtesy of Tim Samuelson 

(Image credit: Tim Samuelson)

Clay architectural design above an old photo of a double story house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright Before the ‘Lloyd' installation. Photography: Steven Koch

(Image credit: Steven Koch)




Audrey Henderson is an independent journalist, writer and researcher based in the greater Chicago area with advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. She specializes in sustainability in the built environment, culture and arts, policy, and related topics. As a reporter for Energy News Network since 2019, Audrey has focused her coverage on environmental justice and equity. Along with her contributions for Wallpaper*, Audrey’s writing has also been featured in Chicago Architect magazine, Next City,  the Chicago Reader, GreenBiz, Transitions Abroad, Belt Magazine and other consumer and trade publications.