Mid century modern design enthusiasts are likely familiar with the work of Russel Wright — an iconic designer of furnishings and dinnerware beginning in the 1930s. His “American Modern” dinnerware, which sold 250 million pieces from 1939-1959, is considered the best-selling dinnerware of all time (although I tend to believe Corelle has now outsold them.) Russel and his wife and business partner Mary also attained a level of celebrity for their best-selling 1950 book, “Guide to Easier Living,” which promoted a more casual American lifestyle. Mary is even credited with coining the term “blonde” to describe that particular shade of furniture — Russel’s American Modern line of furniture manufactured by Conant-Ball also was quite popular. After Mary died… quite young, sadly… Russel built a house on the estate they had purchased in Garrison, New York, one hour north of New York City. Completed in 1961, the house is another mid century jewel that we can add to our list of historic sites to visit.Above: Daughter Annie Wright’s bathroom with sunken Venetian tiled bathtub, butterfly panel, and dogwood tree branch. Credit: Tara Wing, Photographer/Courtesy of Manitoga/The Russel Wright Design Center.
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Here is more information about Manitoga from the foundation that now owns and operates this historic site:
The Wright estate was called Manitoga, and the house and studio was called Dragon Rock. The property includes a 75-acre woodland garden designed by Wright; the Dragon Rock complex comprised of Wright’s home and studio; and the striking waterfall and quarry pond Wright created. Named from the Algonquin word for “Place of the Great Spirit,” Manitoga was the primary design focus of the last chapter of Wright’s life, and he considered it his most important accomplishment.
Wright purchased the property, which had been damaged by a century of logging and quarrying, as a weekend retreat in 1942. He later moved his base of operations from Manhattan to Garrison to pursue his philosophy that people should live in harmony with nature. Over the next three decades, Wright carefully redesigned and resculpted Manitoga’s 75 acres using native plants, his training as a theatre designer and sculptor, and his innovative design ideas. Manitoga became his experiment with ways to achieve harmony between nature and design. The home, studio and woodland gardens continued to evolve through Wright’s experiments and his ongoing relationship with the land and seasons.
At Russel Wright’s death in 1976, ownership of the studio and woodland gardens was deeded to The Nature Conservancy and it was later transferred to a standalone non dedicated to preserving the legacy of Russel Wright. Public access to Wright’s home was limited until 2003, when Manitoga began to offer tours from April through October. Restoration of Wright’s studio was completed in 2004, and Manitoga continued to make the hiking trails available to the public year-round.
Today, Manitoga continues restoration of Wright’s master work and is developing a museum and botanical garden to provide ongoing care for Manitoga, and to share its treasures with the broadest possible audience.
Click here to learn more about visiting Manitoga and Dragon Rock. Note, that due to the fragility of the site, all tours are guided… times are limited… that is: Plan ahead. Also, the site cautions that there’s hiking involved, so those with physical limitations may not be able to make the trek.
Timeline of Russel Wright – also from Manitoga, Inc.:
- 1904 Birth of Russel Wright to Quaker parents, Lebanon, Ohio, April 3rd.
- 1920 – 1924 Studied art and sculpture at Cincinnati Academy of Art, Art Students’ League; designed theater sets at Princeton and in Paris with Norman Bel Geddes.
- 1927 Married Mary Small Einstein. Began design career creating life size celebrity caricature masks, miniature plaster animals, spun pewter bar accessories.
- 1931 Participated in exhibition of Contemporary American Industrial Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
- 1932 Designed aluminum stove-to-tableware; commissioned by Wurlitzer to design midget radios, an accordion and a piano.
- 1934 Designed mix-and-match furniture for Heywood Wakefield, including a sectional sofa.
- 1935 Formed Russel Wright Associates with Irving Richards. The term “blonde” coined by Mary Wright.
- 1939 American Modern dinnerware produced by Steubenville Pottery Company. Wright’s greatest commercial success, 80 million pieces sold by 1960.
- Wright exhibited at New York World’s Fair.
- 1942 Purchased 75-acre abandoned quarry and logging site in Garrison with Mary.
- 1946 – 1949 Introduced Casual Line stove-to-table china, Meladur melamine dinnerware.
- 1950 Guide to Easier Living published with Mary. Easier Living furniture manufactured by Stratton.
- 1952 Death of Mary Wright.
- 1955 Sent by US State Department to Southeast Asia to research handicraft industries.
- 1961 Dragon Rock House completed.
- 1967 Developed “Summer in the Parks” program for National Park Service.
- 1975 Manitoga deeded to The Nature Conservancy with daughter Ann.
- 1976 Death of Russel Wright.
- 1986 Manitoga incorporated.
- 1996 Manitoga named to National Register of Historic Places
- 2001 Ann Wright life estate interest transferred to Manitoga, Inc.
- 2002 Retrospective exhibition “Russel Wright, Creating American Lifestyle” at Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, New York.
- 2004 Daily seasonal house and landscape tours launched; Pergola reconstructed; Studio restoration completed.
- 2006 Windows & Doors in House restored; Manitoga declared a National Historic Landmark.