What Would Russel Do?

It is a question that the Manitoga board, staff, and volunteers frequently ask when faced with the many challenges of restoring, preserving and interpreting the home, studio, and 75-acre woodland garden created here by Russel Wright.

A less common question, though, is what did Russel do? What did he do before he set about reclaiming the site which he referred to as his “most ambitious design?” What was Wright’s legacy and why does it remain so relevant today? On this, the day that would have been his 108th birthday, I posed the question: What if Russel Wright had never been born?

The first thing that occurs to me, as I sit at my desk with views of Wright’s studio and the breathtaking garland of imminent green lushness that frames the Quarry Pond, is that had Wright never existed, I would not be here in this very place, taking in the spectacular early spring splendor that surrounds me.

But there’s more to it than that. Wright influenced the lives of millions of Americans at mid-century and we are the stewards of his legacy, charged with preserving it and sharing it with the public and professionals.

Born on April 3, 1904 in Lebanon, Ohio, Russel Wright displayed an avid interest in art and theater since early childhood. He learned to paint at the Cincinnati Art Academy and studied art in New York City before briefly attending Princeton University, where it became obvious that art was his passion.

Wright left Princeton to work with renowned set designer Norman Bel Geddes in Paris, where his designs established “a mood” transmitting “the emotions of the stage.” Such mood creation would be a hallmark throughout his career.

In 1927, Wright met Mary Small Einstein, also an artist, in Woodstock, New York. The two eloped and moved to New York City where Russel began designing serving pieces, cocktail shakers, tea sets, and the like. Wright began using spun aluminum as an alternative to silver and pewter. Mary, a savvy business woman with an uncanny talent for public relations and marketing, quickly began promoting her husband’s work.

By the early 1930s, Wright was designing furniture, primarily of maple, and later “blonde” or light wood, which used sleek horizontal and vertical planes that overlapped or met at right angles instead of miter joints. These pieces, which were designed to be sold individually rather than as entire suites, suggested a “mix and match” approach to decorating.

But Wright had more in mind. He wanted to encourage Americans to embrace modern design and a new style of informal living. He aimed to convince consumers that modern design could originate in America rather than be imported from Europe, and that it could be made affordable to the mass-market. And so, Mary gave Wright’s first furniture line its iconic name: American Modern.

Because Wright considered the dinner table the heart of the American home, he turned his attention to designing dinnerware. To capitalize on the success of his furniture line and Wright’s growing name recognition, the new dinnerware was also called American Modern.

By the mid 1940s, American Modern had become the best-selling line of dinnerware in history. Until its manufacturer, Steubenville, went out of business in 1959, the line sold over 250 million pieces and grossed over $159 million.

In their search for a country retreat, the Wrights purchased a 75-acre property in Garrison, some 50 miles north of New York City, in 1942. The land had been a former industrial site, used for both logging and quarrying during the second half of the nineteenth century. Only a true artist could have envisioned a total reclamation of this devastated land, a project to which Wright devoted the rest of his life. It was a genuine labor of love.

“I am interested in nature more than any other subject,” said Wright. And so he set about creating an experimental home which blurred the lines between interior and exterior spaces; one which could teach the lessons of living in harmony with nature and using the natural environment to inspire creativity.

Sadly, Mary Wright died in 1952 and thus never lived at Dragon Rock, the name Wright’s young daughter Annie gave to the house, studio and landscape immediately surrounding the Quarry Pond that her father had created.

By this time, Wright’s career as an industrial designer was winding down, and he poured virtually all of his resources—time, energy, and money—into the creation of Manitoga. Russel and Annie moved into the house in Garrison in the early 1960s and remained there until his death in 1976.

Manitoga, Inc., a 501(c)(3) non-profit, was established in 1984 and assumed stewardship of what Wright called his “greatest achievement.” With its 1996 listing on the National Register of Historic Places, its 2006 designation as a National Historic Landmark and, most recently, its inclusion on the World Monuments Fund Watch, Manitoga has indeed earned its rightful place among historically significant sites both nationally and internationally.

Even as it faces the present challenges of both structural and landscape restoration—and perhaps more so because of them—Manitoga remains today an invaluable object lesson in how nature can heal us, and how we can heal nature.