meet me in grand rapids


It’s funny. I keep finding myself in Grand Rapids, Mich.


Many of you probably just shrugged your shoulders and gave me a big ol’ “DUH.”


This trip though, was for something extra special…a ride on Steelcase’s corporate jet!


OK, OK, just kidding. But in all seriousness, that was definitely a highlight. I don’t know how I’ll go back to commercial flights after this experience.


Anyway, the real reason was for the 100th anniversary of the Meyer May house – a small yet visually striking home built in 1909 by Frank Lloyd Wright for Meyer May, a local clothing merchant who was actually the first retailer to display pieces on hangers. The home is a perfect example of Wright’s prairie style of architecture, and was acquired and restored by Steelcase, opening for tours in 1987.


I’m not telling you anything new when I say that Wright believed in working with the foundation, surroundings, and landscape, rather than against them. For him, it was the site that determined the character of the house, not the other way around.


“You should never build on top of anything directly,” he said in an interview he did with Hugh Downes when he was 83. If there’s a hill, build out from the side of it so that you don’t lose it. He placed extensive emphasis on the horizontal, rather than the vertical that most structures highlight. And he was constantly linking his interiors with the exterior.


We had the privilege of viewing this 30-minute recorded interview between the two men during an anniversary symposium on the Meyer May home and Wright’s principles, co-sponsored by Steelcase (the folks who were so kind as to put up myself and a small group of editors so that we could attend – oh and did I mention they flew us out on the corporate jet?) and Metropolis magazine. A couple of other good quotes from Wright during the interview included:


“Early in my life, I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility.” (You can probably guess which he chose)


“The box is a fascist symbol.”


And my personal favorite: “New York is just an overgrown, crazed city.”


But the real treat laid in the conversation we were witness to between seven panelists and Metropolis’ Editor-in-Chief, Susan Szenasy. The speakers included experts of all realms from materials to architecture to landscape architecture. They were: Shashi Caan, FRSA, IIDA (interior designer); Andrew H. Dent, Ph.D. (materials scientist); Bob Adams (design strategist); Jeffrey Bernett (industrial designer); Toshiko Mori, FAIA (architect); Kristie Strasen (design consultant); Michael Van Valkenburgh (landscape architect). Led by Szenasy, the group discussed Wright’s principles, the Meyer May home and how it exemplified them, and how his work and theories can and will affect the practice of design and architecture in the next 100 years. Love him or hate him for his ego-maniacal nature, they all expressed a deep appreciation and admiration for Wright’s work throughout their discussion.


Bernett actually pinpointed something that for some reason really struck me when I toured the Meyer May home with the other editors that morning: the table in the dining room had small plants topped off with light fixtures at all four corner posts. He foresaw the meeting room tables with electricity integrated into the structure, I had thought to myself. Here was one in a small home in a small town in Michigan, built at the turn of the century. Who would have thought?


But more than that, Bernett saw how Wright had taken these elements that were typically placed in the center of a table and moved them out to the sides so that there was no interruption of dialogue.


“Thinking about the consequences to our actions,” said Dent. This small detail is a perfect example of doing just that. According to Dent, Wright always thought about the consequences of his actions and that’s what we as a society need to revisit even further than we already are.


Many panelists felt that following Wright’s mindframe meant trying to figure out how they as architects and/or designers can influence energy conservation, water conservation and other sustainable difficulties of the moment. Architect Toshiko Mori said she thinks Wright would have been absolutely diving into the global crisis’s we are facing today and how he as a professional can help.


I have to say that I’m not sure if I agree with her – he seemed a bit too self-centered to me to care that deeply – but I do agree with the entire panel that the man was a profound visionary who embodied the idea of originality in his work.


I’d like to thank the Steelcase team for inviting me on this trip and all the surrounding tours we were able to experience over the course of those two days.


And if I haven’t mentioned it, thanks for the ride on the jet! It’s definitely one of my coolest experiences to date, despite my debilitating fear of turbulence.


I know, I need to get out more…


Below are some more pictures of the Meyer May home. Enjoy!






















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