The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and Steelcase have partnered to reimagine and reintroduce work by America’s most well known architect. The debut is the Racine Collection, a series of desks and seating inspired by furniture design by Wright for the SC Johnson Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin. The famous cactus-shaped atrium housed one of the first open office plans and represented a radical new direction in work when it opened in 1939. Wright imagined the workspace of the future as a much more free flowing environment and the rounded shapes of the desks and chairs are a nod to that. In the late 1930s, The Metal Office Furniture Company, which became Steelcase, was contracted to produce the original desks and chairs for the building.
At the New York City location of Steelcase’s showroom, one of the original desk sets was displayed along with a trio of examples of pieces from the new collection. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation specifically approved Steelcase for the project to advance Wright’s designs and tailor them to contemporary manufacturing and customer use cases. While there is an executive desk model that closely resembles the original design, the rest of the variants aim to solve for how Wright might have advanced the collection if he were alive today. So there’s smaller scale options available and more ladder rail accessories being considered for introduction in the future.
For being 80+ years old, the Racine desks look incredibly modern, especially compared to what is sold today. Functionally they are also still just as advanced. The terraced desktop originally meant to improve paper flow can now be used as a monitor stand. The lower surface could function perfectly for portable digital device storage and cable management. Even the ladder rail system is a feature that seems obvious to have on desks today for hanging bags or the default easy to empty waste bin. With everything elevated off the floor, cleaning around the desk is easier. A feature Wright designed into the original to make floor cleaning more efficient for the SC Johnson staff.
Beyond Wright’s work as an architect, he was also a futurist. He thought about how is work would exist forward in time and not just in the present when it was created. Stuart Graff, President and CEO The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation shared a bit of the back story behind the new Racine Collection and how it fit with some of Wright’s thoughts of the future.
The fact that this all happened in the middle of the pandemic, is also really interesting. In 1932, Wright creates a thought experiment that he calls Broad Acre City. It’s not an urban plan, not a building, but seven books. One of the things he says is we no longer need to go into the dense dehumanizing urban cores to work. We’ll be able to use new technology like radio waves, because that was the new technology in 1932, to send our work to these central offices. Well imagine that, does that sound like anything we’ve been doing recently? Wright anticipates the idea of telecommuting. So the idea of taking these work spaces, something designed for the office and bringing them into the home is a very natural thing for Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs. As he’s designing these desks, he’s already thinking about the home workplace.
After taking a close look at the Racine Collection, I also had some time to wander around the rest of the Steelcase showroom which overlooks Columbus Circle on Manhattan’s west side. There were some interesting office pod/tent products and shelves of sleek mobile power carafes. Probably some things Wright would have been keenly interested in.
Photos and Text: Dave Pinter