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Marion Mahony Griffin: The Artist & Architect Behind The Prairie School

Posted on 21 June 2015

Lovers of architecture usually have strong feelings about Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School of architecture that grew up around him. Problematic personality aside, he is fairly credited as the founder of an entirely new, distinctly American style of design that fundamentally changed modern architecture. However the architect and artist responsible for his most famous renderings, and much of the design work behind them, is still virtually unheard of. Marion Mahony Griffin was a powerfully skilled architect, delineator and painter whose design and illustration work made many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous projects possible… some completely without him! Her personal work spanned continents and ranged from decorative household elements to envisioning entire city plans.

Born in Chicago in 1871, Mahony entered the architectural world at a formative time, and would come to influence its development profoundly. Graduating in 1894, she was the second woman to get an architectural degree from MIT - the most respected architectural school in the US at the time - and the first woman in America to become a licensed architect. Like most industries, the discipline was changing rapidly as the Industrial Revolution surged and constraints on materials, construction and cultural norms opened up at the end of the 19th century. Chicago in particular was home to a swelling of dissatisfaction with the traditionally Eurocentric and industrially-minded building that had long dominated American cities. After graduation Mahony returned to Chicago and began work at a socially-minded cousin’s firm, located in a loft office shared with several other visionary young architects. The loft housed many conversations on social practice, philosophy and nature as they related to architecture and the social interactions shaped by it. Within a year she’d impressed one of the neighboring architects, the bombastic young Frank Lloyd Wright, and signed on as his first employee in 1895.

Even early in his career Lloyd Wright was known both for his inspired drive to produce intimate, environmentally-integrated spaces and his tasteless interpersonal dealings. Despite having struck out on his own under tense circumstances, his small firm took off quickly - moonlighting under the boss you’d lied to to get your first job, then stealing his clients might not work for everyone, but it seemed to work for FLW.

In line with FLW’s immersive approach to design, Mahony’s work spanned building design, furniture, stained glass, tile work, interior decorations, and meticulous rendering. Her style of architectural rendering and delineation was heavily influenced by Japanese prints, relying on subtle watercolors and incorporating buildings’ natural surroundings as an extension of the designs. Her stylized visualization of designs and their landscapes became a hallmark of the FLW brand.

In addition to work on most early FLW designs and presentations, Mahony’s (almost entirely unattributed) rendering and painting work made up more than half of the earliest published collection of FLW projects, released in Germany in 1910. Commonly known as the Wasmuth Folio, it came to influence subsequent generations of designers, including Le Corbusier and other modernists, and had an immeasurable impact on the field of architecture both internationally and at home, codified in large part by Mahony’s cohesive vision and artwork.

It’s no exaggeration that Mahony’s work made FLW projects as successful as they were. Barry Byrne, a member of Wright's studio recalled, "She was the most talented member of Frank Lloyd Wright's staff ... Mr. Wright would occasionally sit at Marion's board and work on her drawings, and I recall one hilarious occasion when his work ruined the drawing. On that occasion Andrew Willatzen, an outspoken member of the staff, loudly proclaimed that Marion Mahony was Wright's superior as a draftsman. As a matter of fact, she was. Wright took the statement of her superiority equably." (H. Allen Brooks, The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries, 1972)

In the 1973 Architectural Review article, "Death and Life of the Prairie School," Reyner Banham confirmed "She was the greatest architectural delineator of her generation, which included mere men like Lutyens, Loos and Wright."

When the ever-tactful Lloyd Wright skipped town to elope with the wife of a client in Europe, he approached Mahony about taking over the firm. Despite her clear ability and compatible creative vision, she declined, and the practice was taken up by Herman von Holst instead. Von Holst pleaded with Mahony to remain on staff, re-hiring her on the express condition that she lead the design and completion of key contracts, including several high-profile accounts abandoned by FLW. One of the largest of the abandoned contracts was the Henry Ford house in Detroit, which she successfully completed plans for. But in a fashion true to FLW’s legacy, the contract was given over to another architect when Ford and Mahony fought over the project’s creative direction... after the foundation was laid! During this late FLW period Mahony most notably completed and oversaw the David Amberg house in Grand Rapids, Michigan and the Adolph Mueller house in Decatur, Illinois, which cleverly reused several elements from the unused Ford designs.

After 2 decades at the FLW firm, the headstrong and bold Mahony surprised the team by announcing her engagement to Walter Burley Griffin, a quiet architect and landscape designer who worked on the Mueller House. Griffin was Mahony’s junior by several years, and by many accounts a much gentler presence, but after years of friendly teamwork they drew closer during the building of the Mueller House, which would be Mahony’s last FLW project. They married in June 1911, and began a close creative partnership that would last until Griffin’s death.

Upon their marriage Mahony (now Mahony-Griffin) began work in Griffin’s practice. In that same year they collaborated on an entry for the design competition to develop the city plan of Canberra, Australia’s new capital city. The richly environmental and democratically-inspired design was developed collaboratively and illustrated by Mahony-Griffin, and in 1912 it won first prize. In 1914 the couple moved to Australia to oversee the the project, and began to work on more concepts of political architecture and social space. Their Canberra design was eventually abandoned by the overseeing government agency, but the couple continued to advance intentional community design in commissioned public buildings, and projects like their Castlecrag community in Sydney.

After many years in Australia they continued their work on socially oriented buildings in several contracts around India, where Griffin died suddenly in 1937. After Griffin’s death, Mahony-Griffin returned to Chicago where she retired from architectural work and focused instead on community service. She passed away in 1961.

In keeping with the uneasily modern times, Mahony-Griffin downplayed her brilliant contributions throughout her career, whether working as a lead designer for FLW or as an equal partner with her husband. However, her work deeply impacted the development of the New American architecture at the turn off the century, and continues to move architects and designers who look to the Prairie School for an inspiring synthesis of material, location, and nature.


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