Frank Lloyd Wrong: How to Be an Opinionated Student and Get Away With It
by Shaye Eller
I have a confession to make. I'm not all that impressed with the work of
Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact, when I was in school, I was known to rant about
it so much that one classmate dubbed him 'Frank Lloyd Wrong.' I know
it's practically sacrilege to admit (don't hurt me!), but I find
his work neither particularly aesthetically pleasing nor unique,
and I don't believe he's talented enough to make up for his
But that's beside the point. Really, it is. The point is, I went
to design school, where they preach the gospel of Frank Lloyd Wright,
and I still managed to graduate with honors. No matter how I tried
(and I'll admit that I didn't try very hard), I couldn't keep my
opinion to myself. Yet in the partisan world of academia, opinion
and thought sometimes count as much as hard work and high quality.
As it turns out, I learned that there are ways to remain true to
your position and still garner respect from the opposition.
Now, imagine for a moment that you have an educated opinion about design
that happens to be unpopular. Say you think feng shui is ridiculous
and impractical. You're not wild about William Morris. You think
Bauhaus is the ugliest style in the world. (Examples are not
necessarily the opinion of the author). It isn't critical to pretend
your opinion is otherwise if you know how to go about it, which is
what I'm here to guide you through.
The Allegory of Frank Lloyd Wright
I mentioned above that I learned how to get away with these heretic,
unpopular opinions of mine. Of course, the knowledge wasn't inborn.
I had to learn it the hard way.
My first residential design studio was taught by a man who loved
Frank Lloyd Wright. The look on his face when I argued against
Wright's greatness was one of shock and dismay, and perhaps I should
be ashamed to admit that I found it a little amusing. When I argued,
most of my objections were, admittedly, minor and petty. Wright's
treatment of his first wife and children probably doesn't stand up
under close scrutiny, and I didn't know how to articulate any of my
aesthetic objections to Wright's work. Now, I wouldn't go so far as
to accuse my professor of maliciousness, but the only 'B' I ever
received in school was in that design studio. Part of it was that I'd
done a project on a Wright house for that class, and though I thought
my gray-on-gray color scheme was quite appropriate, my professor didn't
agree. That doesn't tell the whole story, however - my professor just
couldn't understand the design philosophy of someone who disliked
Wright - mainly because I hadn't properly articulated it.
Around nine months later, we came around to Frank
Lloyd Wright in my design history class. By then, I was better
prepared to voice my objections. In the beginning of his career,
I argued, Wright's work was original, even if I don't particularly
like it. However, Wright continued to work over the next forty
years, and his designs never changed. I argued that he overused
motifs in his designs, and that his work wasn't just derivative, he
stole designs from himself and touted them as new. I argued that
simple Prairie houses, which Wright certainly did not invent, didn't
merit the coining of a new term ('Usonian') to describe their style.
My objections, whether anyone agreed with them or not, were valid
and intelligent. I talked the talk. That's the first key.
Talking the Talk: Use Basic Design Terminology
Every profession has its own set of jargon. The further you
progress in your design education, the larger your design
vocabulary becomes. It is then easier to discuss design with
your professors and your classmates, because you're all using
terminology that has a concrete meaning. (This is why many
design programs require various fundamentals like Color Theory
and 3-D Design before you jump in to the design studio.) In order
to participate in a valuable intellectual argument with anyone
during class, you must use this terminology, this finite set of
basic principles, in order to communicate effectively. And
communication is the key to making teachers and peers acknowledge
contrary ideas about what makes good design.
Before embarking on a long, superfluous rant, sit down and do a
little self-analysis. While 'because it's ugly' is certainly a
valid opinion, it's a layman's opinion. Anyone can look at
something and decide that they find it ugly, beautiful, plain,
etc. Your job as an interior designer is to translate the term
'ugly' for the benefit of others. If you think something is just
too big, talk about scale and proportion. If it's too gaudy, use
words like 'unity' and 'harmony'. If you think someone's design
is plain or boring, talk about contrast and variety. When pressed,
a good designer can usually come up with specific aspects of a
design or product that they find unappealing. Not only do these
terms show your teachers that you've been paying attention, you'll
automatically gain respect. The bonus is, the class can then have
a discussion on the topic, and you might even sway a professor just
a little bit. I'm fairly certain that's the reason my design
history prof cut short our last lecture on FLW.
If I'm honest with myself, my initial approach to my Wright-rants
had another serious flaw. I did not respect the opinion of those
who saw his work differently. It's important to keep a cool head in
these debates, because for designers, pet opinions are very closely
held. A person's favorite style or designer can go a long way toward
defining who they are as a creative entity. I was well aware of that
fact, because my aversion to Wright's work partially defined
who I was as a designer. A large part of design is about
Acknowledge that the opposing opinion is just as valid as your own,
because then class debates will be even more lively, and your design
horizons will expand. Remember that even bad design can teach us
something, and good design that we don't like can teach us even more.
Keep in mind that many good designers out there subscribe to the
ideas of feng shui, love the work of William Morris, and think the
Bauhaus movement was a study in genius. And many talented people
admire Frank Lloyd Wright. Putting yourself in the other designer's
place is the best way to avoid nasty little confrontations, and
to learn from the people around you.
Less is More: Keep a Captive Audience
Another caveat: brevity is often best. One of the mistakes I
made early in my Wright-bashing was being too voluble. Making a
lot of noise gets you nowhere. If your objections to a
particular designer, style, or principle are philosophical or
psychological rather than aesthetic, you'll be more likely to
catch someone's attention, and gain their respect, with a short,
well-spoken phrase than a long-winded rant.
While my problem in school was objecting to that which others
found pleasing, the situation could easily be reversed. Perhaps
you simply adore a designer, idea, or style that is currently
unpopular. The same principles apply. If you speak in basic
design terminology, and present short, logical arguments, you'll
be much less likely to get shouted down in class. Even if no one
else agrees with you, you'll have also gained respect for yourself,
and for your pet opinion.
The last bit of advice I have is to be careful with the strength of
your invective. It may come back to haunt you. Much to my chagrin,
even I find myself admiring Frank Lloyd Wright's work on occasion.
© Shaye Eller