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"I don’t create a fantasy world; I create a reality of fantasy."
Frank Lloyd Wright
When my wife Dana and I decided to leave Brooklyn and buy a home, our search began with a mid-century property in Connecticut designed by Allan J. Gelbi, an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright, in the 1960s. It sat at the end of a long gravel driveway, surrounded by trees. While we didn't end up purchasing the home due to the renovations it required (or moving to Connecticut for that matter), our search for a mid-century home continued. We fell in love with the ambiance of Skylark and dreamed of finding a similar home someday.
More than a year later, we stepped inside a house situated on a hill, with each floor designed in congruence with the slope. It was built in 2005 right outside my hometown in Bucks County, PA. Although it had no connection to Frank Lloyd Wright, we sensed that it incorporated many of the principles that made his work unique. Like Skylark, we entered the house and wondered how we could make it our home. Fortunately, we succeeded.
While I had always been fascinated by Frank Lloyd Wright and admired his creations, my knowledge was limited. After encountering Skylark and buying our home, Dana and I became even more interested and discussed visiting his works in person. Last weekend, we took a trip to Western Pennsylvania with some friends to explore Fallingwater, Wright's renowned masterpiece, and Polymath Park, a unique destination featuring homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentices, Peter Berndtson and John Rattenbury, nestled in the woods.
Fallingwater was unlike any structure I had ever experienced. The way Wright seamlessly integrated the home into its natural surroundings was remarkable. Perched atop a waterfall, it felt more like an extension of the landscape than a mere building. He even incorporated boulders and trees into different areas of the home, preserving their presence.
Seeing Polymath Park was also special. The apprentice-designed homes are original to the location, but the homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright were meticulously deconstructed, transferred in shipping containers, and reconstructed at Polymath. Our tour guide, Robert, was part of the reconstruction efforts and joined a then-small Polymath team seven years ago. It was fun spending time talking with Robert; his knowledge of Wright and the properties go deep.
On the four-hour drive home, we listened to a podcasts about Wright. It turns out he and his life were far from perfect, with surprising stories about abandoning his children and the tragic murder of his loved ones. Apart from these unfortunate stories, I enjoyed hearing other tales like how Wright's unique approach began by doing freelance residential properties while working full-time until his boss got wind of it. Another story recounted how Edgar Kaufmann, the wealthy American businessman who commissioned Fallingwater, called Wright to let him know he was heading to the studio to view the initial drawings. Wright hadn't even started and spent the next two hours drawing. Lastly, how the owners of the Mäntylä House, the most recent addition to Polymath Park, thought Wright wouldn't give them the time of day when they decided to approach him in the 1950s, thinking Wright would only create work for the prestigious. Wright warmly welcomed them into his office.
While I wasn't surprised to learn there was more to the architectural legend, these stories were a good reminder that Wright was a designer offering a service to clients. They got me thinking about our work at Barrel and what parallels I might find with how Wright approached his projects and clients. I had fun digging into some of the principles I identified this weekend below.
Wright's belief in harmoniously blending buildings with their natural surroundings reminds me of a website's presence in a brand's digital ecosystem. Just as Wright considered the site, materials, and structural form as interconnected elements, we aim to create websites that feel like an extension of the client's brand and other channels, from ad campaigns to social media to in-person experiences.
Wright's emphasis on creating a unified design, where every element and detail contributes to the overall aesthetic and purpose, resonates with our work. In one of the homes at Polymath Park, I was in awe of how the roof structure connected with the seam in the wall, which met the seams in the tile floor. You didn't notice it unless anyone pointed it out, but all of these details give the space a sense of calm and ease.
When we're designing websites, it's no different. From the website navigation to checkout, attention to detail contributes to a frictionless user experience. In our case, this could mean color consistency between buttons or how a page transitions.
While consistency is essential, moments in Wright's designs make you pause. An effective website should do the same, guiding users effortlessly through their journey, with intentional moments of focus, driving them to actions like making a purchase or learning about a product benefit.
Wright tailored his designs to the needs and preferences of the homeowners, even adjusting door sizes and ceiling heights to create spaces that felt just right—no pun intended. Similarly, our design process begins with a deep dive into our clients and their customers, conducting interviews and surveys to uncover their goals and needs. While aesthetics are important, we prioritize functionality and aim to create designs that are visually appealing and user-friendly, avoiding flashy designs that may initially excite users but ultimately frustrate and confuse them.
Innovation and technology were integral to Wright's work, as he constantly experimented with new materials and construction techniques. There are tales of when these experiments didn't work out or when contractors refused to execute Wright's designs. Despite the setbacks, Wright continually tried new things, designing 1,114 works of all types, 532 of which were realized.
We share this spirit of innovation at Barrel, always seeking new approaches and techniques to meet our client's needs. Luckily we don't have developers refusing to build our designs, but experimentation has come with its challenges, whether it's misalignment on the team or a feature not working as planned. These lessons have taught us where tight systems are appropriate and where to leave room for play.
What actions can I take to deepen my knowledge of both my client and their customers, in order to design solutions that are more aligned with their needs?