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Frank Lloyd Wright Cardboard House Model

Frank Lloyd Wright house model featured in Life magazine, 1938.
(Museum object #2005.133.1)

In 1938 Life magazine invited notable architects to design "dream homes" for four American families, each at a different income level. Each family was assigned two architects, one to design a "traditional" house and one a "modern" house. Wisconsin architect Frank Lloyd Wright prepared a modern design for a family in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Wright described the home, with its special privacies and conveniences, as "a Little Private Club."

The Minneapolis family, the Blackbourns, originally chose Wright's plan but could not come to an agreement with him on cost and the addition of a garage. The Blackbourns subsequently chose the traditional design of Royal Barry Wills. Wright recycled his plan the following year as the Bernard Schwartz house built in Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

At the same time, Life Houses of Chicago began selling models of all the dream homes through mail order and at retailers across the country. Madison retailer Harry S. Manchester, Inc. advertised the Wright-designed model for $1.00. Mary Williams of Madison likely purchased the model at Manchester's and treasured it for decades. In the 1980s Williams gave the model to a family friend from whom the Wisconsin Historical Society later acquired it. This is the only known example of its kind.

The model is made from color-lithographed pieces of light cardboard stock comprising floors, walls, and roofs. The maker's name, Warren Paper Products Co. of Lafayette, Indiana, is printed on the interior of one of the base pieces. The model is held together through a simple tab-and-slot construction, and it came with floor plans, two-dimensional scale furniture and appliance cut-outs, and an informational sheet.

University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Virginia Boyd learned of the model during her research for her exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright and the House Beautiful, a traveling show arranged by International Arts and Artists. Dr. Boyd put the Society in contact with the model's owner, Claire Barnett, of Baraboo, and WHS was able to acquire it and a wealth of documentary materials. The model toured the United States in Boyd's show from 2006 to 2008.

Before the model could be displayed, though, it needed a little "TLC." Robin Carlson, the Society's paper conservator, disassembled the model and cleaned each of the 31 cardboard pieces. She then strengthened many of the pieces and tabs before reassembling the house on a new, archival-grade base.

Model acquired by the Wisconsin Historical Society through the generosity of Jerome and Gail Fox in memory of Bernard and Fern Schwartz.


Posted on November 03, 2005

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