Russel Wright, Industrial Designer & Founder of MANITOGA
2.7.15 Garrison, NY
Since Russel Wright has long passed, I can only use my imagination as to what it would be like to talk with him. Wright designed a wide variety of projects but he always loved working on household objects, a genre that set him apart from his industrial design contemporaries. His primary goal was to bring an intimacy with nature by weaving organic and industrial materials together. This is apparent in his concept of “easier living”. Designer George Nelson called him the American designer most responsible for "the shift in taste toward modern in the late 1930s”. Wright, along with his wife Mary, pioneered lifestyle design and paved the way for lifestyle gurus such as Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren.
Interview & Photos: Kate Orne Quotes are from Russel Wright from the early 1960s.
UD: How would you describe yourself?
RW: "The best way of describing myself is to use the results of authoritative tests. A few years ago, I employed a part-time personnel man to interview people I was employing. He used a fascinating test called the Kuder Preference Test. It was made up of 300 questions. The applicants were given a stylus and would punch the answers to these questions. Then, the personnel man would fold the test and read off the results and grade the applicant in terms of the percentiles of the interests. I took one of these tests, unknown to the operator, and did it one night in bed, and then put it among his papers. It came back along with the papers of the applicants that he had seen that day; and under the heading of Comments I read; “Do not employ this man. He fits only to be your gardener.” This test did truly evaluate my interest; I am more interested in nature then any other subject."
UD: You purchased the land 1n 1942 and it was basically a nondescript piece of woodland on a hillside covered in secondary growth. In addition to being a former quarry it was also the remnants of a firewood production operation and was considered useless because of the lack of soils. You named the land "Manitoga" after the Algonquin word meaning "Place of great Spirit”. How did you find this place?
RW: "We hunted up and down both sides of the Hudson River and I bought 79 acres of land which had been worked as a quarry a hundred years before and the land contained three abandoned quarry pits and a stream." "Today, my land contains two miles of paths, many vistas of the river and the mountains beyond a large natural pool with a waterfall. Friends and neighbors consider it a fascinating and unusual piece of land, and I am amused and pleased to be asked, "how did you ever find such unusually beautiful site?" — pleased because these friends think that I found it this way, and therefore I know it looks natural."
UD: You took many years studying the land before you started to build Dragon Rock in the '50s, didn’t you?
RW: "I began designing the land almost immediately, making paths, learning the shape of the land, gradually cutting vistas and views. I built a dam across the old quarry pit and changed the course of the small brook to run into the old quarry, thus making a waterfall."
UD: The house, Dragon Rock, named by your daughter Annie and looking over the quarry pool, is perfectly situated. Please describe the process you went through for picking this specific spot.
RW: "I couldn't make up my mind between three sites... so I staked off various rooms on these sites. During the day and on moonlit nights, I would go and sit in these staked-off places and look at the views from them until I finally decided on the site where we now have built. My aim was to have this unusual piece of land be the most important part of the whole project. In other words, I didn't want the house to dominate the land." "The work, of course, began with preparing the site. We would lift boulders (often as much as two tons in weight) up out of the quarry to place them around the house for contouring."
UD: My house across the river, a former dairy farm, was built in 1811 using only materials from the surrounding land, was utilizing native materials important to you when building Manitoga?
RW: All of the framing of the house is white oak, because it’s native to our region. It is built in a nine-foot module; several of these nine-foot spaces are filled with Thermopane sliding doors. I decided that because of the beauty of the natural uncut and aged stone of the cliffs that it would be a mistake to use cut stone set up in traditional patterns of masonry. Therefore, I looked at my mountainside and saw the mountain was covered with thousands of stones and boulders, which had rolled together forming sculptural masses that supported themselves. I have adapted this as the pattern for the masonry around the house."
UD: You have brought the surrounding nature into the house in such an organic manner, creating a unified experience.
RW: "Here are some of the natural materials which are used in the house: in various conditions, sanded and finished, weathered, rough-cut, or lumber just with the bark removed, leather, fur, stone, birch-bark, copper."
"Man-made materials used in the house are: fiberglass, Formica, foam rubber, metal foil, styrofoam. These man-made materials are exactly opposite of the natural ones. The natural materials are amorphic in shape and organic in texture. Machine-made ones have the repetition of their manufacturer; they are sleek and smooth. What I have done is combine the two. This combination makes one type of materials complement or enhance the other."
UD: It must be such beautiful sight when the moon rises and casts it's light across the small terrace outside of Annie’s bathroom. Her bathroom in itself is a beautiful grotto with flowers, leaves and butterflies!
RW: "The entrance to the girls' dressing room and bath, like all the laminations in the house, is made of material from Garrison. On one side is viburnum leaves and blossoms from Queen Anne's Lace and on the other side of the door, we have used maidenhair ferns laminated in plastic."
UD: One last question. Which of your many accomplishments are you the most proud of?
RW: "This is a design project I am most pleased with, more then any other project throughout my career."