Dining with the Smiths: Dinnerware from Tokyo and Taliesin

Melvyn and Sara Smith filled their Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home with a fascinating mixture of objects. Over three decades in the house, they collected everything from finely crafted ceramics, handwoven textiles, and original sculpture to the kinds of reproductions one might find in a museum gift shop. This eclectic blend of mass-produced décor and unique art objects can be seen on the hallway shelves, where two sets of plates demonstrate two very different engagements with the artistic legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Gallery shelves in the Smith House hallway, November 2021. Photograph by Nina Blomfield, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The center shelf displays a reproduction of the dinnerware used in the cabaret of the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo. The Imperial Hotel was a monumental project, commissioned in 1916 and completed in 1923. Frank Lloyd Wright conceived the hotel as a total aesthetic environment, a space in which all decoration was unified: from the carved Oya stone of the exterior structure all the way down to the coffee pots and sugar bowls on breakfast tables. Famously, the structure survived the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, although it was not completely undamaged as Wright proclaimed.

Frank Lloyd Wright, manufactured by Noritake Porcelain Company, Place Setting for the Imperial Hotel, 1979 (designed c.1922). Photograph by Nina Blomfield, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The porcelain cabaret service was designed by Wright and manufactured by Noritake Porcelain Company. Its pattern served both an aesthetic and practical purpose. The floating bubbles not only reinforced the festive atmosphere of informal cabaret dining (Wright had designed more conservative gilt porcelain for the banquet hall), the red circle at the lip of the teacup would also conveniently disguise any inelegant lipstick marks. Noritake produced replacement pieces for the hotel while the service was in use and continued to reissue the original designs for sale to consumers.

Books from the Smith Collection, from left: Frank Lloyd Wright, The Japanese Print: An Interpretation. New York: Horizon Press, 1967; Cary James, The Imperial Hotel: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Architecture of Unity. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1968; Newspaper clipping of Ada Louise Huxtable, “Anatomy of a Failure,” The New York Times, March 17, 1968, p.35. Photograph by Nina Blomfield, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

By 1968, the original design for the hotel had been significantly compromised and the building was demolished to make space for an expansion. Cary James captured the hotel in its final years in his book The Imperial Hotel: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Architecture of Unity. The Smith House library includes this volume and, slipped inside the front cover, a clipping from Ada Louise Huxtable’s New York Times article “Anatomy of a Failure,” a lament of the hotel’s destruction.

Imperial Hotel teacup showing “The Oak Park Collection 1979” mark. Photograph by Nina Blomfield, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

In the late 1970s, architect and Frank Lloyd Wright scholar Thomas Heinz began selling Wright furniture designs and reproductions of the Imperial Hotel porcelain. Although produced by Noritake, the original manufacturer, the legitimacy of the reissued dinnerware was contentious, and the service was the subject of lengthy legal disputes between Heinz and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The Smith Noritake is from “The Oak Park Collection,” dated to 1979. As a mass-produced reproduction issued a decade after the Hotel’s demolition, the acquisition of the service gives a small glimpse into the Smiths’ devotion to everything Frank Lloyd Wright. Along with copies of work by Marc Chagall and Auguste Rodin in the Smith House collection, the Imperial Hotel dinnerware speaks to a mode of collecting that was perhaps less concerned with authenticity than with aesthetic appeal and personal taste.

Val M. Cox, hand-painted teak plate, 1982. Photograph by Nina Blomfield, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

On the shelf above the Imperial Hotel dinnerware, a painted teak plate tells a very different story. This plate is one of a set of twelve that were designed and hand-painted for the Smiths by artist Val M. Cox. Each plate features a unique design of rhythmic arcs, segments, and overlapping circles in gold leaf, red and green enamel, and dark stain.

The geometric forms belong to a tradition of abstraction developed by Frank Lloyd Wright and the community of architects and artists that gathered around him at his homes in Wisconsin and Arizona. This community was formalized as the Taliesin Fellowship in 1932, an educational program for those interested in furthering Wright’s theories of organic architecture and “learning by doing.”

Books on the Taliesin Fellowship from the Smith House Library. Photograph by Nina Blomfield, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The Smiths maintained a lifelong connection with the Fellowship. It was a Taliesin apprentice who invited Melvyn and Sara Smith to first meet Frank Lloyd Wright. Members of the Fellowship aided in the 1950 construction of the house, designed the 1968 Garden Room addition, and continued to correspond with the Smiths about future projects (including an unbuilt teahouse and jacuzzi). The Smiths brought the set of undecorated plates with them on a visit to Taliesin in 1982 and asked Cox, then a fellow, to develop an original design for their table.

Val M. Cox, hand-painted teak plates, 1982. Photograph by Nina Blomfield, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Although the geometric patterns of the teak and the porcelain plates harmonize, the circumstances of their production are quite different. One, a personal commission from an artist with an intimate connection to Taliesin, represents the meaningful artistic relationships that the Smiths cultivated throughout their lives. The other, a mass-produced reproduction from one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most well-known designs demonstrates the breadth of their lifelong interest in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. These two sets of plates symbolize the varied ways that the Smiths acquired art and filled their home with beauty.

—Nina Blomfield, The Decorative Arts Trust Marie Zimmermann Collections Fellow for Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, 2021-2023

One thought on “Dining with the Smiths: Dinnerware from Tokyo and Taliesin

  1. In the early 60’s, while a student at what was then the Cranbrook School for Boys, I was fortunate to visit Japan for several summer weeks with my family. We stayed in what was the blah “new wing” of the Imperial Hotel, but walked every open corridor of the original building. The exterior was stunning and unearthly while the public interior spaces seemed, to our Glass-Box-accustomed eyes, wildly overwrought. Looking at old photos online, I still see the nutty profusion of shapes and surfaces but I can also appreciate the master exploring the fusion of decoration and architecture (and see it echoed, more serenely, in Kingswood School). How interesting that Wright designed such simple china for that bristling environment!

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