August 14, 2014

Field trip: Manitoga

Heading out on our guided tour 

Our first view of the quarry with the boat launch on the left 

The first peek of his hand-built house (upper left corner of the photo) 

Manitoga is a magical place.

Algonquin for "Place of Great Spirit," Manitoga is the former home and studio of the legendary American designer Russell Wright, a designer whom I knew very little about before making this recent trip up the Hudson River Valley on a beautiful summer day.

Looking across to the house, with the quarry down below 

One of the instructional signs on the property 

Surrounded by ferns 

Walking through the mountain laurel 

One of his landscaped "rooms" on the property 

About to cross over the creek

Our first view of the studio and its green roof 

The glass walls of the main house poking out of the rocky ledge 

The pergola path leading from studio to main house; full view of the quarry pond

Beginning our descent after touring the house 

My sketch of his studio's floorplan 

If you've noticed, there is a bit of a trend developing here – my growing fascination with historic homes and studios of artists and designers (like this one from last summer). At the top of my list are this home in New Mexico and then this one in Mexico City, but neither are two-hours and a $25 train ticket away, like Manitoga.

Just south of Garrison on the eastern side of the Hudson River, Manitoga is a 75-acre property that can only be accessed by private, guided tour. First you watch a short introductory video about Russell Wright's extraordinary influence on design in America in a little hut/gift shop before setting out with your tour guide. Ours had quite the dramatic flair as she led our small group (comprised mainly of a family visiting from Japan) along a winding gravel path into the wooded landscape.

When we stopped to take in our first view of the quarry and the house nestled above it, we learned that Wright purchased the land in 1942 and spent almost three decades restoring and enhancing the landscape, planting most of its vegetation, re-routing a mountain stream, and filling in the former rock quarry with water. As we continued along the path of Wright's design that took us through his moss "room," under a grove of mountain laurel, and over a simple wooden bridge, the anticipation was building for the main feature of the tour – Wright's house and studio. And it did not disappoint.

First, we entered the studio, where Wright worked and slept (unfortunately, they have a strict no-photo policy inside both structures, so all I have to show you is a sketch I made of the studio's floorplan). The space was incredibly efficient in its layout, and boasted a magnificent view of the quarry pond below. But what was most fascinating about it was Wright's ingenious use of humble materials throughout the interior, like the textured walls he created by sandwiching fiberglass insulation between sheets of plexiglass so it resembled honeycomb, or the way he altered the harsh glow of the overhead fluorescent lights by suspending panels of burlap from a grid of twine in his workspace.

Everything has been restored and preserved as he had left it, and it had such a wonderful feeling there without being morbid or stale like some historic homes are. I felt so inspired standing there in his studio where he had worked to make his vision that "good design is for everyone" come true.


Fun fact: Did you know Russell and his wife Mary were the pioneers of the open living plan for the American home? His house featured an open kitchen with a drop down panel they could close when they were finished cooking so they could hide the mess from their guests. Genius.  To learn more about Wright's extraordinary influence on how we still live today, check out this article from the New York Time's archive or pick up a copy of Russell and Mary Wright's book still in print today. 

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