By Daniel R. Nichols, AIA and Christine Denario, Co-Owners, Sweeton House
When Christine and I purchased Wright’s J.A. and Muriel Sweeton house in 2008 from its second resident owner, it came with a set of prints of the 1950 construction drawings and a single original chair. As the Sweeton house was designed and built on a very tight budget, the furniture Wright designed for the house was spartan and moveable. In fact, it was so moveable, most of it moved out of the house with the original owners.
To be fair, it was the only furniture they had, and in 1973, Usonian furniture, particularly furniture made from the house’s partition scraps, was not seen as valuable or an integral part of a home as we view it today. The Sweetons thought they were saving their furniture by taking it, and in fact, some of it survives today as much-loved keepsakes in their descendants’ houses, and in the homes of people who purchased the pieces that were sold away after Muriel’s passing.
Working with Salvage
With almost no Wright-designed furniture, Christine and I furnished our house with Danish and American mid-century modern pieces, some handed down, some purchased. The house seemed to “like” wood pieces that were simply detailed and clean of line. As we restored the house and gently renovated the kitchen and bath, we decided to salvage the original redwood plywood fronts from the base cabinets that we were replacing with drawer units. Those fronts would be used to recreate some of the missing furniture. Our salvage managed to yield enough material to make three hassocks that Wright had designed for the house. Not surprisingly, the hassocks were a handy and elegant addition to the house. I loved their relation to the modularity of the house and found it interesting that all sorts of elements of the house itself related to the scale of the hassocks and at times aligned with their geometry.
“the furniture Wright designed for the house was spartan and moveable. In fact, it was so moveable, most of it moved out of the house…”
Then came the COVID Pandemic, and Christine and I began to not just live in our house, but work from it as well. Christine saw clients via her laptop from the dining table and I practiced architecture from the workshop with a desk and drafting table.
Lunch presented a problem however. Packing up from work at the end of the work day at the dining table was one thing, but twice a day? Another table was needed. Remembering an old photo of the house during the Sweeton’s residency with hassocks at a low table in the living room, we decided to remake a Wright table to provide a “break room”.
Remaking a Wright Table
Carefully comparing the drawings, their measurements, as well as historic and auction house photos revealed that the dining tables as-built in 1950 were not the same length and width shown on the drawings. This opened the door to a bit of a study of the Sweeton tables as-designed vs. as-built. I found that the overall length and width varied, but the table leg size and their relationship to the corners of the table top and lower stretcher shelf remained constant, as did the height of the fascias of the table top and stretcher shelf. It appeared that Wright had designed a table that could be sized as needed, as long as certain elements and their positions with respect to the table’s corners were kept the same.
With this understanding, Christine and I chose to have the table made to align with an existing 32” wide built-in cabinet in the living room: it would project outward into the room like a peninsula. A projecting horizontal surface in the form of a shelf or table from a wall, pier, or other built-in millwork is a design element found in more than a few Wright interiors, particularly in the Usonians.
As redwood plywood is no longer readily available, I had Ean Frank, our finish carpenter, carefully select fir plywood with grain similar to the original built-in cabinet the table would abut. I prepared shop drawings based on the scantily detailed Wright original drawings. Ean noted that the table was relatively easy to construct, and seemed to be designed to be made by the house builders themselves at the site, rather than by cabinetmakers in a shop. While finishing the table in 1950 would have simply required applying a coat of shellac to the redwood plywood, matching new fir plywood to a room full of 70 year old redwood was more difficult. Ean borrowed an original hassock that had found its way back to the house to mix and match a stain color for the new fir plywood to resemble the aged redwood. He noted that matching the tone and color of the finish was the most challenging part of the build. Ean thus produced a younger brother to the original Sweeton tables that fits seamlessly into the context of our living space.
While finishing the table in 1950 would have simply required applying a coat of shellac to the redwood plywood, matching new fir plywood to a room full of 70 year old redwood was more difficult.
Wright’s table design is truly integral to the room: the table edge matches the width of the shelf fascias above it, the bottom of the table’s stretcher shelf aligns perfectly with the bottom course of masonry, and the three hassocks nest neatly between the table legs. Christine and I now have a pleasant place to have a bite to eat and catch up with each other at mid-day, but we also made a harmonious addition to the living room.
Posted April 1, 2022