Manitoga Modern

From his woodsy New York retreat, designer Russel Wright helped change the American home.

Manitoga/Russell
The restoration work of the dining area

Credit: Tara Wing

Apparently impelled by feelings of inferiority, Americans have until comparatively recently begged or borrowed much of their culture from abroad. Thus the stilted ritual of the English manor house—where life was rigidly formal and a staff of servants waited on master and mistress hand and foot—became the standard of "gracious living" for the American home. But a hard-working democracy was poor soil for this aristocratic way of life.

With that passage from their 1950 book, Guide to Easier Living, industrial designers Mary and Russel Wright took aim at the overstuffed chairs and superfluous forks of preceding generations and laid down the premise for a cheerful manifesto of midcentury modernism. Complete with detailed instructions about every aspect of home life—how to choose and arrange furnishings, plan and serve meals, set the table—the best-selling book tried to coax middle-class Americans into pass-through counters and potluck suppers. Housework would be far less onerous, the Wrights noted, if the cook baked and served the casserole in the same attractive pot and chose rugs that didn't show stains. Touting the democratic spirit, the book also nudged men and children to help out the women. "After all, it is our own dishes we are washing, our own beds we are making."

Guide to Easier Living also served as a savvy marketing tool for Russel Wright's creations—casually elegant furniture, dinnerware, and other household accessories. The book, like so many projects the couple did together, exemplified Mary's genius for marketing her husband's forward-looking designs and their shared belief that good design—practical, affordable, attractive—could improve the quality of domestic life.

To a great degree, the book succeeded: The open floor plans and other innovations advocated in Guide were quickly embraced by many Americans and became standard house features. Dining habits and table settings grew decidedly more casual. Department stores sold millions of pieces of Russel Wright's sleek dinnerware, American Modern; his home furnishings and other household items also starred in the postwar market. Design historians compare the Wrights' influence then to that of Martha Stewart today.

Yet few Americans born after 1950 have heard of Russel Wright, who died in 1976. Fewer still have heard of Manitoga, the approximately 75-acre property containing the country home, studio, and "forest garden" that he designed in Garrison, N.Y., in the Hudson River valley. Operated since 1984 as a nature-education center by an often cash-strapped nonprofit organization, the buildings and grounds were falling into decline. Now Wright's slow fade into obscurity is on the brink of reversal. New sources of funds to restore the buildings and a prestigious national landmark designation may mean that, 30 years after his death, Wright's legacy may at last be secure.

Save America's Treasures in 2005 gave a grant of $250,000 to the Russel Wright Design Center to repair the house's roof and drainage system.

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