Modern living + nature = Manitoga

Exploring the estate of industrial designer Russel Wright

Author: Kelly Kingman
Posted: Thursday, July 01, 2010

At first glance, the park-like grounds of Manitoga in Garrison might appear to be just a postcard-perfect setting for a lovely example of mid-century modern architecture. But industrial designer Russel Wright considered the house and property to be much more than an idyllic country home. For him it represented his highest achievement as a designer, one that blended his passion for this land he cherished with his philosophy on the art of living. “This is a design project I am most pleased with, more than any other project throughout my career,” said Wright in a 1958 essay about his home.

Wright was ecologically ahead of his time and in many ways was an early environmentalist. “He thought that it was really important to live in harmony with nature,” says Kitty McCullough, executive director of the Russel Wright Design Center. “We call Manitoga his learning laboratory, for how to design and live in harmony with nature.”

 In 1942, after a three year search, Russel and his wife Mary purchased the 79 acres of land located about an hour up the Hudson River from his offices in New York City as the site of their future weekend home. By this time, Wright was a household name. Trained as a set designer and sculptor, he became the first celebrity industrial designer. This was due in large measure to the public relations aptitude of Mary, who suggested he stamp his signature on the underside of his products. His designs of the 1930s could be found in homes across the country, including the spun aluminum group, the silver flatware, and the American Modern brand of furniture. His American Modern line of dishes for Steubenville Pottery became the most popular dinnerware ever, selling in excess of 250 million pieces. Much of the mid-century American focus on a low maintenance, casual lifestyle springs directly from Wright’s design philosophy.

The ultimate set design

The land he would call Manitoga, an Algonquin word for “place of the Great Spirit,” was not the pristine natural setting that exists today. It had been devastated by copper mining and logging and marked by an abandoned granite quarry. The hemlock forest of the property had been aggressively logged for coal production to run a foundry in Cold Spring, and to supply local tanneries, which used hemlock bark in the tanning process.

But the industrial designer fell in love with the land that had been deeply scarred by industry, and the couple spent a decade visiting their property. In 1952, before any construction had started, Mary died. Shortly after that Wright began the process of transforming Manitoga into his ultimate design project.

Wright would study rock formations and stake out rooms. His designs encompass not just the house but four miles of trails across the property. He was an artist who used the land as his canvas, with ferns, moss, woodruff and mountain laurels as his palette. He planted sycamore because bark resembled dappled light and shade on the forest floor, and would selectively prune branches to create clear views across certain areas. He created forest rooms – walls of hemlocks or sycamores, lower green walls of wild thyme and floors of moss, boulders as furniture. To the untrained eye, it appears as if these were naturally occurring tableaus in the landscape.

Wright diverted a mountain stream to turn the quarry basin into a pond. Using a truck with a winch he bought for $50, he then hauled boulders to the top of the slope above the quarry and let them roll down the hill. He only stopped when he was satisfied with the way the water sounded as it splashed its way down the pile he had created.

The house was perched above this manmade pond. Russel’s young daughter Annie named it Dragon Rock, because the edge of the quarry looked like a dragon drinking from the water. Dragon Rock consists of a main house and a separate studio, with the two buildings connected by a pergola. Wright slept, bathed, and worked in the studio while Annie and her governess occupied the main house.

Kelly Kingman is a freelance writer. Her latest project is stickyebooks.com.

How did Wright combine his design with nature?

Categories: Home and Garden

Tags: Manitoga,Russel Wright,home design

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