Frank’s Small Things

The designing mind of Frank Gehry — By Larry Wayne Richards

When people think of architect Frank Gehry, they mostly think of his spectacular buildings—the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, or the just-completed, 76-storey, residential tower on Spruce Street in Manhattan, marketed as “NEW YORK by Gehry”. But, over the past 30 years, he has also been busy making small things, from Formica-chip fish lamps in the early ’80s to light weight bentwood furniture for Knoll in the ’90s to his new, mysterious “elephant cuffs” for Tiffany & Co.

What role do these experimental objects have in the creative life of the world’s most famous architect? Gehry, who was born in Toronto in 1929 and moved to Los Angeles as a young man, is quick to respond. “Well, the model is that architects have done these kinds of small things forever,” he says. “Frank Lloyd Wright made it a religion, designing everything. But I hate that total environment, controlling approach. I don’t want people to just use my stuff.”

One gets the sense that, for Gehry, realizing small objects is about liberating the human spirit, both for him and for the lucky people who own them. The turnaround time from idea to product is much faster than for a huge building. Gehry lights up when he talks about involving “the kids” (his sons Alejo and Sam, and their partners, Carrie Jenkins and Joyce Shin, respectively) in some of the projects: “That’s the fun part!” he says. Of course, not every project ends joyfully. Gehry refers to a lamp project where he and the client “didn’t really connect.” Some stories are more mixed. He mentions the twisty vodka bottles for Wyborowa. Then he quickly turns upbeat on what almost happened: “Wyborowa should have done the Polish patriot bottle caps that Sam designed. They were terrific!”

Whatever he thinks now of the torqued, fancy-capped bottle for Wyborowa from 2004, when placed next to an early concept sketch by Gehry for the Spruce Street project, one sees a great resemblance. It becomes clear that the little stuff and the big stuff are all part of the same creative process. The reciprocity—the give and take from exuberant bottle to exuberant building—is a dynamic affair. The overlaps and intersections become even more wonderfully complex because Gehry turned the wiry tower sketch into a lithograph produced by the prestigious Gemini G.E.L. company that does prints for the likes of James Rosenquist and Richard Serra.

Gehry is particularly eager to talk about one of his latest little things, a “cuff” as he calls it, for his Frank Gehry for Tiffany & Co. collection. The bone china bracelet, with elephants painted on it, resulted from a personal situation. He recounts the story: “I went on a family trip to South Africa, and when I came back to my office, my assistant Meghan asked me if I saw elephants. Well, I had. Since she wasn’t on the trip and didn’t get to see them, I decided to paint the elephants for her.” It makes me wonder if Gehry’s next buildings will somehow recall the pachyderms. After his life-long parade of fish and snakes and horse heads and other animal-like structures, anything is possible.

Larry Wayne Richards, FRAIC, AIA/IA, is a Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto and Artistic Director, WORKshop, Inc.

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