Designed on Purpose

The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes.
Frank Lloyd Wright

I had the immense privilege and honor of visiting the Meyer May House in Grand Rapids, MI, last night. I was with the creative team working on Cornerstone and we were hosted by Steelcase and Scott Rice. Not only did we visit the house, we got a private tour and ate dinner there too. It was a very special experience.

If you are unfamiliar with the Meyer May house, you are probably wondering what I’m so worked up about. The Meyer May house is a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home completed in 1909 for Meyer S. May. It is considered one of the finest examples (if not the finest) of Wright’s Prairie School era. It is also possibly the best restoration of a Wright home ever completed.

I will not fill this musing with words about Frank Lloyd Wright as many have been written by better writers than I. I will also not spend too much time on the history of the house and its restoration. Much has been written about that too.

I will tell you about being in the house.

Meyer gave Frank the opportunity to design the complete environment for his family home. This was a bold and risky move. Wright’s designs were very different from the popular and prolific architectural styles of the day. Most homes in the Heritage Hill Historic District of Grand Rapids were tall and contained primarily vertical elements. They were “perched” on the property and had grand fronts and entrances that called to the street. Wright’s Prairie houses were low, horizontal buildings that were pressed into the site and appeared to grow out of the environment.

The front door of the Meyer May house is on the back, off the main drive. It cannot be seen from the public sides of the house. It is hidden. Wright said that if you were a friend you would know where the front door was, if not, you would have to look for it. Wright designed the home to be a retreat for the family.

Once in the house I noticed many things. The scale of the home was designed for Meyer May, who was 5’ 6” at his tallest. The furniture is lower to accommodate his shorter legs. The horizontal breaks in the windows are placed to be above his head, but not much, so they interfere with my view. The ceilings are not elevated so the rooms feel a little low to me, but must have been very comfortable to Meyer.

Additionally, as was his style, Wright repeated the patterns in the interior design in the windows, the woodwork, the rugs and the railings. He believed the repetition was calming and created a peaceful space. Wright also design the furniture to be beautiful, extremely functional and to fit in a particular place within the house.

As I walked through the rooms, I was struck by the intentionality of it all. Wright thought about the people who would be in the space, the way the space would feel and impact them, and the way it would be used. Like the brush strokes in a painting, he specifically created and placed every detail to its best effect.

I wish I could always say the same for myself and the work I do. I would like it to be true that I obsessively cared for the impact my work had on the people who would engage with it. I would like to be so concerned for the people in my life that I place their interests and needs first. I want this to be true about Kimray.

This does not mean we abandon reason or prudence. While it may be said that Wright’s designs were not always practical from a long-term maintenance view, he did put walls and windows and roofs in his home designs. The house had to function well as a basic shelter, then it could go on to be more.

Kimray must function well as a “company” in the traditional sense, so it can go on to be more. More supportive of our people. More advanced in our concepts of what is a healthy work community. More able to influence the surrounding community and serve the underserved.

The reason Wright designed structures was not the structure itself, but rather the thing the structure accomplished. Likewise, Kimray is not what we make, we make so we can be what we are supposed to be. That’s not just the way Kimray should be, it’s the way I should be too. I am not what I do. I do so I can be what I am supposed to be.

Let’s build. Let’s grow. Let’s improve. Let’s certainly make money.

Just don’t forget that the building and the growth and the bottom line is not the end, it’s the means. Our success will only be true if it makes a difference in the lives of those we serve.