A Model Client: Frank Lloyd Wright Designs for SC Johnson & Son
Intent on updating the corporate identity of a company born in the late 19th century, SC Johnson president Herbert F. Johnson, Jr., commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a modern structure to better serve the company’s administrative staff. Located in an industrialized part of Racine, Wisconsin adjacent to the company’s warehouses and manufactory, this new Administration Building would project an image of a progressive company focused on the well-being of its employees and customers. Johnson, who served as the company’s president from 1928 – 1966, held the philosophy that "The goodwill of people is the only enduring thing in any business.” As focused on its employees as it was on its customers, SC Johnson was a leader in providing its employees with generous benefits and a profit sharing plan. At the height of the Great Depression, the company would even institute a pension plan.
Embracing the SC Johnson philosophy, Wright chose to focus the building’s plan inward providing employees a haven from its industrial setting. To compensate for the lack of windows, he created an airy and light filled half acre space surrounded by a balcony in which the employees could work in comfort. To achieve this, he placed a clerestory of horizontal Pyrex glass tubes around the upper walls of the room and topped it with an innovative sky lighted ceiling that fills the space with even filtered light. The ceiling design is dominated by tree or “lily pad” shaped rows of concrete pads, 18 ½ feet in diameter, held aloft by slender tapering columns giving one the sense that the ceiling is floating, barely tethered to the ground. Interested in employee comfort, Wright would design the interior furnishings in a streamlined style, each especially configured to aid the accomplishment of daily tasks.
Like many of Wright’s commissions, the Administration Building would go far over budget and when in the 1940s it was time to build new research labs, Johnson was reticent to engage Wright for the project. Nevertheless, out of respect for the architect, Johnson shared his plans for a two story block of laboratories he wished to build. Wright ultimately convinced Johnson that only he could design a laboratory structure that would harmonize with the original building. The Research Tower opened to scientists in 1950 and was central to product development and testing until 1982. Wright designed a “tree-like” tower with a central core and individual floors cantilevering outwards like branches for a modern atmosphere to inspire the scientists to develop new products. Johnson’s reticence was well founded: Wright’s ingenious design for the Research Tower would cost the company nearly four times the cost of the Administration Building.
Today, both buildings are open for public tours. The Administration Building is still in use by SC Johnson employees while the Research Tower underwent an extensive restoration in 2013 to preserve the structure for generations to come. The architectural model you see here shows the SC Johnson headquarter campus detailing the combination of curvilinear and rectilinear lines of Wright’s streamlined design. The reoccurring design elements are seen throughout, from the parking structure, and office spaces to the rounded and glazed corners of the Wright’s remarkable Research Tower.
This exhibition is on view January 23-June 4, 2016
image: Great Workroom, c. 1954