Less Means More in Minimalist Farnsworth House
Whether through fate or good fortune, Dr. Edith Farnsworth met Mies van der Rohe at a Chicago dinner party in the early 1940s not long after she purchased property for a country retreat. Still, she never dreamed the world-renowned architect would offer to work on the home himself.
“Van der Rohe was already a known and respected architect when he came to the U.S. from Germany,” says Maurice Parrish, Farnsworth House executive director. “Dr. Farnsworth assumed he would have someone in his office design for her. She was surprised when he decided to design it himself.”
Wisely, Farnsworth gave the masterful minimalist free rein to design his version of a dream home. The results would inspire far more than Farnsworth.
Even before construction began, the Museum of Modern Art in New York featured a model of the Farnsworth House in a 1947 exhibit. By 1951, that model came to life in a 1,585-square-foot glass box home nestled near the banks of the Fox River in Plano.
“Farnsworth House is recognized around the world as an iconic example of modernist architecture,” Parrish says. “It consists of a minimal number of materials – steel, glass, stone and wood – and emphasizes long, horizontal planes.”
Void of unnecessary adornments, van der Rohe’s design allows nature to take center stage.
“It allows a certain level of introspection that is not easily found in our daily lives,” Parrish says.
Floor-to-ceiling glass exterior walls help remove boundaries between indoor living space and the great outdoors. The interior consists of a single, undivided space with living areas defined by usage rather than walls.
“Its essence is minimalism. It looks simple and straightforward, but when you get into the details you can see it’s anything but effortless,” Parrish says. “It was all very new at the time.”
While van der Rohe eschewed formal landscaping for natural prairie, the home’s second owner, Lord Peter Palumbo, added English-garden style landscaping that has an appeal all its own.
Van der Rohe also left his mark on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology and Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. Still, architects and scholars view Farnsworth House as a pinnacle in his artistic career.
In 2003, Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation purchased the historic house and 62-acre site. Today, the public can tour Farnsworth House, whose appeal reaches far beyond the Land of Lincoln.
“Farnsworth House is not just a building – it’s an architectural pilgrimage site. We host almost 10,000 visitors every year. About 30 percent come from outside the U.S.,” says Parrish, who hopes to add landscape tours in the future. “We get large contingents of architecture students from around the world – especially from Germany, Australia and South America.”
Along with students of architecture, artists of all kinds find inspiration at Farnsworth House, which hosts unique events that explore the intersection of art and architecture. Recent events showcased original works of art, including a steel-and-firewood sculpture and musical compositions inspired by the house itself.
As Parrish says: “We want to give visitors reasons to come back and visit again.”
Those who do will attest to this observation made by van der Rohe’s contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright: “Buildings, too, are children of Earth and Sun.”
Visit Van Der Rohe’s Masterpiece
The Farnsworth House, located at 14520 River Road in Plano, offers public tours April through November. Tours start every hour, on the hour, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Private tours are available November through April, weather permitting. For more information, call (630) 552-0052 or visit farnsworthhouse.org.