By: Christopher Hann
Russel Wright’s longtime home and studio, Dragon Rock, was built along a rocky slope overlooking the Hudson River about an hour north of Manhattan. The designer envisioned Dragon Rock as a modern country retreat that melds unnoticed into 75 acres of oaks, ferns, white pines, wildflowers, streams, moss, meadows and Chevy-size boulders. “His key philosophy in developing and creating Manitoga (meaning, ‘place of the great spirit’) was to live in harmony with nature, and he achieved this by blending the indoors with the outdoors,” says Lori Moss, assistant director of the Russel Wright Design Center, which manages the property. Visitors can view Manitoga, which has been restored as a national historic site, from May through October.
Wright’s lasting achievement was shepherding modern design to the masses in the middle of the 20th century. His American Modern line, shown here in the dining area and kitchen, became one of the most popular dinnerware designs ever made, selling by some accounts as many as 250 million pieces. In 1950 Russel and Mary Wright articulated their design philosophy in a bestselling book, Guide to Easier Living, in which Wright famously counseled, “Good design is for everyone.”
In Wright’s world, every item had its proper place. “He used to set the table at night so he could wake up at breakfast and see a beautiful thing,” his daughter, Annie Wright, says. “It’s about creating a stage set.” He even labeled kitchen drawers according to their intended contents.
Wright’s studio served as a living laboratory in which he experimented with an array of organic and synthetic building materials—rough-cut stone and Styrofoam, weathered lumber and fiberglass—and tested his ideas about how the modern family could live comfortably. In 2004 the studio was restored and reset to its 1962 appearance.
He even put his guests to work: Married couples visiting for the weekend were sometimes assigned separate bedrooms, then awoke to a list of chores they were expected to complete during their brief stay.
The designer was not shy about manipulating nature to achieve his ends. He planted dozens of species of plants and trees and created a network of trails, steps and bridges, a meadow named for his wife, Mary, and seasonal vistas of the distant Hudson. He maneuvered boulders into what he deemed to be just the right spots. He fashioned a swimming pool outside his front door—he was an avid swimmer—by damming the stream that ran through the property, in the process creating a 30-foot waterfall.
He also sought to bring the outdoors inside, as illustrated by the design of the home’s two-story living room. Floor-to-ceiling windows enclose two sides of the living room, where 7-foot-high sliding glass doors open to a rock patio overlooking the waterfall and pond and, beyond, the triangular stone slab, roughly the shape of a dragon’s head. Yet in summer’s full bloom the house practically disappears into the dense foliage.