Frank Lloyd Wright's Design Influence on Joseph Eichler

Joseph Eichler’s homes were strongly influenced by living in Frank Lloyd Wright's Bazett House

Joseph Eichler was working as an egg and butter wholesaler when his life took an unexpected turn. In 1943, he moved his family from a nondescript home in San Mateo, California, to the nearby San Francisco suburb of Hillsborough. Eichler’s business was being sold, and he needed a short-term rental while considering his next career move. The home he chose, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1940 for the Bazett family, was one of Wright’s Usonians, a term the architect coined to describe the modest-size homes designed to provide custom housing for the middle class.

Eichler’s family rented the home for two years, when it was sold to Louis and Betty Frank. Within six years, Eichler had left the egg and butter business for good and started a new career in homebuilding, founding the Eichler Homes Co. in 1949. Coincidence? Definitely not. Eichler’s homes were strongly influenced by the lessons learned while living in the Bazett House. Over the next 20 years of his newfound career, Eichler’s company built about 11,000 homes, and to this day, they remain in high demand for their uncompromising mid-century design and the enduring quality of their construction.

While Wright’s Usonians were custom-designed for each individual client, Eichler built large subdivisions of houses on spec and found customers for his finished designs. This led to fascinating tweaks that Eichler brought to Wright’s design approach to make the homes both affordable and desirable to a large audience.

Adrienne DeRosa, original photo on Houzz

Wright’s Innovations

Wright custom-designed each home for an individual client. At the same time, he never let slip his core values of homes connected to nature, efficient in their layouts and with open-plan, family-centered living spaces. These ideas and more influenced Eichler and his design team.

Open to nature. Floor-to-ceiling glass made Wright’s Usonian homes feel far more spacious than their diminutive size would suggest. In the John J. Dobkins House in Canton, Ohio, the glass walls blur the lines between inside and out, and face a spacious garden.

Eichler’s homes also feature broad expanses of glass, though he opted for larger, more economical panes of glass. The mostly fixed windows were less expensive than the smaller operable glass doors and windows that Wright used.

Genesis Architecture, LLC., original photo on Houzz

Street wall. This home, by Genesis Architecture, is designed in Wright’s Usonian style. It features a broad, sheltering low-slope roof and almost no windows facing the street, making the home a refuge from hectic daily life.

Klopf Architecture, original photo on Houzz

Natural materials. Eichler was inspired by Wright’s use of local natural materials. In this Eichler home renovated by Klopf Architecture, the vertical natural wood siding is a beautiful complement to the clean lines of the interior, which features painted wood beams and ceiling cladding.

Radiant floors. Another innovation Eichler learned from Wright’s Usonians was the use of a concrete slab placed directly on the ground with radiant floor heat. Tile flooring was used in the foyer, as shown, as it’s ideal for transmitting radiant heat. Even with California’s mild climate, the warm floor underneath your feet was important to counteract the cold emanating from large glass areas in the winter.

Carports. Carports were widely used in Wright’s Usonians as an economical open-air substitute to the garage. Eichler’s designs often included a carport and a one-car garage. Carports gave a modernist pavilion appearance to Eichler homes that a standard boxy garage lacked.

Beckner Contracting Residential, original photo on Houzz

Eichler Innovations

Eichler employed an iterative process, where he and his team worked to improve their designs based on feedback from previous projects. While Wright had designed 66 Usonians, Eichler was able to build about 11,000 homes in California. This allowed him to work out the kinks and provide great design value at a reasonable cost.

Post-and-beam construction. Although Wright loved to let the structural bones of his homes shine through, he was always measured about it. In Wright’s homes, structural posts and beams are typically downplayed by embedding them in the ceiling or wall cavities.

Eichler took a more direct approach. Working with modernist architects A. Quincy Jones, Raphael Soriano and others, he designed his homes to be laid out on a structural grid of post and beams, as clearly expressive as one might find in a working barn. This approach allowed large expanses of glass between the structural supports and gave the homes a more modern feel than Wright’s more romantic structures.

Klopf Architecture, original photo on Houzz

Glazed gables. Whereas Wright rarely used the gable roof form, Eichler’s homes often featured a central gable, flanked on either side by a flat roof, as in this double-gable Eichler remodeled by Klopf Architecture. This proved ideal for maintaining privacy from neighbors while affording a view up to the treetops and surrounding golden California hills.

Central courtyard. Privacy was always a concern in Eichler’s subdivisions, and the large expanses of glass only compounded the issue. Wright’s Usonians were often on large wooded sites, but Eichler homes were often built nearly to their property lines. Eichler and his team solved this problem by adding central open-air courtyards to the houses. The homes were entered via a front door leading from the street to the courtyard, and large expanses of glass opened the house to the courtyard.

Kitchen. Wright’s tiny galley kitchens were rarely popular with homebuyers. Eichler’s homes, however, often featured kitchens that were incorporated into multipurpose rooms, with a swiveling kitchen counter that could double as a dining area. The kids could play and have an informal meal under the watchful eye of adults preparing meals.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Design Influence on Joseph Eichler

Flavin Architects, original photo on Houzz

Building on the foundations of Wright’s brilliant ideas, Eichler’s ingenious homes succeeded on a grand scale. Eichler was a developer, and the design of his homes appealed to a broad audience. He adopted Wright’s most relevant ideas and then innovated where needed to suit the modern family as it continued to develop.

While each of Wright’s homes was custom-designed for an individual client and he achieved a remarkable level of craft with his Usonians, his houses also were idiosyncratic and not always easy to live in.

Eichler’s work inspired others as well, as seen in this Massachusetts midcentury modern house featuring Eichler’s iconic glazed gable and post-and-beam structure.

This article was provided by Houzz contributor Colin Flavin of Flavin Architects, a New England-based design firm specializing in naturally modern residential projects. Colin’s vision combines sustainable design and respect for a building’s context to create a cutting edge aesthetic. Expertise in restoring Midcentury modern masterpieces.