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 Louis Henry Sullivan  (1856 - 1924)

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Lived/Active: Illinois      Known for: art nouveau architectural design

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Ad Code: 3
Louis Henry Sullivan
from Auction House Records.
Ornamental Stencil
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Chicago architect Louis Sullivan is noted as a pioneer of distinctly American architecture, which he dressed in Art Nouveau details, and for his styled forms that promoted a uniquely American vision of that style. His motto was "form must follow function", meaning that buildings should first be designed for use and "not for ornament" (Larson 24). However, once Sullivan had established the functional design, he added memorable ornamentation.

Louis Sullivan studied in Boston and worked for Frank Furness in Philadelphia, before joining the engineering firm of Dankmar Adler in 1880, where he became a partner in 1883. In the late 1880s they built steel-framed skyscrapers that combined Adler's engineering skills with Sullivan's decorative genius. His stylized forms were derived from the Gothic Revival, yet they offered a radical new style for modern buildings.

After the Chicago fire of 1871, architects and structural engineers flocked to that city. As they rebuilt the city's streets and structures, they developed a new form of architecture that was appropriate for the modern age. Sullivan was among the principal architects working in Chicago, and he was one of the few American architects to find a place in the international Art Nouveau movement. His skyscrapers constructed around steel frames reflect the technological advancements of the age. Their exteriors were decorated with intricate ornaments inspired by forms in nature and by Celtic art. With these designs, Sullivan brought elements of nature, common in Art Nouveau, into the urban landscape.

His chief designer, George Grant Elmslie, created similar ornaments, such as the teller wicket for the National Farmers' Bank at Owatonna. The designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, a disciple of Louis Sullivan, were also influenced by the natural world, but Wright developed a very different aesthetic.

As a member of the firm Adler and Sullivan, Louis Sullivan was one of the architects for the exhibition buildings of the Chicago Exposition of 1893. However, after the Fair, his career ebbed, one of the reasons being in his mind that the Fair stirred a revival of interest in classical architecture rather than focusing on modern innovations such as his much promoted "art nouveau".

His partnership with Dankmar Adler broke up, and Sullivan, age 38, did not have the connections to bring in lucrative commissions. Many persons found his personality abrasive such as the fellow architect who asked Sullivan for ideas to improve a design. Sullivan replied: "If I told you, you wouldn't know what I was talking about." (Larson 375)

His future was bleak; he had to sell many personal belongings; he drank alcohol excessively and took bromides, mood-altering drugs. From 1895 to 1922, he was involved in only twenty-two new buildings, about one a year, and he relied financially on his friend, architect Daniel Burnham, for loans of money. However, in his autobiography, "The Autobiography of an Idea", Sullivan heaped criticism on Burnham for promoting the classical architecture that dominated the Chicago Exposition. He wrote: "Thus Architecture died in the land of the free and the home of the brave---in a land declaring its fervid democracy, its inventiveness, its resourcefulness, its unique daring, enterprise and progress."

However, the counter argument to those assertions was that the Fair awakened the interest of Americans in architecture and opened minds to innovations in that area---paving the way for the ideas of Sullivan as well as Frank Lloyd Wright.

Sullivan's retrospective explanation of his ideas, "The System of Architectural Ornament" (1924), reveals an element of mysticism.

Sources include:
The National Gallery of Art
Erik Larson, "The Devil in the White City"

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Owatonna, Mn. is home to an exceptional architectural treasure. The old National Farmer's Bank Building has been called "the most beautiful bank in the world."  It is also referred to as a "masterpiece."  The bank was built in 1908 by Louis Sullivan. It is one of (8) small Midwest banks that Sullivan designed at the end of his career. The Owatonna bank is Sullivan's biggest and most elaborate.

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Louis Sullivan is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Art Nouveau

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