Picking Colors (ok Colours)

Frank Lloyd Wright did not believe in “decorating” a house. He felt it was a way for a person of lower means to try and imitate the house of someone much more affluent.

Instead he pushed the idea of letting the beauty of a material speak for itself. It did not really matter what the material was, as long as it was honest and not wearing a disguise for the sake of looking like some expensive material that it was not. For example, think of plastic siding that is imitating wood siding or paint-soaked drywall that is covering up the wood beneath it.

He felt the same of the occupants (live within your means and build within your means). The philosophy of this  is way beyond this individual blog post but for now, realize Wright wanted the homeowners to be and show who they were and that the materials show WHAT they were (not something else). For this reason, paint was hardly ever used (if ever) in “decorating” a Usonian house.

I recently read a quote from the daughter of a couple that literally hand-built their Usonian house in the 40s and 50s that described what FLW was trying to achieve. She said, “The living room had glass on three sides, so we were very much affected by the seasons and the changing colors. In the summertime it was absolutely incredible, but the house changed with every season. There was a huge sugar maple outside the living room, and when it turned yellow in the fall, that was the color scheme.”

This is a critical quote as my wife has been very concern about the fact she will not be able to paint the place (after-all, we met when I came to paint her house as a favor to a friend).

I keep trying to tell her that by changing paintings on the wall and placing items will give the sense of changing decor you are looking for. However, that statement says it all because we are lucky enough to live in an area that has seasons and each has its colour palette or its color picker!

OK, saying all that we have been working on the specs of the house (picking the materials and quoting them out) and we have pretty well come to these conclusions (actually mutually agreed on them).


Brown Brick color for Usonian House

Before we began this project we both agreed we would not want red brick but actually preferred a brown brick. Since the decision to start this project, homes are now popping up all over with the brick color we prefer. It is a two tone brown color.

My wife is still thinking it should be even darker but I don’t think she is fully considering how dark it will be on interior walls.

Sorry about the McMansion picture but subconsciously I think I picked it to show the absolute waste of materials in that roof. There has to be $5000 to $10,000 in wasted wood, insulation and extra shingles.


We want the natural color of the wood to be the showpiece of the house so this is EXTREMELY important. In other words, no stain to cover up the beauty of the natural wood.

For most of the columns and windows we have mimicked Tim Sutton’s Usonian Redhouse in picking Douglas Fir. It has this super rich red and brown tone that no other wood really has and it is somewhat native to the area (and pretty cheap). The only other more proper native material would be oak and it is not a good choice of exterior applications. After talking with a local saw mill, we are certain the fir is going in.

The board and batten on some of the walls and the soffits will likely be cypress. We considered douglas fir, oak, pine, cedar and poplar but fir tends to crack over time in thin board, pine is just not the look we want and poplar is too greenish. Cedar would be our second choice. We originally thought the cypress would be out of our price range due to shipping costs but the guy at the mill told us he can order the logs and almost match the price of pine. Bonus!


Usonian Concrete Floor Color

Frank Lloyd Wright’s color of choice was of course “cheyenne red” for floors (and just about everything else including his cars). My wife and I both HATE the color inside a house. Well hate is a strong word. I would say its like ice cream and hamburgers to me…I can eat them but do not prefer them.

The process of coloring the concrete floor is done with something called Lithochrome Color Hardener. It is a powder that is placed on as the concrete is drying. The advantage to this is you can pick multiple colors to give it that “leather-look” we want.

I think the colors we are going for are “Dark Walnut” with an under-tone of “Padre Brown”. This will bring together the redness of the wood and the brown of the brick and certainly give us that leather look we are looking for.


As for the rest of the colors in the home, that is up to us to hang paintings and rely on the beauty of nature to paint right outside our windows…

5 thoughts on “Picking Colors (ok Colours)

  1. As much as you may ‘hate’ Wright’s use of red floors in most of his Usonians you may wish to consider some of the drawbacks to the all brown scheme you have outlined.

    Brown brick, brown floor, brown wood. Seems excessively monochromatic. To the best of my knowledge only 3 houses of the Usonian period have a brown floor: Griggs, Fawcett and Brown. Of these only the first has all 3 planes (floor, walls and ceiling) the same color, i.e. brown. At Fawcett the concrete block of the walls is painted beige, while the walls at Brown are the natural gray of the concrete block. Wright would seem to have regarded separating the planes color wise as an important part of the spacial experience. Of course in the early Usonians the ceilings and walls were often wood, so 2 of the 3 planes were the same color, but to have all 3 was very unusual.

    Just something to mull over. I imagine you intend to live with this house a long time and it would be unfortunate if in the end you’re not totally satisfied. I wouldn’t dismiss Wright’s choices lightly, as he’s not called a Master for nothing.

    In any case, good luck with your endeavor.

    • at the time, the ‘Mile High’ was an ‘conceptual’ building, a cponect that highlighted the ‘Broadacre City’ project within which he proposed the tower to be. The atomic powered elevators are a pretty serious clue that he was looking to the future.Yup, Falling Water is still standing – after the multi-million dollar structural fixes they did a few years back.”I comment on the Fallingwater canardsand . No doubt you’ll look for more now. Never denied the leaks. Clients thought they were worth it – in fact Herbert Johnson who commissioned the Johnson Wax kept right on commissioning buildings from Wright, and it sure seems like he was pleased.

  2. Thanks for the info Stoddard.

    Just some further info, the ceilings will be 1/2 drywall (yes unheard of in a Usonian) painted flat white. I have never lived in a place that I have been able to take a dark or non-ultra-white ceiling.

    The floors and brick color are still something under careful consideration as we are finding issues with that color brick which I will explain soon. The floors, the red is actually not a total no, it is just not the preferred color. I am going to look at those three that you spoke of.

    Now the wood is the thing that will tie the BROWN/BROWN of the brick with the RED/BROWN of the floors. I will have a post very soon about the wood as we are running into more and more problems with the acquisition of cypress (redish tone). It may end up being a combination of fir and red cedar as they are as local a material as we can use. Again it will take a long explanation for this but I will certainly relay your comment regarding living in it forever to my wife as I am already seeing compromises due to various issues that we may not be happy with. Thanks so much for your comments!

  3. Hi David,

    Look up Wright’s Edith Carlson unbuilt design of 1938 and later reworkings that were built. In those designs you should discover Wright’s ideas about designing for cold, snowy geography and be able to select from and incorporate what you wish into your floorplan.

    Most of Howe’s designs were for the Midwest… Pretty much the same climate…


  4. Thanks, Rob. The winters are not that harsh here (in general) and we are actually south of detroit! I will look into that house tho. THanks!

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