You may not know Russel Wright’s name, but you’ve probably seen his American Modern dinnerware. Introduced in the late 1930s, the earthy colored mix and match pieces went on to become the best selling dinnerware of all time.
Wright and his designer wife Mary (a relative of Albert Einstein), were advocates for domestic simplicity. In their 1950 book “Guide to Easier Living,” they encouraged American families to abandon the fussy and labor-intensive homekeeping and entertaining traditions of the past. Out with fancy tablecloths and formal dinner parties; in with serve yourself buffets on mix and match plates.
The Wrights practiced what they preached and Manitoga, the couple’s home and grounds in Garrison NY, is open for touring. It’s about an hour north of NYC, whether you’re driving or taking a MetroNorth train from Grand Central to the heart of the lower Hudson Valley.
The Wright’s Dragon Rock home and its surrounding 75 acres are operated as Manitoga: The Russel Wright Design Center. Access to the home is by tour only (see below for tour info), but the Woodland Trails are open to the public during daylight hours year-round.
The Wrights met at an arts gathering in the 1920s, held in Woodstock NY, called the Maverick Festival. They lived and worked in NYC but purchased the former quarry site in Garrison because it had a Woodstock vibe. They reworked the landscape, using the materials found on property, to provide a swimming hole for Mary and a meadow for entertaining.
If you’re visiting in late spring, the native mountain laurels produce extravagant pink blooms. Wright thought these resembled scoops of strawberry ice cream so he’d host an ice cream social to celebrate the season. Sadly, Mary died in 1952 and never lived in Dragon Rock, although she participated in the home’s design.
Dragon Rock at Manitoga
The Wright’s home was christened Dragon Rock because the couple’s daughter thought the rock wall adjacent to the swimming pond resembled a dragon’s snout. The building blends harmoniously with the wooded landscape. It’s possible you might not notice it if you didn’t know it was there.
My favorite feature of the exterior is a pergola draped in the heart-shaped leaves of Dutchman’s Pipe vine. I’ll be heading back in the spring to check out the pipe-shaped blossoms!
Unusual Design Elements
The Wrights’ home at Manitoga, Dragon Rock, has many unique design features. For example, the flat roof is covered in shallow-rooted sedum plants. Green roofs have many benefits such as absorbing rainwater and providing insulation, but they’re still very rare in 2022. Visitors to Dragon Rock in the 1960s must have thought it was totally weird.
The outdoors comes indoors throughout the home. Wright and his daughter covered a ceiling in his studio with white pine needles. The floors of the home are stones quarried from the site. And a large cypress trunk encases a steel support beam in the living room.
Wright liked to upcycle too. A bedroom wall features toilet paper rolls squished to resemble leaves.
Personally, I find modern interiors stark and impractical. The clean surfaces are appealing but I can’t imagine a home without color and layers.
The cabinetry throughout the house is made of bright white Formica, the shiny counter material popular in the 50s. The tour guide said the material is two-sided. Wright would switch over spring/summer white for a reddish burnt orange for the cooler months.
Colorful Mix and Match Dinnerware
Before there was Martha Stewart, there was Russel Wright. He debuted the American Modern dinnerware as a starter set of 12 pieces, in a range of soft, earthy pastel shades. Housewives were hooked and successive design releases drew crowds to Macy’s and other department stores.
Two of the bedrooms in Dragon Rock have been reconfigured as a gallery where you can learn about the progression of the couple’s career and see examples of their designs. American Modern dinnerware was produced by the Steubenville Pottery Company in Ohio. The swooping lines and clever designs are still very appealing. Bauer Pottery makes American Modern dinnerware today, but it sells for way more than the $6.95 starter set price!
Manitoga Tour Options
When planning your trip to Manitoga be aware that you must book a tour to see the house, studio and gallery. Several tour options are available. Public tours include:
- Design – Art – Nature Tour
- Collectors Tour
- Sunset Tour
Additionally, private, group and student group tours can be scheduled.
The public tours are capped at 12 people, so the experience is fairly intimate. The small group size means you’ll need to book in advance to avoid getting shut out.
The tour lengths vary from 90 minutes to two hours, are held rain or shine and include a mandatory, moderate hike. Access to the house is via an inclined trail that has mulched paths and stone steps. It is not wheelchair- or stroller-friendly. Dress appropriately and don’t forget the sunscreen/insect repellant. 2022 tour prices range from $30 – $100.