If you needed to get down to brass tacks with Frank Lloyd Wright, you went through Eugene Masselink. Even if you were Frank Lloyd Wright.
IIn 1933, an eager young man joined the Taliesin Fellowship, and quickly made himself invaluable to its founder, Frank Lloyd Wright. Eugene Masselink, known as Gene to generations of Wright clients and people affiliated with Taliesin, became secretary to Wright, easing the path of a man who was notably casual about life's practicalities. He has been described as "one of the three pillars of Taliesin", with William Wesley Peters and John H. Howe being the others.
Eugene Masselink was born September 5, 1910 in Capetown, South Africa, soon moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he grew up. He showed talent early; his abstract paintings were shown in local art museum exhibits when he was still a teenager. His college years were spent at Ohio State, where he received his degree in 1933, the year he met Frank Lloyd Wright at a lecture Wright gave at the university. His invitation to join the Taliesin Fellowship came immediately after his graduation, and he accepted; he would remain at Taliesin for the rest of his life.
For three decades, Gene Masselink was the person who selflessly devoted himself to imposing order on Wright's affairs. Masselink was the one who attended to Wright's correspondence, writing the letters that accepted students, soothed clients, and answered press questions. He was entrusted with the most private and sensitive of Wright's letter-writing, including Wright's famous exchanges with Lewis Mumford. Not all his duties were on this plane; Masselink was also the man who fetched visitors from bus stations and airports. He was organizer of many of Wright's parties and events at both Taliesins, as well, and he originated the custom of referring to the ever-changing plethora of Taliesin apprentices as "the boys". But there was another side to Gene Masselink's contributions at Taliesin, as well- that of designer.
Masselink had an extraordinary talent for creating decorative elements, and many Wright structures have Masselink's work in them. The Price House in Bartlesville, OK has Masselink-designed mural screens, and the Price Tower has murals in red, copper, turquoise and gold that are his work. Many of the graphics on Taliesin literature were his designs, as well. In 1956, Gene was asked to handle important elements of a commission from one of the best-known arbiters of modernism in America, Elizabeth Gordon. Editor of House Beautiful, Gordon wanted a Wright-designed remodeling of the master bedroom in her Dobbs Ferry, NY estate. Masselink contributed most of the decorative elements to the project, including a mural screen with a stylized leaf motif, and an Edward Fields rug which continued the motif onto the floor. Masselink continued designing for Wright until the end, and beyond.
At the time of Frank Lloyd Wright's death in 1959, Wright had been working on several projects, including the Annunciation Greek Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin; Masselink once again filled in details for a Wright design. The icons in the church are Masselink's, and such was his thoroughness that he studied iconography extensively before beginning to draw. Masselink's final direct act of service to Wright was at Wright's funeral; Masselink was one of several associates who helped load Wright's coffin onto the simple horse-drawn wagon that was used to take it to the chapel where the service was held. Masselink and William Wesley Peters were the drivers. Sadly, Eugene Masselink outlived Frank Lloyd Wright by only a few brief years. In the middle of an ordinary work day at Taliesin, on July 15, 1962, he suffered a heart attack, dying in a local hospital later that day, not having quite reached his fifty-second birthday.
Today, Masselink's work for Wright is gaining recognition of its own, separate from its use in Wright projects. Masselink's talent for subordinating his contributions to the overall concept of a Wright project is becoming recognized as the finely honed skill it actually was. Whether Wright was basing a work on squares, or circles, or leaf shapes, Eugene Masselink was able to come up with exactly the right decorative theme for it, perfectly aligned with Wright's ideas. Masselink pieces are now very much in demand; his mural screens and rug for Elizabeth Gordon's bedroom recently auctioned for $26,000 at wright20.com. Not bad for a gentle talent who rarely shone in his own light during his lifetime.
The author wishes to thank Mr. Daniel Ruark for his invaluable assistance with key dates and events in the life of Eugene Masselink.
The Website of www.wright20.com
The screens and rug for the Elizabeth Gordon commission can be seen at: www.wright20.com
The Website of The Harvard Square Library, www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/unitarians/wright-FL.html
Interview with Robert Green, Summer, 2003
Email correspondence with Daniel Ruark, Winter, 2003
Copyright © 2003, 2015 D.A. "Sandy" McLendon and Joe Kunkel, www.jetsetmodern.com Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All rights reserved worldwide. This article may not be reproduced, reprinted, reposted or rewritten without express permission in writing from the author and publisher. First posted to the Web on December 18, 2003. Republished March 19, 2015