Defining the Prairie School Style and It’s Midwestern American Origins

Unlike other popular American design styles that have their origins in French, British, or even Ancient Roman architecture, Prairie School design was developed to be a fully American architectural style inspired by the plains Midwest. Key elements of American history made this style possible, including the Great Chicago Fire and the 1893 World’s Fair. With Frank Lloyd Wright at the lead, the Prairie School style took off while taking advantage of America’s greatest architectural resource that Europe didn’t have: land. At Amity Kett, our architects and interior designers are defining the Prairie School Style, examining its Midwestern origins, and finding innovative ways to implement it into modern designs today.  

Defining the Prairie School Style 

The Prairie Shcool design style was developed around 1889 and remained popular at the turn of the century through about 1919. The style originated in Chicago, Illinois but became popular throughout the Midwestern states and even had an influence around the world. The style is marked by being uniquely American, drawing little to no inspiration from other cultures and architectural styles of the past. Instead, the style aimed to complement the flat plains of Middle America, placing an emphasis on horizontal lines, minimal ornamentation, and expansive open concept living. 

The Elements of Prairie School Design

With an emphasis on the landscape, Prairie School design elements derived their inspiration from the flat plains of the Midwest. This results in larger horizontally oriented spaces, minimal ornamentation, and open concept living, which have become staples in American design ever since. 

Emphasis on Horizontal Lines 

Built in the American Prairie, Prairie School homes feature prominent horizontal lines meant to accentuate and work with the landscape rather than against it. Homes are typically built lower to the ground and feature lower ceilings, single-story floor plans, banded windows, and long porches. 

Low Pitched Roofs and Ceilings

Prairie Style roofs are typically hipped with a low grade or nearly flat slope with overhanging eaves to highlight and extend horizontal lines. Inside the home, this typically translates to a lower ceiling without any vaulting. 

Open Concept Living

The Prairie Style rejected the stuffy Victorian style of years past where rooms were more segmented and closed off. Instead, like the open prairie, the designs featured open floor plans that even allowed the kitchen to appear as an extension of the living area. Ever since, open floor plans have become a staple and a popular must-have for the American home. 

Minimal Ornamentation 

Like the land that inspired them, Prairie Style homes feature minimal ornamentation and are often plainer. Some popular details include banded brick accents or natural stone on the exteriors. Interior design schemes often featured more streamlined surfaces and neutral, monochromatic, or analogous color schemes. Some popular colors included orange, persimmon, and sage green – all inspired by nature.  

Integration with the Landscape 

The guiding principle of all Prairie School design elements is integration with the surrounding landscape. Homes were meant to be united with the Great Plains they sat on rather than oppose them with manmade force. Horizontal lines, craftsmanship, and minimal accents not only tied into the landscape but represented American ideals. 

Prairie School History 

Origins of Prairie School Design 

After the Chicago fires in 1871, many architects were attracted to the city for the new design and build opportunities. Several decided to work together to develop a new style that was modern and uniquely American. They began to share a workspace in the Chicago Loop around 1896. The best known among them was Frank Lloyd Wright. 

The movement developed alongside the Arts and Crafts Movement in England led by William Morris, who helped to import the Craftsman style to America. The Prairie School drew inspiration from the guiding principles of these design styles, embracing handcrafted goods and opposing mass-produced products. What resulted was a design revolution that embraced all things natural as well as the land of the build site. Wright cemented this principle by coining the term “organic architecture.” 

A Uniquely American Style 

The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was meant to aid the city in reconstruction, and many buildings designed for it were inspired by Greek and Roman classicism. The Prairie School architects saw a different vision for the reconstruction of the city, one that was solely rooted in an American design style without European influence for the first time. 

Instead of drawing from designs of the past, Prairie School architects created new designs rooted in the American landscape. Wright believed that organic architecture should look as if it grew from the sight, and he also saw something unique in the landscape of the American Midwest. Unlike Europe, the United States had open and undeveloped land. The vast, treeless prairie was reflected in the horizontal lines of his homes. Unlike any other American architectural design style before it, the Prairie School style was born out of the history and land of the U.S. 

The Influence of Prairie School Architecture 

Praire School architecture introduced radical innovations that soon became American conventions in later decades, such as open-concept living, expanses of windows for natural light, and single floor designs.   

The idea of the modern American home had been changed. Prairie School design principles were adapted through 1950s modernism and aspects are still used in homes today. For example, the open concept plan still has mass appeal but it may be complemented with a higher ceiling than the original Prairie School style allowed for. 

Wright’s idea of “organic architecture” also helped to pave the path towards sustainability that is embraced in modern design. While he focused on incorporating designs into an existing landscape more so than finding energy-efficient solutions, the guiding principle of working with the land rather than against it remains. 

Incorporating Prairie School Elements in Modern Design 

Here at Amity Kett, we draw inspiration from historical design movements that proved to revolutionize the way we live and create enduring appeal rather than passing trends that last for a moment and fade. Incorporating horizontal lines, minimalist decor, and open spaces drawn from the Prairie School design elements can be applied to modern living for today with a timeless look.  

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