Meet Manuel Sandoval.
Not the guy in the picture. (That’s Alvin Lustig.)
I’m referring to the guy who built the cabinet Lustig is leaning on, and the desk in front of him, and the rest of the furniture in that office.
A little while back, I interviewed designer Ken Parkhurst about Lustig. Ken worked as Lustig’s assistant in 1945 and 1946, around the same time the William H. Thomas House was designed. He didn’t know anything about our house, but he knew a lot about the office pictured above, because that’s where he went to work.
"Lustig designed an office and hired a fellow who had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright," Parkhurst told me. "A Mexican guy."
It was a one-room office in a small building off the main streets of Beverly Hills. Lustig had gone to study with Wright, and according to him, he left in the middle of the night to escape. What Wright did at the time was employe all these starry-eyed hopefuls to do his house work—all of the labor of keeping Taliesin going,
This young Mexican fellow was a very talented woodworker, so Wright had him build cabinets and all kinds of things of that sort. The fellow was a very innocent, sweet person who was so thrilled to be doing this work for Frank Lloyd Wright. When he eventually left Taliesin, he ended up doing woodwork and not architecture at all.
So Lustig found him and had him do the office interior that he had designed. It was done in genuine mahogany. It was breathtakingly beautifully done. The guy was a master. And he worked for Alvin because Alvin was a famed designer out of New York.”
This gave me an idea: if I searched the Taliesin Fellows for apprentices with Hispanic names who “studied” with Wright before 1945, maybe I could dig up Lustig’s cabinetmaker.
So that’s what I did. After scouring and cross-referencing the Taliesin apprentice list several times—and following a few false leads—I finally found a match: Manuel Sandoval, a Nicaraguan (not Mexican) woodworker. Sandoval joined the Taliesin Fellowship on Oct. 25, 1932; Lustig arrived a little less than three years later, on June 1, 1935. The two men likely met in Wisconsin, but their early acquaintance was cut short: Lustig left on Sept. 1, 1935. The record doesn’t state whether he actually absconded in the middle of the night.
After leaving Wisconsin, Lustig returned to Los Angeles to start his own printing business; one of his earliest clients was Wright’s son Lloyd Wright.
Sandoval, meanwhile, continued to work for Wright Senior. In May 1936, he drove to Pennsylvania from the Taliesin West with two other Wright apprentices. Sandoval’s companions were heading to Bear Run to break ground on Fallingwater; Sandoval had been tasked with handcrafting the cabinets and carpentry (in swamp cypress plywood) for Edgar Kauffman’s Wright-designed office in Pittsburgh. (Wright had promised his client that Sandoval would complete the job “to the queen’s taste.”) As one of Sandoval’s fellow apprentices later recalled:
[Manuel] had come to Taliesin, he thought, to study architecture. Once his real talents were known, however, Mr. Wright never let him out of the woodworking shop. Manuel’s reverence for Mr. Wright was such that he made a velvet-lined box to store a pencil given to him by Mr. Wright.”
Sounds like Parkhurst’s guy.
Sandoval fulfilled Wright’s promise. The Kaufmann office is a masterpiece of modernist woodworking. It is now housed in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
Sandoval went on to build the V.C. Morris Gift Shop (1948) for Wright as well.
In 1940, Sandoval moved to Los Angeles, where he set up his own shop. At some point he renewed his acquaintance with Lustig, and by 1946, he was making Lustig’s cabinetry and furniture.
Which raises an interesting question. The cabinets in the Thomas House were custom-made for the space, and they perfectly match the cabinets in Lustig’s June Wayne House of 1949-50 (the last two photos above).
Above: The Wayne House kitchen
Below: The Thomas House kitchen
Given that Sandoval was Lustig’s go-to woodworker throughout the 1940s, does this mean that the cabinets in our house—and perhaps the custom plywood wall and redwood trellis as well—were made by Frank Lloyd Wright’s guy?
It’s certainly possible.
The latest developments.
Earlier this year I spotted a post-war Henry Dreyfuss-designed Crane Drexel sink in Alvin Lustig’s Wanye House (top). The owner told me it was original. So when it came time to replace our bathroom sink—a crappy 1990s Kohler with leaking IKEA fixtures—I knew what I had to do: find a Drexel of my own and drop it into our existing vanity.
It took some luck and finagling but I think it turned out very nicely indeed.
Outside looking in.