The Kaufmann Family

Fallingwater under construction.
2014.1.6, Fallingwater Archives, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Edgar Jonas Kaufmann was the patriarch of a prominent Pittsburgh family known for their distinctive sense of style and taste. A highly respected business man and owner of Kaufmann’s Department Store, Edgar and his wife Liliane traveled in international circles and sought out the company of artists, architects, and other creative souls throughout their lives. Their only child, Edgar Kaufmann, jr. (the lowercase “jr.” was his preferred abbreviation) was an equally sensitive and artistic man who would become the catalyst for his father’s relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Edgar Jonas Kaufmann (1885-1955)

Edgar, or “E.J.” as he was often known, was born in Pittsburgh to Betty and Morris Kaufmann. He attended the Shady Side Academy preparatory school and after spending a year at the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University, Edgar began his apprenticeship in the field of retailing in Connellsville, Pennsylvania. Excursions on horseback to the nearby mountain caused him to fall in love with the area, near to what would eventually be the location of Fallingwater. Edgar’s studies took him to Hamburg, Germany and Paris before he returned to Pittsburgh to begin an supervisory position at Kaufmann’s Department Store.

Frank Lloyd Wright Edgar Kaufmann Sr and Edgar Kaufmann jr at Taliesen.

In 1909, Edgar marries Liliane Kaufmann and a year later is asked by his father and uncles to take over the department store. By 1913, Edgar, at age 28, became president of the store following the purchase of his uncle’s stocks. By 1920, he had reportedly tripled the store’s net sales from $10 million in 1913 to $30 million.

Always looking for new ways to stimulate sales, Edgar Kaufmann led a consortium of local department store merchants and representatives from the Mellon Institute (now part of Carnegie Mellon University) and the University of Pittsburgh in founding the Research Bureau for Retail Training in 1918. He chaired the program’s executive committee from 1929-1953, and in 1943 he received an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Pittsburgh in recognition of his contributions.

Edgar Kaufmann was active in New Deal public works programs for Pittsburgh in the 1930s. His interest in Frank Lloyd Wright’s proposals for these projects, following a visit to the architect’s studio at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, eventually led to correspondence with Wright about several civic projects for Pittsburgh prior to commissioning Fallingwater, including for an observatory.

Kaufmann’s board memberships on several influential Pittsburgh planning commissions put him at the forefront of joint planning by the private and public sectors on issues such as flood control, air quality and infrastructure. In 1946, the governor of Pennsylvania appointed him to the newly formed Urban Redevelopment Authority to implement further improvements in the growing city. Kaufmann believed his participation in these organizations was a matter of good business as well as personal interest, recognizing the importance a vital downtown business district had for the future of his store.

As a result, the Kaufmann family name lives on fondly in the memories of native Pittsburghers. Many still recall stories of Edgar Kaufmann’s charisma, his fondness for social life, his deep passion for aesthetic beauty, and his genuine interest in the wellbeing of his employees. A philanthropist and patron of the arts, he also loved the outdoors and especially enjoyed horseback riding, fishing and hiking.

Edgar’s death on April 15, 1955, was headline news in Pittsburgh. The city mourned the loss of its “merchant prince,” and Frank Lloyd Wright mourned him as a patron and friend of more than twenty years.

The legacy of Fallingwater will also forever link the Kaufmann name to that of Frank Lloyd Wright and indeed, the history of modern architecture.

Liliane Sarah Kaufmann (1889-1952)

Lillian (later changed to Liliane) Kaufmann was born in Pittsburgh, the only child of Bella and Isaac Kaufmann. Raised in the extended Kaufmann family, she made full use of her gift for foreign languages and her innate sense of style. Following her marriage to Edgar Kaufmann in 1909, the couple rose in Pittsburgh’s social society as tastemakers and connoisseurs of modern art, architecture and design.

Lilianne Kaufman

Liliane was also known as a superb hostess who could deftly orchestrate food, setting and conversation. As Jews, they encountered boundaries that limited the scope of their ambitions in Pittsburgh society, but they maintained an ever-growing circle of creative people as friends — a circle that eventually included Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Kaufmanns’ homes reflected a cosmopolitan outlook and highlighted their frequent travels, allowing their taste in paintings, furnishings, textiles and objets d’art to embrace everything from regional and global folk crafts to modern and contemporary design. In 1933, Liliane reinvented Kaufmann’s Department Store’s 11th floor as the “Vendôme Shops,” named for the elegant Place Vendôme in Paris, home to the city’s most elegant fashion designers. She relished the opportunity to bring that same sense of style to Pittsburgh shoppers.

Liliane Kaufmann was also devoted to public health causes. During World War I, she was in charge of Red Cross surgical dressing work rooms in Pittsburgh and later received training at the Red Cross Nurses’ Aide Corps in Washington, DC. After completing the course, she undertook the fulltime job at Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh of helping regular nurses in the emergency department. She volunteered for ten years at Mercy, serving on several committees as well as representing the hospital at Pittsburgh’s Council of Medical Social Service.

In 1934, she was elected president of Montefiore Hospital – the first and only female head of their Board of Trustees – serving in this capacity for nine years. She was a longtime activist in the hospital as well as a major financial backer, and following her death, the hospital’s student nursing school and residence was named in her honor.

An avid outdoor lover like her husband, Liliane enjoyed hiking, horseback riding and fly fishing. She also raised long-haired Dachshunds as show dogs.

While her husband relished the challenge of building Fallingwater, it was Liliane’s aesthetic sensibilities and attention to detail which brought elegance to the mountain retreat. Visiting Fallingwater today, you can still see those details — especially in the floral arrangements: a loose gathering of one species casually placed in a simple but well-designed vase.

Edgar Jonas Kaufmann jr. (1910-1989)

One year after their marriage, Liliane and Edgar Kaufmann gave birth to their only child, Edgar Kaufmann jr. in Pittsburgh. Following in his father’s footsteps, Edgar jr. attended Pittsburgh’s Shady Side Academy preparatory school until his keen interest in art prompted him to study painting in Europe with a family friend, the Austrian painter and typographer Victor Hammer. Edgar jr. remained in Europe until 1933, when he returned to the United States with plans to settle in New York City and become a painter.

The Kaufmann Family on a terrace at Fallingwater.

The summer of 1934 took Edgar jr. in a fortuitous direction. At the recommendation of a friend, he read Frank Lloyd Wright’s An Autobiography (1932), and traveled to meet Wright at his home in Wisconsin in late September. Within three weeks, he begins an apprenticeship at the Taliesin Fellowship, a communal architecture program established in 1932 by Wright and his wife, Olgivanna. The Fellowship brought together students of architecture, craftsmen, and artists in the Wyoming Valley of southwest Wisconsin, on land once owned by his maternal family, the Lloyd Joneses. There, they constructed their drafting studio, dormitory, and also farmed, cooked and worked on Wright’s architectural projects.

It was during a visit with their son at Taliesin in November 1934 that Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann first met Wright and since they were already familiar with the architect’s work, which had received considerable acclaim over the years, they soon asked Wright to design weekend house for their family on property along Bear Run in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands.

The young Kaufmann’s stay at Taliesin lasted six months, and Edgar, jr., returned to Pittsburgh in 1935 to become Merchandise Manager for Home Furnishings at the family department store. The position suited Kaufmann, and he honed his skills in identifying the best industrial design and artwork of the day. He retained his connection to Taliesin, however, and included a model for Wright’s utopian Broadace City project in the 1935 Kaufmann’s Department Store exhibition New Homes for Old, located in the 11th Floor Vendôme Shops.

Over the next five years, Edgar jr. played a pivotal role in encouraging his parent’s interest in progressive design, including the years of Fallingwater’s design and construction. In 1937, he began an eighteen-year association with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) after John McAndrew, its curator of architecture and industrial art, visited Fallingwater and the architectural trade magazine Architectural Forum published photographs of it. The next year, MoMA installs A New House by Frank Lloyd Wright in its temporary gallery in the Time-Life Building before it began a two-year tour as part of the museum’s circulating exhibition program.

In 1940, Edgar jr. and Liliane presented Below the Rio Grande, an exhibition of Mexican antiques and folk art, as well as MoMA’s traveling exhibition Organic Design to the department store. Edgar jr. had played a central role in organizing the MoMA exhibit as well, and the experience led him away from a career in retailing to his eventual work as a curator and scholar.

In 1940, Edgar jr. joined the Museum of Modern Art as a curator in the Department of Industrial Design and in 1946 was appointed Director of the Industrial Design Department a post he held until 1948 when his department was merged with the Department of Architecture under the direction of Philip Johnson. As a research associate and consultant for the museum’s industrial design exhibitions, Edgar jr. remained at MoMA until 1955, pursuing the campaign he had begun before the war to promote contemporary furniture design among manufacturers, retailers, and consumers.

During his tenure at the Museum of Modern Art, Edgar Kaufmann jr. served as competition director for their Museum Design Project and Art Furniture competitions, leading to a role as director of the Good Design Project. Culminating in five annual touring exhibitions, the Good Design shows promoted the design of household objects, furnishings, textiles, and industrial products and were viewed by tens of thousands of Americans from 1950 to 1955. His publications What is Modern Design? (1950) and What is Modern Interior Design? (1953) as well as numerous essays in museum catalogues and professional journals, cemented his role as an interpreter of the country’s understanding of mid-century modernism. His interest in the period and of the artists in those exhibitions also led to Kaufmann acquiring pieces for both the museum and Fallingwater.

After his father’s death in 1955, Edgar Kaufmann jr. inherited Fallingwater, continuing to use it as a weekend retreat until the early 1960s. Increasingly concerned with ensuring Fallingwater’s preservation, and following his father’s wishes, he entrusted Fallingwater and approximately 1,500 acres of land to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy as tribute to his parents. Edgar jr. guided the organization’s thinking about Fallingwater’s administration, care, and educational programming and was a frequent visitor even as guided public tours began in 1964. Kaufmann’s partner, the architect and designer Paul Mayén also contributed to the legacy of Fallingwater with a design for the site’s visitor center, completed in 1981.

For over two decades, from 1963 to 1986, Edgar Kaufmann jr. also established himself as a leading authority on Frank Lloyd Wright, and influenced a generation of modern architecture disciples as an adjunct professor of Architecture and Art History at Columbia University in New York City. His Fallingwater: A Frank Lloyd Wright Country House (1986) continues to provide the most personal history of Fallingwater and the Kaufmann family’s role in realizing the most important building of the twentieth-century.

Edgar Kaufmann jr. died in New York City on July 31, 1989.