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Gemütlichkeit

At the heart of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1889 Oak Park home is an inglenook, a cozy alcove centered on the hearth and flanked by two cushioned seats where one can imagine the young Wright of an afternoon with the poetry of Rimbaud. The Germans, typically, have a word for such nooks: Gemütlichkeit, discussed at uncharacteristic length by Wikipedia.

Gemütlichkeit derives from gemütlich, the adjective of Gemüt, which means “heart, mind, temper, feeling” expressed by (and cognate with) English mood…. English has no direct translation for Gemütlich or Gemütlichkeit. Cosy captures an element of it but crucially lacks those of friendliness and belonging. Stemming from the Scottish Gaelic word còsagach, cozy means “1 Full of holes or crevices. 2 Snug, warm, cosy, sheltered. 3 Spongy”, according to Edward Dwelly’s Scots Gaelic – English dictionary.

And in characteristic 19th century fashion, these retreats were inscribed with ennobling and introspective mottos. Two are carved in quarter-sawn oak above the diminutive arched fireplace: “Truth is Life” and the directive “Good friends, around these hearth stones speak no evil word of any creature.” How often do you think Wright followed his own admonition?

There is already a prominent motto on the door to Anson Tennant’s architectural studio, a phrase also branded into each piece of Gustav Stickley’s furniture — Als Ik Kan — a Flemish phrase that also lacks adequate English translation. “As best I can” or “to the best of my ability” conveys the idea, no doubt what young Tennant hoped to impress upon his clients; the underlying motive of the Arts & Crafts movement.

Motives, maxims, mottos. They appeared everywhere in the years between the Civil War and First World War. In homes like Wright’s (for both himself and his early clients); above the entries to court houses and other public building; around the walls of public school classrooms; in lodge halls and other clubs; it would have been impossible to avoid their counsel during the course of your day. I recall one from a fifth-grade classroom: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better best.” So, I’ve begun a collection for inclusion in the entrance of the Agincourt Public Library.

The ground floor vestibule includes a coved octagonal ceiling crying out for lofty thought:

  • That perfect tranquillity of life, which is nowhere to be found but in retreat, a faithful friend and a good library. —Aphra Behn
  • If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.  —Marcus Tullius Cicero
  • Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all. —Abraham Lincoln
  • I cannot live without books. —Thomas Jefferson
  • A room without books is like a body without a soul. —Cicero
  • Books are the training weights of the mind. —Epictetus

Obviously they have to predate the library’s 1915 construction. Suggestions are appreciated.


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