The Johnson Wax Headquarters, also known as the Johnson Wax Administration Building, is the world headquarters and administrative building of S. C. Johnson & Son, located in Racine, Wisconsin. Designed by renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the building was constructed between 1936 and 1939. The construction of this building played a significant role in reviving Wright’s career, which was facing a downturn, due to its unique features, such as the “lily pad” columns and other innovations. In 1976, the Johnson Wax Headquarters, along with the nearby 14-story Johnson Wax Research Tower (built between 1944 and 1950), was designated as a National Historic Landmark, recognized as the Administration Building and Research Tower, S.C. Johnson and Son.
Johnson Wax Headquarters Technical Information
- Architects1: Frank Lloyd Wright | Biography & Bibliography
- Location: Racine WI, USA
- Client: S. C. Johnson & Son
- Topics: Streamline Moderne, Research Facility
- Project Year: 1936-1939
- Photographs: Flickr Users © Trevor Patt, © Jesse
Organic architecture seeks superior sense of use and a finer sense of comfort, expressed in organic simplicity.
-Frank Lloyd Wright 2
Johnson Wax Headquarters Photographs
The Design of the Johnson Wax Headquarters
The Johnson Wax Headquarters, located in an industrial zone, was designed by Wright as a sealed, top-lit environment. The building showcases Wright’s interpretation of the Art Moderne style popular in the 1930s, with its many curvilinear forms created by over 200 curved “Cherokee red” bricks. The mortar is raked to accentuate the building’s horizontality, and the warm brick hue is continued on the polished concrete floor. The white stone trim and dendriform columns provide a striking contrast. All of the furniture, designed by Wright and manufactured by Steelcase, complements the building’s design.
Wright designed the building as a sealed environment that was lit from above, a departure from his earlier Prairie School style structures. The entrance is located within the structure and is marked by a covered carport, supported by short versions of the steel-reinforced dendriform concrete columns. The Great Workroom, which is the largest expanse of space in the building, is defined by a series of white dendriform columns that form a ceiling, with skylights made of Pyrex glass tubing filling the spaces in between. The room is illuminated by the clerestory effect created by the glass tubes that continue up, over, and connect to the skylights.
The entrance is located within the structure and features a covered carport, supported by short dendriform columns, on the other side. The carport’s low ceiling creates a sense of compression, which is released upon entering the main building, where the tall dendriform columns create the illusion of more space. This concept of compression and release is present in many of Wright’s designs, including the Oak Park Home and Studio, the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
The Great Workroom, the largest space in the building and intended for the secretaries, has no internal walls and features thin dendriform columns that reach circular “lily pad” tops that form the ceiling. The spaces between the circles are filled with skylights made of Pyrex glass tubing, creating a clerestory effect that admits soft light. The mezzanine is for the administrators.
Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change.– Frank Lloyd Wright 3
Building the Future: The Construction of the Johnson Wax Headquarters
The Johnson Wax building was not without its controversies during construction. The columns in the Great Workroom of the Johnson Wax Headquarters expand from 9 inches in diameter at the bottom to 18-foot “lily pads” at the top. Building inspectors initially expressed skepticism, so a test column was built to demonstrate their strength before being granted a building permit. The columns were loaded with twelve tons of material, which it held. The load was gradually increased until a crack appeared at sixty tons.
The building was completed in 1939 but went over budget and faced challenges with properly sealing the glass tubing in the clerestories and roof, leading to leaks. The issue was eventually resolved by replacing the top layers with fiberglass and Plexiglas skylights, molded to resemble the original joints in a trompe-l’œil.
Wright not only designed the building but also its furniture. One of his original chair designs had only three legs, intended to improve posture, but was found to be unstable and easily tipped. Wright allegedly redesigned the chairs after falling out of one when Herbert Johnson asked him to test it. Despite these issues, Johnson was satisfied with the building and went on to commission the Research Tower and a house, Wingspread, from Wright.
Despite these challenges, Herbert Johnson was pleased with the building’s design and went on to commission Wright to design the nearby 14-story Johnson Wax Research Tower and Wingspread, a house for his personal use. The Johnson Wax Headquarters and the Research Tower were designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1976, cementing their status as important works of modern architecture. Today, the building and its original furniture, which was manufactured by Steelcase and designed by Wright, continue to be in use and serve as a testament to Wright’s enduring legacy as one of the greatest architects of all time.
The Design of the Research Tower: A Vertical Counterpart to the Johnson Wax Headquarters
The Research Tower, added in 1950 to the Administration Building, serves as a vertical contrast to its horizontal design. One of only two high-rise buildings by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the tower features cantilevered floor slabs spreading out like tree branches, with elevator and stairway channels running up the reinforced concrete core, referred to as a “tap root” by Wright. The tower rises from a garden and fountain pools, with a court providing parking for employees.
Due to outdated fire safety codes, the Research Tower was taken out of use in 1980. Despite proposals to retrofit the tower, including one from Taliesin apprentices, all were ultimately rejected to preserve the tower’s appearance. In 2013, an extensive restoration was completed and the tower was re-lit to mark the winter solstice. It was opened for public tours for the first time, showcasing research labs appearing frozen in time, complete with beakers, scales, centrifuges, and archival photographs and letters about the building. The tower remains a symbol of the company’s history, and SC Johnson is committed to preserving its design.
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About Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was an American architect, interior designer, writer, and educator. He was a leading figure in the development of modern architecture and is widely considered one of the greatest architects of the 20th century. He designed over 1,000 structures, of which 532 were completed, and became famous for his creative use of materials, innovative designs, and attention to detail. Some of his most famous works include the Fallingwater House and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Wright’s architectural philosophy, known as “Organic Architecture,” emphasized a strong connection between buildings and their surroundings, as well as a harmonious integration of form, function, and materials.