West to East: Cranbrook School Chairs Return

The scene feels like the opening shot in a movie: a man browses a flea market, aimlessly brushing his hands over knickknacks while he waits for something to catch his attention. A pair of chairs  jump out at him, their warm brown wood and right angles crying out for his attention.  He investigates them, noting their early 20th century construction and the curious metal design inset at the crest of the chairs.  They look familiar, he thinks, and the camera zooms out as he purchases them and takes them home.

Cranbrook School Dining Hall side chair, designed by Eliel Saarinen in 1928.

Cranbrook School Dining Hall side chair, designed by Eliel Saarinen in 1928. The chairs discovered in California are identical.

Cinematic potential aside, there is nothing more exciting than discovering a treasure in a flea market jumble. For one man, the hunt for a discovery led him from a swap meet in Southern California to the offices of the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research in suburban Detroit. William Mathews first encountered the treasure in question at the Cerrito College Swap Meet.  While perusing the stalls, he spotted two dark wood chairs. Struck by their Arts & Crafts inspired appearance, he wondered if they might be connected to the Gamble House. An icon of the California Arts & Crafts Movement, Gamble House was built in 1909 by architects and brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene under the auspices of their firm Greene and Greene. Set into the rolling landscape of Pasadena—slightly inland from the California coast—the Gamble House combines Arts & Crafts elements with a subdued Japanese aesthetic and what has become known as a uniquely Californian sense of space and movement.

Gamble House, built by Green and Green from 1908 to 1909. Pasadena, California.

Gamble House, built by Green and Green from 1908 to 1909. Pasadena, California.

In a letter to Roberta Frey Gilboe, Head Registrar for both Cranbrook Art Museum and Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, Mathews explained that as a former docent at Gamble House, he was familiar with the style and feel of the furniture that had been designed for the space.  He saw similarities between the Gamble family crest—a rose and a crane—and the metal crane medallion inset into the crest of the two chairs.  Wondering if there might be a connection, Mathews purchased the chairs and went on to live with them quite happily for a number of years. It took him a bit of time to recognize the Cranbrook connection, but once he did he knew it was time for them to move on. “We have really enjoyed them in our den,” Mathews wrote, “but we realize they must go home.”

One of two Cranbrook School Dining Hall chairs being unpacked in the Center offices, November 2012.

One of two Cranbrook School Dining Hall chairs being unpacked in the Center offices, November 2012.

The chairs arrived at Cranbrook in November, and unpacking them was a delight – despite knowing exactly what was in the box, we all still experienced a thrill as staff disassembled the packaging. Uncrating the chairs, I couldn’t help but imagine the journey they took—first from Michigan out to California, and now back home to Cranbrook. While we don’t yet know how these chairs turned up 2000 miles from home (figuring that out is our next challenge), we are thrilled to see them again. Out of use in the Cranbrook Dining Hall for decades, the chairs retain their original finish. Beyond the romantic qualities of their long-distance journey, then, they also represent a unique opportunity to study Saarinen’s chairs in an as-close-to-original state as we can get.  So welcome home, chairs – we’ve missed you.

– Shoshana Resnikoff, Collections Fellow

5 thoughts on “West to East: Cranbrook School Chairs Return

  1. Bravo Mr. Mathews. Certainly so for making sure these great chairs found their way back to Cranbrook. Perhaps equally or more important is the effort to document and trace the origin of the pieces. I’m curious as to a couple of notions:

    First, is there any possibility that a near teenage Eero actually designed these chairs for Eliel’s building? Somehow I’d thought that to be the case (along with beautiful Loja weavings).

    Secondly, when did this chair (style) get replaced in the dining room, and what took their place? I’ve always been curious about that. Great story, glad to have the “Kitchen Sink.”

    Peter Kelley


    • Peter,

      Thanks for your lovely comment! We know that Eliel Saarinen designed the chairs themselves, but you’re right to think of Eero as well – he designed the metal inserts that rest between the two center back slats right up against the crest of the chair. It is a testament to the design relationship between Eliel and Eero that the father would trust his 17 year-old son with that sort of project.

      In terms of the chairs currently in use at the Cranbrook dining hall, they’re actually the same. Cranbrook has been using the original chairs in both the Cranbrook and Kingswood dining halls since they were opened in 1927 and 1931 respectively. The chairs have been refinished, of course, and repaired as they break. In their essence, though, they are the same as they were 80 years ago! The chairs we wrote about above belong to the Cranbrook dining hall. The Kingswood dining hall chairs (which would have been used exclusively by the Kingswood School girls until the two schools merged and became co-ed in 1985) are these amazing bright coral chairs that were designed entirely by Eero at the request of his father.

      Again, thanks so much for your comment and questions!


  2. Many thanks to Mr. Mathews, and to CEC for sharing such a delightful story!
    It’s a mystery how they got to CA, but heartwarming to know the pair made it home.

    Carolyn Scripps


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