Handwork and Symbolism in St. Dunstan’s Chapel

In Cranbrook Archives’ Christ Church Cranbrook Records, there is a binder on two needlepoint projects undertaken between 1957 and 1964, the first of which focuses on replacing the cushions and kneelers in St. Dunstan’s Chapel. It gives insight into the design process, symbolism, and handwork, as well as providing much information that would be of interest to the sociology of gender roles and art.

St. Dunstan’s Chapel, Christ Church Cranbrook. The Chapel’s first service was Easter Sunday 1926; the current configuration of the Chapel dates to 1934. Photograph by Kevin Adkisson, August 2021. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The project, a collaboration of the Women’s Auxiliary and the Altar Guild, began in June 1957 when a Needlepoint Committee was convened to oversee the project through its planning, implementation, and dedication. The project was inspired by a similar project at Washington Cathedral where women across the nation contributed 461 pieces of needlepoint to the Cathedral, including altar pieces for Bethlehem Chapel which were worked by women of Michigan.

Twenty designs from the Washington Cathedral project were displayed in the Exhibition of Ecclesiastical Needlepoint at the Detroit Institute of Arts in February 1958 prior to their dedication at the Cathedral. Rt. Rev. Richard S. Emrich commended the idea to all churches in Michigan.

Catalog for the Exhibition of Ecclesiastical Needlepoint at the Detroit Institute of Arts, February 1958. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

St. Dunstan’s Chapel was selected as the most appropriate place for the women of the church to use their handwork for its adornment, since St. Dunstan is the patron saint of Arts and Crafts. St. Dunstan, born in Glastonbury, Somerset, in the tenth century, is commemorated in St. Dunstan’s Chapel with a stone from Glastonbury Abbey where he served as abbot.

Initially, the Committee decided to seek designs for the project by opening a contest for Cranbrook Academy of Art students, with Henry Scripps Booth, Pipsan Saarinen Swanson, Ken Isaacs, and Marion Leader as judges. Harry Soviak (Painting 1957/MFA 1959) won the competition. However, there were problems in implementing the design in terms of types and quantities of wool, and the Committee sought to consider more traditional designs before making a final choice.

Henry Scripps Booth, Ken Isaacs, Pipsan Saarinen Swanson (seated), and Marion Leader judging entries from Academy of Art students to the needlepoint contest for St. Dunstan’s Chapel at Christ Church Cranbrook. April 19, 1957. Photograph by Harvey Croze. Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Rachel T. Earnshaw of the Needlework Studio, Inc., of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania was contacted for information on how to proceed. Earnshaw had won first place for her designs for the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Washington Cathedral. Having been sent some information and images of St. Dunstan’s Chapel, she advised on symbolism as well as offering guidance on canvas, wool, and stitches.

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Photo Friday: Nash-Healy Pinin Farina

In honor of the Woodward Dream Cruise, happening in front of Cranbrook’s Woodward Entrance as I write, I thought we’d look back at this fabulous photograph of an unknown woman and a beautiful 1950s Nash Pininfarina parked in front of Cranbrook School for Boys’ study hall. This photograph is part of Cranbrook Archives’ Floyd Bunt Papers.

Nash-Healy Pinin Farina parked next to Cranbrook School for Boys, ca. 1956. New Center Photographic, Inc., photographer. Cranbrook Archives.

Toronto-native Floyd Bunt joined the faculty of Cranbrook School in 1944 and taught Chemistry and Engineer Science. He also was the faculty advisor for the Rifle Club and taught auto mechanics classes to the boys, quite possibly using this Nash-Healy Pinin Farina. He eventually served as chairman of the Science Department at Cranbrook from 1964 to 1969.

The Nash-Healy is a two-seat luxury sports car, made between 1951 to 1954. It was one of the first sports car sold in America after World War Two, launched two years before the Corvette. The 1951 models were built in Britain, and the redesigned 1952 through 1954 models built in Turin, Italy by Pinin Farina. There were only 506 of this chic little cars made, and it looks like our photo shows a 1953 roadster. I do wonder who owned it, and why this photo was taken!

Perhaps you’ll be venturing out to Woodward Avenue this weekend for the Dream Cruise. I’ve been enjoying the historic cars that are already cruising; perhaps there’s even a Nash-Healy Pinin Farina out there! Send us a picture if you see one!

Kevin Adkisson, Associate Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Photo Friday: Coastal Life in Maine

Recently returned from a sojourn to the coastal towns of Midcoast and Downeast Maine, the sights, sounds, and rhythm of the ocean remain with me still.  For eight days many activities, particularly swimming and beachcombing, were often dictated by the tides. Twice daily the ebb tide revealed fascinating marine life – plant and animal – in tide pools, beaches, and on rocks, of which I attempted to capture with my iPhone camera to varying degrees of success.

One of the good ones! View of Spruce Head from Clark Island, Maine. July 2021.

Photographs taken by Institute of Science Exhibition Artist and Preparator, Dudley Moore Blakely, do much more justice to the varied species found in tidal pools along this majestic coastline. He, too, spent a part of his summer in Maine, traveling instead in 1948 to the southern beach towns just over the New Hampshire state line.

Blakely’s trip involved field studies for a permanent biological exhibit, Between the Tides, which would be mounted in 1949, after his departure for the Boston Museum of Science.

Blakely’s photographs helped him simulate in rubber mold casting the barnacle encrusted rocks, and exhibition staff members George Marchand the lesser algae and animals, Luella Schroeder the kelp, and Dorothy Olsen Davies the sea anemones. The exhibit’s purpose was to recreate the “zonal distribution of life in response to the rhythm of the tides.” (Cranbrook Institute of Science 1949-1950 Annual Report, Vol. 20, p.14)

A man of unique talents, Blakely also created a ripple pattern of lighting for the Tides exhibit where “light from a single source passes through actual waves on its way to the exhibit.” (Cranbrook Institute of Science Newsletter, October 1949, Vol.19:2, p.23)

Between the Tides exhibit, Alcove 5, Cranbrook Institute of Science, 1949. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Dudley Blakely oversaw the exhibition department at the Institute from 1936-1948 (except during the war years), where he designed and fabricated exhibits and provided architectural drawings and models for the Institute.

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Out of the Ordinary: Cranbrook and the Chair

Last week, I was happy to welcome a small group tour into the reading room to view archival materials about chairs. After the tour request appeared in my inbox, I learned a lot about chairs in a short time and found a new appreciation for this commonplace object. 

As I searched and gathered materials for the display, I began to see how imagination and inspiration can transform an ordinary thing from complete obscurity to one of curiosity and sometimes great celebrity.  

Florence Knoll in Eero Saarinen’s Grasshopper Chair in the Dallas Original Showroom, 1950. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

The chair has been creatively reinvented time and again according to the social context of its use, the cultural meaning imbued in it, or the inspiration from which its design sprang. Just think throne, pew, sofa, deck chair, chaise-lounge, and so on. 

Take one of Cranbrook’s most iconic chairs – Eliel Saarinen Cranbrook School dining hall chair. Designed to withstand use by teenage boys, it combines durability with sophistication and has stood the test of time as they are still in use after 94 years. At the back of each chair is a bronze crane insert, a symbol that subtly gives identity to the community using the chair.

Cranbrook School Dining Hall, October 1936. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The 1940s and 1950s saw a flourishing of chair design from Academy of Art graduates, including Florence Schust Knoll BassettRalph Rapson (the first Cranbrook-trained designer to work for Knoll), Charles Eames, Benjamin Baldwin, Harry Weese, and Ruth Adler Schnee. The Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1941 generated many of these designs, including collaborative entries from Baldwin and Weese, as well as Eames and Eero Saarinen. 

Interestingly, Eero’s later chair designs are all much inspired by nature—the Grasshopper chair, the Womb chair, and the Tulip Chair.  

Eero Saarinen sitting in the prototype of his Womb Chair at his Vaughn Road home. 18 June 1947. Photographer: Harvey Croze. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Inspired by nature in a different way, Finnish architect and furniture designer Olav Hammarstrom has a variety of designs that are born of the possibilities to which natural materials lend themselves. Hammarstrom worked with Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen and Associates, working on projects such as the Baker House dormitory at MIT and the furnishings at the GM Tech Center. Married to Head of the Weaving Department Marianne Strengell, he designed their house in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, as well as houses for friends and colleagues, along with chairs to go in them.

Bamboo Experimental “Basketchair” by Olav Hammarstrom. 10 February 1956. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Furniture design was also the focus of another Academy affiliated designer, Pipsan Saarinen Swanson. Working in partnership with her husband, architect J. Robert F. Swanson, Pipsan typically designed the interiors while he designed the structure and exterior.

Chair designed by Pipsan Saarinen Swanson. December 8, 1945. Photographer: Harvey Croze. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

But Robert Swanson also designed furniture. Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned was that Swanson invented a ‘Stackable Chair,’ patented in 1957. A form we take for granted nowadays, these chairs can still be found in many buildings and classrooms on Cranbrook’s campus.

The “Stackable Chair” by J. Robert F. Swanson, 1957. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

It was a great pleasure to share these archival stories with our guests and to explore Cranbrook’s part in the story of the chair. In the process I learned to see an everyday thing in a new light and how creativity can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. 

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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