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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