Little Gem: Sara Smith’s Enamel Butterfly 

When Frank Lloyd Wright visited Smith House in 1951, he affectionately referred to the home as “my little gem.” Over the years, Melvyn and Sara Smith filled up their “little gem” with many treasures of their own. As I continue my detailed research into the Smith House collection, I am learning that even the smallest of these objects has a rich story to tell. 

One such detail is a yellow enamel butterfly. For over 50 years, the butterfly has rested its wings on an artificial ivy vine in a small corner between the Smith House living space and dining room.  

Albert Weiss, Butterfly Brooch, 1964. Photograph by Nina Blomfield, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. 

The butterfly is in fact a brooch, manufactured by costume jeweler Albert Weiss & Co. Albert Weiss began his career as a designer for Coro Jewelry before breaking off to start his own firm in 1942. Better known for elaborate rhinestone creations, Weiss also produced jewelry featuring enameled flowers and animals. My research has revealed that the Smith House brooch was part of a 1964 collection described in the New York Times as “a flock of butterflies that are meant to settle – one at a time – on the neckline of a dress or coat.” An advertisement for the collection shows the brooches pinned, labeled, and framed as if specimens in a natural history display. 

“Albert Weiss presents the Butterfly Pin Collection,” New York Times, February 23, 1964.

It is no surprise that the Smiths were drawn to the butterfly form, as these flying jewels have captivated artists as diverse as Vincent van Gogh and Damien Hirst. The Smiths’ collection no longer includes the Knoll BKF ‘butterfly’ chairs seen in family photographs, but there are still other butterflies in the house.

Smith House interior, c.1950.
Seen in the foreground, the BKF “Butterfly” chair manufactured by Knoll.

Silas Seandel’s sculptural butterflies were formed form torch-cut metal and their craggy brutalist forms are attached to flexible wire that give them movement and life. On a windowsill in the guest room, real butterfly specimens take flight in a Perspex cube. Given the dynamism of these other butterflies, it makes sense that the Smiths used the enamel pin to adorn their home rather than allowing it to languish in a jewelry box. Instead, this ivy-clad corner created a kind of habitat for the butterflies. 

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In Prevention of Vivisepulture

Taphophobia – the fear of being buried alive – seems to have been a concern for Henry Wood Booth, father of Cranbrook’s co-founder George Gough Booth. Henry was always a tinkerer, inventing a number of things throughout his life–including things for the afterlife.

Figures 1-5, US Letters Patent No. 619,929, issued to Henry Wood Booth on February 21, 1899.

In 1897, he applied for a patent for a coffin, issued on February 21, 1899. The coffin ensured fresh airflow in case of vivisepulture, the burying of something alive.

This invention relates to coffins, and has for its object an improved coffin and device to be used therewith which is intended to cause a current of fresh air to flow over the surface of the body placed in the coffin for the double purpose of furnishing to the body, if by any chance the person should be still living, a supply of pure air, and which shall, if the body be dead, carry away the gases produced by decomposition.

US Letters Patent No. 619,929, issued February 21, 1899
La Caisse oblongue, illustration d’Harry Clarke, 1919, from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial.” Harry Clarke, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, so it was not ALL about being buried alive, but really, wasn’t that his main concern?

The fear of “unintentional burial” has likely existed forever, but peaked in the 19th century during the era’s many cholera epidemics. The fear was not helped by fictitious reports in the writings of Edgar Allen Poe: “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Poe even penned “The Premature Burial” on the subject, published in 1844. Newspapers sensationalized storied of premature burial, including thirty-six in the Detroit Free Press between 1880 and 1886.

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Cranbrook’s Great Books (Part 1)

Across Cranbrook’s campus are eleven different spaces, including the Archives, that house book collections – some 110,000 physical items. Several of these spaces are typical school or academic research libraries, where students, faculty, and staff can check out the majority of these books. As a library and information science professional, I champion the importance of these lending libraries and the egalitarian access to information they provide.

In this post, however, I’d like to focus on Cranbrook’s non-circulating book collections – those rare, historic, or valuable tomes that, in many cases, hide in plain sight in public areas. With help from colleagues at the Academy of Art, Schools, Institute of Science, and Center for Collections and Research, I’ll highlight some of these gems that promise to delight the bibliophile, art appreciator, historian, or simply the Cranbrook curious.

Cranbrook’s special book collections are carefully preserved as both informational and evidential artifacts, and many are housed within cultural heritage areas. Valued not only for research purposes, they also serve as historical objects which help individually or collectively to tell the Cranbrook story.

South end view of the newly completed Cranbrook House Library, 1920. John Wallace Gillies, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The origin of book collecting at Cranbrook actually predates any of the current collection spaces and begins with Cranbrook founders George and Ellen Booth. George, in particular, was an enthusiastic collector, and started acquiring volumes in 1900, commissioning purchases of William Morris works and other fine books in London. As George explained, “I am not a millionaire and cannot pay the big prices now prevailing in New York.” His strategy allowed him to accumulate 1,000 books by 1916, effectively seeding the Cranbrook House Library Collection when construction of the library wing was completed four years later.

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