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. 

Today, ivy fills the corner between the Smith House brick “core” and the open dining and living spaces.

Throughout their home, the Smiths used plants to soften the hard geometry of Frank Lloyd Wright’s interior design, bringing the outdoors in and supplementing with artificial greenery where needed (watch for more on the Smiths’ faux foliage in a future blog post). The transition between living spaces was eased at first with a tall spray of cattails and later with trailing artificial ivy, which ties the interior to landscape plantings designed by famed landscape-architect Thomas Church. 

Both the Albert Weiss and the Silas Seandel butterflies are visible in the background of this candid photo of Sara and Melvyn Smith, late 1970s. Courtesy Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

These moments of greenery enlivened the space and formed the setting for the Smiths’ active social and artistic lives. With its bronze hanging lantern, warm red brick, and green ivy, the corner was the perfect backdrop to record events as special as a graduation or the engagement of young friends.  

Almost sixty years later, the Albert Weiss butterfly and its ivy resting-place still bring a little springtime to Smith House, even on a bleak winter’s day. Do you have any Albert Weiss in your jewelry box, or ivy on your walls?

—Nina Blomfield, The Decorative Arts Trust Marie Zimmermann Collections Fellow for Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, 2021-2023

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