Welcome Back, Professor Isaacs!

Ken Isaacs was a veteran designer and educator, and it feels good to have his work back at Cranbrook again.

Researchers have been contacting Cranbrook Archives about Isaacs’ papers almost since they were donated in December 2020, and now there’s an easy way to see what we have: the Finding Aid to the Kenneth Dale Isaacs Papers is now online, along with a hearty online portfolio of more than 300 images and documents. These are two excellent entryways to a rich collection that includes drawings and sketches, journals, personal, business and press photographs, teaching and administrative documents, audiovisual materials, reference files, and correspondence of all types, from collaborations to fan mail.

Ken Isaacs holds a cigarette and peers into a Wiffle Ball in a Rhode Island School of Design classroom, 1961. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives, Copyright Joshua Isaacs.

Isaacs received his bachelor’s degree at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, then completed his MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1954. (We’ve returned Isaacs’ 1954 master’s thesis back to the Cranbrook Academy of Art Library, where it lives in good company with other Academy theses. The Archives still has a typescript copy, with Isaacs’ equation, “Thought + Action = Design.”)

After his graduation, he established a design office in New York, but commuted back to Bloomfield Hills, Michigan to run the Academy’s Design program from the fall of 1956 until 1958. Freelance design work, short-term teaching gigs, and a significant grant from Chicago’s Graham Foundation kept him afloat financially (and physically on-the-move!) throughout the 1960s.

In 1970 he joined the faculty of the University of Illinois, Chicago architecture program, where he eventually rose to head the graduate program until his retirement in 2000. Of course, there were many projects, publications and collaborations during those years.

Isaacs was known for his portable, adjustable furniture systems called Living Structures and for the simple housing called Microhouses. The Living Structure offered his first break into national press coverage, in 1954, when Life magazine sent a photographer to shoot he and his first wife, Jo, assembling and the entertaining inside of a 6×6′ structure inside a Cranbrook studio. It was a forerunner of his Superbed.

Flier for the Superbed Living Structure made by Ken Isaacs Limited, featuring Isaacs (undated). Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

He was also known for his experimental audiovisual structures, including the design that would come to be known as the Knowledge Box. These structures, equipped with multiple slide projectors and speakers, show Isaacs’ interest in learning by experience.

As I was processing the Isaacs papers for the Archives, his often collaborative approach made the description of unsigned papers tricky: Does a series of photographs show structures designed by Isaacs, but built by students? Who made this maquette? Were Isaacs and the independent study student working collaboratively on the same project about vehicles, or were they working on separate, concurrent projects but sharing resources? I tried to answer these questions using the facts and files in the collection, but future scholars are sure to find even more information in the vast treasures of the Isaacs papers.

The Kenneth Dale Isaacs Papers: By the Numbers

-102 boxes

-9 series

-46.1 linear feet

-6.09 GB born-digital material

-Covering the years 1900-2018

-Donated: December 2020

-Digitized images: 379

-Current physical storage locations: 3

These papers document a career and body of work that defies easy categorization. Researchers will find Isaacs’ unique combination of philosophy and Midwestern pragmatism. Ken Isaacs’ work, his interests, and his relationships are reflected in his papers over the decades. It’s time for me to move on to the next collection that needs processing, but for those who visit our reading room and our inboxes, the fun has just begun. We’re so excited to see how our in-person and online visitors will engage with this splendid collection!

Flier for the Superchair Living Structure made by Ken Isaacs Limited, featuring Isaacs (undated). Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Meredith Counts, Archives Assistant

Eero Saarinen at School in Ann Arbor, Age 14

Welcome back! After a hiatus, the Center for Collections and Research team is excited to return to weekly blog posts here at Cranbrook Kitchen Sink. Look forward to more stories from Cranbrook’s rich past every Friday! As always, we appreciate your comments and suggestions here or via email, center@cranbrook.edu. We return with a special guest essay from Dr. Jeffrey Welch, Retired Faculty Member, Cranbrook Schools (1977 – 2015)

-Kevin Adkisson, Curator and Editor

Readers of this issue of the Cranbrook Kitchen Sink, please settle in for an excursion to Ann Arbor.

The architect of the original Cranbrook institutions, Eliel Saarinen, came to America from Finland in 1923, first to Chicago, then to Ann Arbor, and finally to Cranbrook. He had won $20,000 in an architectural competition to design “the most beautiful office building in the world.” Anyone who might want to compare the winning design with Saarinen’s striking drawing of a skyscraper for the Chicago Tribune newspaper competition would see instantly that Eliel Saarinen’s idea was the better idea.

He brought his family over in April 1923 after being invited to teach a short course in architectural design at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. At Michigan Saarinen discovered that he was an exceptional teacher. He moved from Evanston to Ann Arbor in 1924, settling in at 8 Geddes Heights, and he continued as a professor in the architecture program.

The Broadcaster (University High School, Ann Arbor) staff members, 1925. Eero Saarinen
is third from the right and three rows back. All images courtesy of Jeffrey Welch.

At just this time, the University opened an experimental school, called University High School (UHS), accommodating grades 7-10. Eero entered at grade level 8. His sister, Eva Lisa “Pipsan” Saarinen, could not join him, as she had been born in 1905, five years before him.

By February 1925, University High School students began publishing a periodical they called The Broadcaster: UHS Station. That “UHS Station” tag indicated the idea that these students saw their school as a station point in the big, wide world. Between February and June, UHS student staff members published six editions of The Broadcaster. In this group, Eero was the Art Editor, and it was the case that more 8th and 9th graders were on the newspaper staff than 10th grade students.

A quick riffle through the pages of The Broadcaster would reveal immediately the fact that Eero Saarinen, even at fourteen, was already a gifted artist. His drawings, whether carved from a linoleum block or a line drawing, expressed energy, psychological insight, and movement. They conveyed a clear narrative action, and they revealed a profound sensitivity to human endeavor, to creative engagement with the natural world, and to competitive behavior. Another insight into the youthful Eero can be found in the last issue for school year 1925, where all the students gave their favorite saying, their best subject and their hobby. Eero’s answers: “‘Oh, Yeah!’ Math. Swimming (but not in a bathtub).”

In May, the University alumni magazine, The Michigan Alumnus, published a story about The Broadcaster, singling out Eero for his artist’s contributions. The title of the article complimented the school and its ambitious young journalists: “The Youngest Adventurers in Campus Journalism: ‘The Broadcaster’ Published by Students of the University High School,” all of whom certainly deserved the recognition: “The keynote of the paper is originality.” But there were two indicators as to Eero’s impact on the editors of The Michigan Alumnus.

First, Eero’s portrait of President Marion LeRoy Burton was used as the centerpiece in a story about the recently deceased president. The article printed parts of President Burton’s last report on the State of the University: “President Burton’s Last Survey of the University: The President’s Report for 1923-1924 Covering the Final Year of his Active Administration.”

It is not widely known that President Burton conferred with George Booth, the founder of Cranbrook, about Cranbrook as a location for a world class art academy. The fact is, Dr. Burton and George Booth were very close friends. It is well known that Eliel Saarinen produced a design for the Burton Memorial Campanile (Bell Tower) at the request of the alumni who attended the University during the Burton years: 1920-1925. Eero’s linoleum cut portrait of President Burton closely resembled the official portrait of the man, but there is a subtle quality of emotion in what Eero has done. It is no wonder that the editors at The Michigan Alumnus used Eero’s portrait to illustrate their article on President Burton.

Secondly, Cranbrook Kingswood students and alumni/ae will see immediately the probable source of the Motto for Cranbrook School: Aim High. Eero brought this idea with him to Cranbrook, and during those fruitful years when his father was planning the Boys’ School, Eero’s enthusiasm and interest in the planning no doubt brought forward the suggestion of this inspiring phrase: Aim High, as a possible motto for the school. Furthermore, Eero studied with Géza Maróti, the Hungarian designer-architect of many cherished elements of the Cranbrook School architectural ambience, including the figure of Galileo, the door to the (then) Middle School science wing below it, the overmantel in the Cranbrook Library and wood carvings on the Library doors, the brilliantly windowed exterior at the Marquis entrance to the Cranbrook Dining Hall, and the design of the Gateway of Friendship.

Eero, who at the time was thinking of becoming a sculptor, was put to work designing the crane insert in the dining hall chairs, the animal forms in the gates between Marquis Hall and the Infirmary and at the Lone Pine Road entrance to the Infirmary, the grotesque faces on Page Hall and the abstract forms on the columns at the quadrangle entrance to Page Hall. Eero also designed the brown terra-cotta tiles, showing athletes in their poses, for the fireplace in the South Lobby of Hoey Hall. One of his South Lobby tiles, “The Wrestlers,” was included in the Second International Exhibition of Ceramic Art in New York in October 1928. The Pewabic Pottery in Detroit fired these tiles, and it included this one among representative objects for this American Federation of the Arts show, which also traveled to Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Baltimore, Detroit, Newark and Pittsburgh, closing on September 29, 1929.

Later, Eero designed furniture for his parents’ bedroom in Saarinen House, and, for Kingswood, he was given the contract to design all the furniture for the girls’ school, including for the public spaces, the dining hall, the auditorium, the classrooms and the dormitory. Mr. Booth included a special clause giving Eero rights to any income derived from the mass production of any of the pieces he had designed. Essentially, George Booth was turning Eero (at the age of 19) into an industrial designer. However, as it happened, the contract lapsed at the end of 1930, and soon after Eero was on his way to Yale.

The years of his extraordinary success as a designer-architect were in the future; now, looking back at his career, one can easily make the claim that he was the most important designer-architect of the 20th century. It is wonderful to see that his promise was already evident at the age of fourteen, through proven performance, and that those around him fostered and promoted the development of his talent with every instrument at their disposal.

– Jeffrey Welch, Retired Faculty Member, Cranbrook Schools (1977 – 2015)
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