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.
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.
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
-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!
—Meredith Counts, Archives Assistant