Step-back with a Peacock

From the moment I entered Saarinen House twenty-seven years ago to give my first public tour, to my upcoming presentation for the Kingswood Middle School for Girls Explore Cranbrook students, I remain . . . simply enthralled. No more so than by the vibrant Peacock Andirons gracing the living room hearth.

Eliel Saarinen’s cast bronze Peacock Andirons, 1928-29. Each 21-1/4” W x 22-3/8” H x 27-1/4” D. Collection of Cranbrook Art Museum, CAM1985.2 a-b. Robert Hensleigh, photographer.

Designed by Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen and produced by Sterling Bronze Company, New York between 1928 and 1929, these cast bronze andirons were paid for by the Cranbrook Foundation and entered in the 1928-1930 Arts & Crafts Building ledger on pages 40-41 (third line from the bottom)—Date: 1-7-30; No.: 515; Name: Sterling Bronze Co; Remarks: 1 pair/ Andirons for Saarinen Res[idence]; Amount: $152.50 (the equivalent of $2,631.50 in 2023).

Arts & Crafts Building ledger, 1928-30. Laura MacNewman, photographer, 2023. Cranbrook Archives.

The pair of birds are fabulous. Ready and alert, they face each other, ankles bent, balanced upon splayed toes.

Detail of peacocks. Robert Hensleigh, photographer.

Their bodies are reduced to linear S curves. Sweeping wing and tail feathers provide a sense of outward movement, while graduated arrowhead cutouts point back towards the center. Striking crests provide the counterbalance—finial feathers sporting central shafts with fluttering barbs.

Detail of crest. Diane VanderBeke Mager, photographer, 2023.

Despite Saarinen’s dramatic design, it isn’t the peacocks that most intrigue me . . . rather, the four-tiered structures upon which they perch!

Peacock Andiron base at Saarinen House. Diane VanderBeke Mager, photographer, 2023.

Each andiron base is composed of four tiers, creating three step-backs—aka setbacks—defined in architecture as steplike recessions in a building’s profile as distanced from the property line.

From bottom to top:

– The plinth spans 8-3/4” W x 2-3/4” H x 2-1/2” D, the feet curling in on themselves.

– Set back 1-1/2” from the plinth’s outer edges rest two open blocks, 5-3/4” W (2-1/4” W each, spaced 1-1/4” apart) x 3-7/8” H x 1-5/8” D.

– Atop the blocks and stepped in by 1” on either side sits a narrower version of the plinth, 3-3/4” W x 4-1/8” H x 1-1/4” D, feet curling inward with a flourish.

– A final solid block, set back 5/8”, forms the peacock perch, 1-1/2” W x 1/2” H x 1” D.

While the height of the four tiers vary wildly, the setbacks follow a strict formula: 1-1/2” of 8-3/4”; 1” of 5-3/4”; and 5/8” of 3-3/4”—a ratio of 17:100 or 17%. In this way, Saarinen maintains a structured rhythm and balance.

So, why my fascination with the andirons’ proportions? Because their setbacks fully embody Saarinen’s credo, “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair [a pair of andirons] in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

Room, house, environment, city plan. Or in the case of the step-backed andirons, Saarinen inserted a precursor, first considering the hearth—just as with tableware designs, he first considered the table.

This gives us a total of five contexts—or steps—(pun intended!) to consider.

Step 1—the andirons in front of the hearth:

While in the process of planning his home along Cranbrook’s Academy Way, Saarinen designed the Peacock Andirons to fit within a fireplace tableau of gleaming raisin and silver tile produced by Pewabic Pottery of his own design. First presented in The Architect and the Industrial Arts: An Exhibition of Contemporary American Design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1929, the tableau was resized and reinstalled in the living room of Saarinen House the following year. Like the andirons, the hearth plays with squared-off edges and positive and negative space.

Eliel Saarinen’s 1929 ceramic fireplace and bronze andirons, installed at Saarinen House in 1930. PD Rearick, photographer, 2016. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Step 2—the hearth within the room:

The hearth is the focal point of the Saarinen House living room. Before it, rests a rug designed by Eliel’s wife, Loja Saarinen, woven on Cranbrook’s campus by Studio Loja Saarinen, circa 1929-1930. The rug’s rya-knotted pile sports its own telescoping, four-tiered step-back pattern in vibrant coral and black, echoing the outlines and hollows of the andirons.

Saarinen House living room rug and fireplace with Peacock Andirons. Balthazar Korab, photographer. Copyright Balthazar Korab | Cranbrook Archives.

Step 3—the room within the house:

The living room at Saarinen House is adjacent to a second communal space, the dining room, defined by four three-tiered corner niches painted a “Chinese red.” Saarinen designed cast bronze door frames for the niches, supplied by Charles R. Wermuth and Son, Inc., in 1930. While never installed, their outline, as well as their four-tiered naturalistic embellishment, continue the step-back theme.

Saarinen House dining room, view to living room. James Haefner, Photographer.
Saarinen House dining room corner niche with never-installed cast bronze door frame. Balthazar Korab, photographer. Copyright Balthazar Korab | Cranbrook Archives.

Step 4—the house within an environment:

Saarinen’s collection of interior step-backs echo his ubiquitous step-backs on the chimney at Saarinen House, the neighboring step-backed chimneys along Academy Way, and the step-backed chimneys and stacked columns he designed for Cranbrook and Kingswood Schools between 1927 and 1931.

Saarinen House exterior facing Academy Way. James Haefner, photographer, 2017. Copyright Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research | James Haefner.
Stepped tower and colonnade posts at Cranbrook School. Lorenz Oliver Mager, photographer, 2023.
Step-backed chimneys at Kingswood School. Richard G. Askew, photographer, 1937. Cranbrook Archives
Stepped gate posts and step-backed chimneys at Kingswood School entrance. George W. Hance, photographer, circa 1931. Cranbrook Archives.

Not every Peacock Andiron comparison across Cranbrook’s campus requires you to look up. Saarinen repeated the andirons’ plinth design on his six Mankato stone benches along the Peristyle at Cranbrook Art Museum and the Cranbrook Academy of Art Library.

Saarinen’s Peacock Andiron plinth, 1928-29. Diane VanderBeke Mager, photographer, 2023.
And Saarinen-designed Mankato stone benches outside Cranbrook Art Museum, 1942. Diane VanderBeke Mager, photographer, 2023.

Step 5—the environment within the city plan:

Saarinen was responsible not only for Cranbrook’s buildings and the design objects within them but for the overall layout of Cranbrook’s campus. In the 1920s, he proposed multiple campus plans to Cranbrook’s founder, George Booth, exemplify the set-back motif. Note the unrealized step-backs, possibly terraced gardens, north of Lake Jonah on the 1924 plan and the dueling tiered gardens of the 1925 plan in the location of what became the Triton Pools.

Step-backed forms within Eliel Saarinen’s proposed plans for the development of Cranbrook, circa 1924. Cranbrook Archives.
And proposed plans for the Academy of Art, 1925. Cranbrook Art Museum.

So, you may be asking, “what’s up with all the step-backs?”

They began as an architectural necessity. With the advent of steel construction in the late nineteenth century and rapid expansion in the early twentieth century, the race to build taller and taller skyscrapers was on. The cheapest and easiest form to build was, of course, the rectangle. But imagine the claustrophobic tunneling effect that began to unfold as solid masses butted up against each other—light and air hindered from reaching the sidewalk and street below.

Enter the New York Zoning Resolution of 1916 to combat the congestion. The new code established height and setback rules based on the width of the street, essentially mandating the Art Deco wedding-cake effect we’ve come to associate with the era.

Case in point, Saarinen’s own step-backed designs for the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower Competition, for which he placed second, and his unrealized 1924 Detroit Water Front Project.

Saarinen’s entry to the Chicago Tribune Tower competition. Photograph by Atelier Apollo, 1922. Cranbrook Archives.
Postcard of Saarinen’s 1924 Project for Water Front Development, Detroit, Michigan.

As twentieth-century architects expanded their roles to interior and product design, they translated architectural setbacks into objects for the home. Eliel Saarinen, adept at designing for both large and small scale in virtually any material, mimicked the familiar step-backed effect for his Peacock Andirons at Saarinen House, masterfully pushing each form back incrementally, allowing for light and space, thereby drawing the eye upward to the birds themselves.

Detail of the Peacock Andirons at Saarinen House. PD Rearick, photographer, 2016. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The Peacock Andirons perched in place for the Saarinens from 1930 until Eliel’s death in 1950 and his wife Loja’s departure from Saarinen House in 1951 to live in a Bloomfield Hills home designed by their son, Eero. Subsequent Presidents of Cranbrook Academy of Art enjoyed the andirons in situ, including Roy Slade, the last president to reside in Saarinen House before its restoration and eventual opening to the public in 1995.

Saarinen House living room. Jack Kausch, photographer, 1978. Cranbrook Archives.

The following year and nearly every year since, I have been honored to share the treasures of Saarinen House with visitors and students alike, particularly the Peacock Andirons—Eliel Saarinen’s quintessential example of an object placed with consideration at every step!

Diane VanderBeke Mager, Collections Interpreter, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Editor’s note: Public tours of Saarinen House, Smith House, and the Center’s three-house tours begin today and tomorrow! Advance tickets are required. Click here to reserve your spot. We look forward to welcoming you and your guests.

4 thoughts on “Step-back with a Peacock

  1. This is a beautifully written essay about the design of Saarinen House’s iconic peacock andirons – and their place in the house’s living room. But more – how the andirons, the living room, the dining room, the house itself, the campus….all exemplify Eliel Saarinen’s disciplined approach to architecture and art

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Simply underscores how Saarinen House examplifles Cranbook as a “total work of art”. Fascinating to tie in to the “whys” of cultural history too.


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