Getting to Know Ken Isaacs at Cranbrook

Throughout this past spring and summer, I’ve been arranging and describing the recently donated papers of designer and architectural educator Ken Isaacs. Isaacs was an Academy of Art design student and faculty alumnus–his Superchair and a film by Barbara Isaacs are currently featured in the With Eyes Opened exhibit at the Art Museum and in the beautiful new book of the same title. Organizing his papers to ready them for researchers has led my learning about the environments Isaacs designed as well as the larger environments he navigated. These include Cranbrook, Manhattan, Chicago, and the rural acres of Groveland, Illinois where he designed and built a village of stylish, portable Microhouses, predating the current Tiny House movement by decades.

Portrait of Ken Isaacs, found tucked into his 1957 daybook. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

For example, while completing his MFA at Cranbrook from 1952-1954, Isaacs redesigned the interior of The Little Gallery, founded by Peggy DeSalle in neighboring Birmingham in 1949. DeSalle was a great supporter and benefactor of the Cranbrook community and the lead donor and namesake of Cranbrook Art Museum’s DeSalle Auditorium, so how wonderful to get a peek at The Little Gallery’s early years through Isaacs’ papers. I learned DeSalle was once married to Cranbrook President Zoltan Sepeshy, though long before Isaacs came to study here. I also learned, thanks to one of Isaacs’ presentation boards, that Peggy’s second husband and lifelong partner, Albert DeSalle, bought a 1955 couch Isaacs designed of steel and canvas.

During those same years, Ken Isaacs built the 18-foot-long, seven-foot-tall Matrix Drum environment. This large structure with its curving wall of graphic, black and white collage was stored here on campus until Zoltan Sepeshy persuaded Isaacs to return as faculty. (No wonder Isaacs was still on Sepeshy’s mind, having left a work larger than a Buick Roadmaster on the president’s turf).

I’ve recently foldered letters back and forth from Isaacs and Sepeshy. Their correspondence is a study in contrasts: Isaacs’ design stationery is mid-century modern with simple shapes in bold primary colors; one of Sepeshy’s handwritten notes has elegant, looping script that stands out against typed missives. They negotiated that Isaacs would retain and commute to his New York City design offices from Bloomfield Hills. The arrangement worked, for a while. The contract for the 1956-1957 school year included a residence for Ken and Barbara Isaacs in the “apartment in Guest House” on Academy Way and Isaacs headed the Design department from 1956 to 1958.

Isaacs regards a student’s work in an Art Academy studio. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Back at Cranbrook, photographs show Isaacs’ reuse of his Matrix Drum structure as a collaborative art project with Academy students who helped to collage its black and white pholage exterior. His notes detail how he redesigned the first Academy year to include field trips and visiting experts. They also explain how students designed a multimedia, immersive Matrix Drum lesson about the American Civil War using multiple slide projectors and moving pallets for participants to sit upon.

These are a few curiosity-rousing items in the Ken Isaacs Papers, from just his time at Cranbrook, with plenty more boxes of his writings and images left to go through. I’ll confess, his papers make it a real challenge for me to stay on task with processing duties, when there are so many things I want to know more about. Stay tuned for further finds!

Meredith Counts, Archives Assistant, Center for Collections and Research

Handwork and Symbolism in St. Dunstan’s Chapel

In Cranbrook Archives’ Christ Church Cranbrook Records, there is a binder on two needlepoint projects undertaken between 1957 and 1964, the first of which focuses on replacing the cushions and kneelers in St. Dunstan’s Chapel. It gives insight into the design process, symbolism, and handwork, as well as providing much information that would be of interest to the sociology of gender roles and art.

St. Dunstan’s Chapel, Christ Church Cranbrook. The Chapel’s first service was Easter Sunday 1926; the current configuration of the Chapel dates to 1934. Photograph by Kevin Adkisson, August 2021. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The project, a collaboration of the Women’s Auxiliary and the Altar Guild, began in June 1957 when a Needlepoint Committee was convened to oversee the project through its planning, implementation, and dedication. The project was inspired by a similar project at Washington Cathedral where women across the nation contributed 461 pieces of needlepoint to the Cathedral, including altar pieces for Bethlehem Chapel which were worked by women of Michigan.

Twenty designs from the Washington Cathedral project were displayed in the Exhibition of Ecclesiastical Needlepoint at the Detroit Institute of Arts in February 1958 prior to their dedication at the Cathedral. Rt. Rev. Richard S. Emrich commended the idea to all churches in Michigan.

Catalog for the Exhibition of Ecclesiastical Needlepoint at the Detroit Institute of Arts, February 1958. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

St. Dunstan’s Chapel was selected as the most appropriate place for the women of the church to use their handwork for its adornment, since St. Dunstan is the patron saint of Arts and Crafts. St. Dunstan, born in Glastonbury, Somerset, in the tenth century, is commemorated in St. Dunstan’s Chapel with a stone from Glastonbury Abbey where he served as abbot.

Initially, the Committee decided to seek designs for the project by opening a contest for Cranbrook Academy of Art students, with Henry Scripps Booth, Pipsan Saarinen Swanson, Ken Isaacs, and Marion Leader as judges. Harry Soviak (Painting 1957/MFA 1959) won the competition. However, there were problems in implementing the design in terms of types and quantities of wool, and the Committee sought to consider more traditional designs before making a final choice.

Henry Scripps Booth, Ken Isaacs, Pipsan Saarinen Swanson (seated), and Marion Leader judging entries from Academy of Art students to the needlepoint contest for St. Dunstan’s Chapel at Christ Church Cranbrook. April 19, 1957. Photograph by Harvey Croze. Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Rachel T. Earnshaw of the Needlework Studio, Inc., of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania was contacted for information on how to proceed. Earnshaw had won first place for her designs for the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Washington Cathedral. Having been sent some information and images of St. Dunstan’s Chapel, she advised on symbolism as well as offering guidance on canvas, wool, and stitches.

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Photo Friday: Nash-Healy Pinin Farina

In honor of the Woodward Dream Cruise, happening in front of Cranbrook’s Woodward Entrance as I write, I thought we’d look back at this fabulous photograph of an unknown woman and a beautiful 1950s Nash Pininfarina parked in front of Cranbrook School for Boys’ study hall. This photograph is part of Cranbrook Archives’ Floyd Bunt Papers.

Nash-Healy Pinin Farina parked next to Cranbrook School for Boys, ca. 1956. New Center Photographic, Inc., photographer. Cranbrook Archives.

Toronto-native Floyd Bunt joined the faculty of Cranbrook School in 1944 and taught Chemistry and Engineer Science. He also was the faculty advisor for the Rifle Club and taught auto mechanics classes to the boys, quite possibly using this Nash-Healy Pinin Farina. He eventually served as chairman of the Science Department at Cranbrook from 1964 to 1969.

The Nash-Healy is a two-seat luxury sports car, made between 1951 to 1954. It was one of the first sports car sold in America after World War Two, launched two years before the Corvette. The 1951 models were built in Britain, and the redesigned 1952 through 1954 models built in Turin, Italy by Pinin Farina. There were only 506 of this chic little cars made, and it looks like our photo shows a 1953 roadster. I do wonder who owned it, and why this photo was taken!

Perhaps you’ll be venturing out to Woodward Avenue this weekend for the Dream Cruise. I’ve been enjoying the historic cars that are already cruising; perhaps there’s even a Nash-Healy Pinin Farina out there! Send us a picture if you see one!

Kevin Adkisson, Associate Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Photo Friday: Coastal Life in Maine

Recently returned from a sojourn to the coastal towns of Midcoast and Downeast Maine, the sights, sounds, and rhythm of the ocean remain with me still.  For eight days many activities, particularly swimming and beachcombing, were often dictated by the tides. Twice daily the ebb tide revealed fascinating marine life – plant and animal – in tide pools, beaches, and on rocks, of which I attempted to capture with my iPhone camera to varying degrees of success.

One of the good ones! View of Spruce Head from Clark Island, Maine. July 2021.

Photographs taken by Institute of Science Exhibition Artist and Preparator, Dudley Moore Blakely, do much more justice to the varied species found in tidal pools along this majestic coastline. He, too, spent a part of his summer in Maine, traveling instead in 1948 to the southern beach towns just over the New Hampshire state line.

Blakely’s trip involved field studies for a permanent biological exhibit, Between the Tides, which would be mounted in 1949, after his departure for the Boston Museum of Science.

Blakely’s photographs helped him simulate in rubber mold casting the barnacle encrusted rocks, and exhibition staff members George Marchand the lesser algae and animals, Luella Schroeder the kelp, and Dorothy Olsen Davies the sea anemones. The exhibit’s purpose was to recreate the “zonal distribution of life in response to the rhythm of the tides.” (Cranbrook Institute of Science 1949-1950 Annual Report, Vol. 20, p.14)

A man of unique talents, Blakely also created a ripple pattern of lighting for the Tides exhibit where “light from a single source passes through actual waves on its way to the exhibit.” (Cranbrook Institute of Science Newsletter, October 1949, Vol.19:2, p.23)

Between the Tides exhibit, Alcove 5, Cranbrook Institute of Science, 1949. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Dudley Blakely oversaw the exhibition department at the Institute from 1936-1948 (except during the war years), where he designed and fabricated exhibits and provided architectural drawings and models for the Institute.

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Out of the Ordinary: Cranbrook and the Chair

Last week, I was happy to welcome a small group tour into the reading room to view archival materials about chairs. After the tour request appeared in my inbox, I learned a lot about chairs in a short time and found a new appreciation for this commonplace object. 

As I searched and gathered materials for the display, I began to see how imagination and inspiration can transform an ordinary thing from complete obscurity to one of curiosity and sometimes great celebrity.  

Florence Knoll in Eero Saarinen’s Grasshopper Chair in the Dallas Original Showroom, 1950. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

The chair has been creatively reinvented time and again according to the social context of its use, the cultural meaning imbued in it, or the inspiration from which its design sprang. Just think throne, pew, sofa, deck chair, chaise-lounge, and so on. 

Take one of Cranbrook’s most iconic chairs – Eliel Saarinen Cranbrook School dining hall chair. Designed to withstand use by teenage boys, it combines durability with sophistication and has stood the test of time as they are still in use after 94 years. At the back of each chair is a bronze crane insert, a symbol that subtly gives identity to the community using the chair.

Cranbrook School Dining Hall, October 1936. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The 1940s and 1950s saw a flourishing of chair design from Academy of Art graduates, including Florence Schust Knoll BassettRalph Rapson (the first Cranbrook-trained designer to work for Knoll), Charles Eames, Benjamin Baldwin, Harry Weese, and Ruth Adler Schnee. The Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1941 generated many of these designs, including collaborative entries from Baldwin and Weese, as well as Eames and Eero Saarinen. 

Interestingly, Eero’s later chair designs are all much inspired by nature—the Grasshopper chair, the Womb chair, and the Tulip Chair.  

Eero Saarinen sitting in the prototype of his Womb Chair at his Vaughn Road home. 18 June 1947. Photographer: Harvey Croze. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Inspired by nature in a different way, Finnish architect and furniture designer Olav Hammarstrom has a variety of designs that are born of the possibilities to which natural materials lend themselves. Hammarstrom worked with Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen and Associates, working on projects such as the Baker House dormitory at MIT and the furnishings at the GM Tech Center. Married to Head of the Weaving Department Marianne Strengell, he designed their house in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, as well as houses for friends and colleagues, along with chairs to go in them.

Bamboo Experimental “Basketchair” by Olav Hammarstrom. 10 February 1956. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Furniture design was also the focus of another Academy affiliated designer, Pipsan Saarinen Swanson. Working in partnership with her husband, architect J. Robert F. Swanson, Pipsan typically designed the interiors while he designed the structure and exterior.

Chair designed by Pipsan Saarinen Swanson. December 8, 1945. Photographer: Harvey Croze. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

But Robert Swanson also designed furniture. Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned was that Swanson invented a ‘Stackable Chair,’ patented in 1957. A form we take for granted nowadays, these chairs can still be found in many buildings and classrooms on Cranbrook’s campus.

The “Stackable Chair” by J. Robert F. Swanson, 1957. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

It was a great pleasure to share these archival stories with our guests and to explore Cranbrook’s part in the story of the chair. In the process I learned to see an everyday thing in a new light and how creativity can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. 

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

A Summer Education at Brookside

Summer school. Those two words usually make most children cringe—who wants to spend their summer vacation studying and attending classes? Sheer morbid curiosity made me explore further a few folders in Brookside School Records, a collection just opened for research last month. What I found was not the usual story.

The Brookside summer school program, AWAKE, had a different purpose than remedial education for elementary students. Developed in 1968 by Pontiac Elementary Principal Jim Hawkins and Brookside Headmaster John P. Denio, it was designed to promote harmony and understanding amongst young children who might not otherwise share life experiences due to racial, social, and economic segregation.

AWAKE followed on the heels of the “long hot summer” of 1967, which saw civil unrest in Detroit and cities across Michigan, including Pontiac, due to long-standing racial inequalities for Black Americans. Instituted in 1968, AWAKE’s purpose was to “bring together young children in essentially two segregated school areas,” in some ways foreshadowing the desegregation of Pontiac and Detroit schools in the early 1970s.

Roughly fifty children split their time equally between the Bloomfield Hills and Pontiac schools for five mornings a week, over a four-week period in July and August. Co-sponsored by Cranbrook’s Brookside School and Pontiac Public Schools’ Bethune and Whittier Elementary Schools, the program included art projects, field trips, swimming, reading, and other enrichment activities for kindergarten-age children in both communities. Directed at young children because of their natural receptiveness at that age, Denio believed that,

With AWAKE, children four through six, through work and play activities and through simple, open contact with each other may perhaps develop the knowledge and understanding necessary to reinforce their acceptance of each other as human beings.

Governed by a Board comprised of community members and Pontiac Public School administrators and teachers, the program was self-sustained through tuition fees (waived in cases of need), financial contributions, and community support. Christ Church Cranbrook, for example, played a significant role through both donations and parishioners’ participation in the program. Familiar Cranbrook names, such as Cranbrook School teacher and Horizons-Upward Bound founder, Ben Snyder, and his wife Margot were also regular advocates of the program.

Borrowing lyrics from Rogers and Hammerstein and with photographs by Jack Kausch, poster displays sum up AWAKE’s ethos: “Getting to know you … Getting to know all about you … Getting to like you … Getting to hope you like me.” Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

A grass roots experiment in creative problem-solving of the urban crisis faced by cities across the country, AWAKE only lasted for five years (1968-1972). Because of its short duration, the effectiveness of the program was never fully appreciated, despite a 1969 study conducted by a University of Michigan Ph.D. student in education and social sciences and regular solicitation of teacher and parent feedback. Ultimately, rising costs and a lack of grant money; shortages of staff; and dwindling enrollment, undoubtedly due in part to the integration of Pontiac schools and the unsettling atmosphere of anti-busing protests, prohibited the continuation of the program.  

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Exploring Africa with Dr. Hatt

In the summer of 1961, Dr. Robert Hatt, Director of Cranbrook Institute of Science (CIS) from 1935 to 1967, took a field trip to Africa to study small mammals in South Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Using his travel journals, photographs, and his published articles, we can follow his field work, analysis, and conclusions quite closely.

On his trip he kept one scientific journal and one for general observations from region to region, which provides a rich source for social, political, geographical, and anthropological insights into the region’s society.

Dr. Hatt and his wife, Sue, set off for Africa on July 1, 1961, traveling from New York to Dakar then through Ghana, Nigeria, and the Congo, arriving at the Atlantica Ecological Research Station (AERS) in Salisbury, (now Harare, Zimbabwe) on July 21st.

CISB5117b
Dr. Robert Hatt and his wife, Suzannah at the Atlantica Ecological Research Station in South Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. August 1961. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Upon arriving at Salisbury airport, they were met by Rudyerd and Louise Boulton. Rudyerd, an American ornithologist and the Director of AERS, had invited Hatt to undertake the study with financial support from the New York Zoological Society. Hatt began his field study journal at this point, writing,

“The house is charming, stone walled, 1 storey, good garden beyond. The lab building attached still under construction but RB had my desk set up and equipped—a dozen volumes on mammals in a book shelf, ready to work. RB & I went out with my collector, Kenny, and made an incomplete circuit of the property, setting 15 Sherman traps out near stream.”

Journal #44, Africa. Robert T. Hatt Papers (1999-14)
Atlantica Ecological Research Station, South Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). July 1961. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

It is fascinating to see his research data in its raw form, which can be compared with his account in the CIS newsletter and a more formal and scientifically dense report in a published journal, later reproduced in Zoologica.

Hatt studied the small mammal population of Zimbabwe from July 21 until the beginning of September, similar to the research he conducted in Michigan and other regions (his doctoral dissertation was on a type of red squirrel). In Zimbabwe, he contributed to an understanding of the local fauna, which presents a nuisance to agriculture and animal husbandry.

With assistance from his wife, he captured mice, rats, shrews, and elephant shrews which were measured, weighed, and marked in the ears with a serial number to recognize them if recaptured. In the first three weeks of field work, they had marked and released over 150 animals with 65 recaptures, some recaptured 3 or 4 times.

Journal #44, Africa. Robert T. Hatt Papers (1999-14). Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

Hatt variously notes these small mammals as generally uncooperative with the study, and remarks,

“This matter of ear marking is not to the animal’s liking and despite my use of rubber gloves and plastic handling boxes, rare is the morning in which I am not given some identifying perforation of my own by their sharp teeth.”

Cranbrook Institute of Science Newsletter, Vol. 31, No. 2, October 1961, p.13
Dr. Robert T. Hatt and his assistant, Kenny, handling mice. August 1961. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Hatt describes the landscape of the 150-acre Station as a combination of grassland and Brachystegia woodland, noting the prevalence of “picturesque kopjes” which provided good lookout sites and defensive structures for Bushmen and Bantu prior to the British colonial settlement of Salisbury in 1890. Most interesting are the “Bushmen paintings” that evidence early occupation of the area. One location, Somerby Farm, is recorded both photographically and in his manuscripts. This group of paintings indicates the presence of elephants, hippopotamus, buffalo, hartebeest, kudu, and reedbuck.

Somerby Farm Cave Paintings, South Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). August 1961. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

The Hatts left Salisbury on September 4th, heading first to Arusha, Tanzania; then to Nairobi, Kenya; Uganda; Khartoum, Sudan; and finally to London.

Hatt’s small journal includes his observations along the way and his comments include the cockroaches in their first hotel bathroom, types of trees, cocoa tree disease, termites, religious missions, types of goats, museums, meetings, markets (and what was for sale in them), local people, anthropological marks of beauty, and signs on shops and wagons. The latter include “Aim High,” “Do Good,” “Still it makes me laugh,” “Give all to God,” and “Forget me Not.”

One comment on his journey from the Ivory Coast to Accra made me smile, as I could relate to the experience of plane food:

“Our plane, DC-3, was “First Class” and we were obliged to pay $50 extra for upgrading our ticket (Nigerian Airways). All we got for it was one whiskey and a sandwich which I wouldn’t eat.”

Journal #43, Africa. Robert T. Hatt Papers (1999-14)
Kiva Volcano and Travelers’ Rest in Kisora, Uganda. September 1961. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

Often archives hold information on individuals, institutions, and society that were not the original purpose of the document, and this is true with Hatt’s Papers. His field journals yield rich information not only on his process of data collection and analysis, but they also provide a lot of description of human geography and regions that he visited, as well as biographical insights into Hatt himself. The CIS collections are a wonderful resource for many avenues of study, and we would welcome researchers to come and explore these wonderful and valuable resources.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Editor’s Note: This Sunday, join the Center for a fascinating discussion with Elizabeth Rauh, Assistant Professor, Modern Art and Visual Cultures, American University in Cairo for her talk, “Iraq en Route: A Photographic Journey, 1952-1953.” Rauh has conducted a year-long study into the photographs Dr. Hatt took on his 1952 trip to Iraq, and her presentation will weave together Hatt’s images with the history of both ancient and mid-twentieth century Iraq.

References

Hatt, Robert Torrens. The Mammals of the Atlantica Ecological Research Station, Southern Rhodesia, reprinted in Zoologica, Scientific Contributions of the New York Zoological Society, vol.48, issue 2, Summer 1963

Hatt, Robert Torrens. ‘Hunting Africa’s Smallest Game,’ Cranbrook Institute of Science Newsletter, Vol. 31, No. 2, pp.10-14

A World of Opportunity: Ellen Scripps Booth Memorial Scholarships

In preparation for the Center’s upcoming seminar, featuring research on weaver Nelly Sethna, I became curious about an Academy of Art scholarship established in honor of Cranbrook founder, Ellen Scripps Booth.

Sethna had been a recipient of this financial award, which had allowed her to study abroad (Sethna was a citizen of India) at Cranbrook for one year, 1958-1959. Though it was Sethna’s artistic ability, not financial need, that earned her the award, she would never have made it to Cranbrook without this assistance, as indicated in letters to Weaving Department Head, Marianne Strengell.

Nelly H. Sethna, circa 1958. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Sethna’s subsequent successful career in textile design demonstrated the value of providing assistance for artists to attend the Academy. I wondered how many other similar stories there were in the Archives. I did not need to look past the first decade of memorial scholarship awardees to find plenty.

While the scholarship was granted to deserving artists in metalsmithing, painting, ceramics, and weaving in the ten years between 1951-1961, it was two fellow weavers of Sethna’s that caught my eye. They, too, had proven themselves worthy of distinction through their artistic accomplishments, but they, too, had financial needs that would have prohibited their attending the Academy otherwise.

Dixie Roto Magazine article featuring Katherine Choy, Sept. 14, 1952. Copyright The Times-Picayune, New Orleans States. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The first recipient of the scholarship was Katherine P. Choy, a Chinese expatriate and graduate of Mills College in Oakland, California. Choy came to Cranbrook in 1951 to study ceramics for one year as a non-degree student. She would spend near equal time in both the ceramics and weaving departments, under the dual tutelage of Maija Grotell and Marianne Strengell.

Upon leaving Cranbrook, she would enjoy success in both fields, first heading up the legendary Newcomb College Ceramics Department at Tulane University and later joining the design team at Isabel Scott Fabrics in New York. With fellow artist Henry Okamoto, Choy also founded The Clay Art Center in Port Chester, New York, which still exists today. Choy’s ceramics can be found in the collections of the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, as well as the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Tsuneko Yokota, circa 1955. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Another scholarship winner, and weaver, in the first decade of the award was Tsuneko Yokota (Fujimoto), for the academic year 1957-1958. A graduate of the Design Department at Tama College of Fine Arts in Tokyo, Yokota distinguished herself in fabric dying, winning several awards and a scholarship for an additional year at Tama as an honor graduate. At the suggestion of one of her instructors, and with a recommendation from Marianne Strengell, who knew her instructor, Yokota came to Cranbrook to further her studies in weaving and textile design. Unlike Sethna and Choy, though, Yokota stayed an additional year at the Academy and earned her MFA in Weaving.

By all accounts, Yokota lived up to Strengell’s confidence that she, “will most certainly have ample chance and desire to spread our particular brand of education and design in Japan,” working with celebrated modernist interior designers like Isamu Kenmochi.

Cranbrook Academy of Art scholarship announcement, 1960. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The Ellen Scripps Booth Memorial Scholarship was established in 1951 along with the George Gough Booth and Eliel Saarinen Memorial Scholarships by the Academy of Art Board of Trustees. Academy faculty, under the leadership of Director Zoltan Sepeshy, recommended these scholarships be granted based on unusual merit of work submitted rather than financial need. Academy administrative documents indicate that the Ellen Scripps Booth Scholarship Fund had wide support from not only Academy faculty and staff, but also many at the Foundation, Press, Central Committee, and House. Scholarship award amounts varied somewhat from year to year, (in 1953 they were evenly split between two awardees), but the scholarship continued to be granted until at least 1965. While these named scholarships are no longer awarded (and I was unable to deduce exactly why or when they stopped), scholarships and financial aid for talented students are still vital to the success of the Academy and its artists.

—Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Editor’s Notes: On Tuesday, June 22 the Center broadcasts live from Cranbrook and India for scholar Vishal Khandelwal’s examination, using materials from Cranbrook Archives, of a fascinating connection between mid-century textile design in the United States and India, as seen through the work of Nelly Sethna. Register here for this illuminating virtual event. 

Along with Nelly Sethna (1958-59), find early scholarship winners, such as Paul R. Evans (1952-53) and Howard William Kottler (1956-57) featured in Cranbrook Art Musuem’s new exhibit and companion publication, With Eyes Opened. Find details and purchase advance tickets to the exhibit on the Museum’s website.

Read a recent exciting announcement about new scholarship and financial opportunities for students on the Academy’s website.

She Walks in Beauty: The Life and Work of Helen Plumb

Helen Plumb, co-founder of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (DSAC) and its secretary from 1906 to 1928, was dedicated to the arts and crafts ideal of public service—encouraging an appreciation for beauty in everyday life and in the community. Surprisingly little is known of Plumb, but some evidence can be found in a few of the Archives’ collections.

During her tenure as DSAC secretary, Plumb saw the society through three distinct phases, each coinciding with a different physical location. The School of Design was established during the society’s first five years, when it was based at the Knowlson Building on Farmer Street (1906-1911). For the next five years, they were based at Witherell Street, during which time the society encouraged the production of theatrical masques, including the Masque of Arcadia, written by Alexandrine McEwen, and the Cranbrook Masque in 1916. The society moved to its third and final location at 47 Watson Street in October 1916. From then until 1922, they created the Little Theatre and expanded into Folk Handicraft and Lamp Departments. Once flourishing, by 1922 these programs were fading, causing Plumb to perceive a new era for the society and her future role in it.

Helen Plumb, secretary of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (1906-1928). Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

In a letter to George Booth in 1922, Plumb alludes to a choice between two paths: either “to go forward in a much larger, showier way, or to move into a closer, more restricted field,” which she felt would entail abandoning DSAC’s public and civic work. In this letter, she makes it very clear that if the second route were chosen, she would have no part in it. Her vision for the society’s future was to nurture more international connections, following the success of the Exhibition of British Arts and Crafts Assembled by the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts in 1920.

A miniature portrait of Helen Plumb of the Society of Arts & Crafts, Detroit, on ivory, by Alexandrine McEwen (1876 – 1955), in same outfit as above. Cultural Properties Collection, Founders Collection.

Plumb’s correspondence with Booth was always very professional and business-focused with a modest sprinkling of personal comment. Then, in October of 1924, she writes candidly, “I have not many friends in all that word means, and still fewer confidants. It so happens that you are one of those two or three who shares my deepest one.” Plumb is variously described as a tireless worker, but here she shares how much she has struggled with chronic health problems and that her vitality has diminished such that it has, “become a life and death struggle” for her to keep going at all. There is a chance that she will finally be well, but she is unable to negotiate a path to it with the society’s board and she is no longer able to endure as is. It is in this impasse that she turns to Booth to advise the best course.

Letter from Helen Plumb to George G. Booth, October 16, 1924. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.
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Where in the World is Academy Graduation?

Today was a very exciting day at Cranbrook, with the Academy of Art Commencement taking place underneath a bright blue sky at Thompson Oval. Sixty-four students (now alumni!) were awarded their degrees. Artis Lane received an Honorary Master of Fine Arts and delivered an inspiring speech (on her 94th birthday, no less!), while Allie McGhee delivered a wonderful commencement address.

Susan Ewing, Director, speaking at the Cranbrook Academy of Art Class of 2021 Commencement, May 14, 2021 on the Thompson Oval at Cranbrook School. Photograph by Katie McGowan, CAA Photography ’22, Courtesy Cranbrook Academy of Art.

But as I sat in the newly restored bleachers of the Cranbrook School football stadium, I wondered: was this the first time the Academy’s commencement took place here, at the Thompson Oval?

A quick search in Archives revealed that, yes, it seemed to be. However, the same search revealed that graduation has taken place all around campus over the years.

The Academy dates back to 1932, but it first granted degrees in 1942. This was the same time Cranbrook Art Museum and Library opened. Early commencements took place in the Museum galleries, and, at least in the earliest years, the faculty and staff wore academic regalia.

Eliel Saarinen, President, confers degrees during the Cranbrook Academy of Art Class of 1943 Commencement, May 1943 at Cranbrook Art Museum. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Other early commencement ceremonies took place in the Academy’s Library next door. The reading room tables and chairs were replaced with rows of seating for students and guests. By 1945, it appears academic regalia had been abandoned.

A rather sleepy Zoltan Sepeshy, Director, at Cranbrook Academy of Art Class of 1945 Commencement, May 26, 1945 in Cranbrook Academy of Art Library. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

By midcentury, as the student body expanded, commencement moved to the Greek Theatre. This remained the location for many decades, and likely where commencement will return in a post-pandemic future.

Roy Slade, President, presides over a Cranbrook Academy of Art Commencement in the early 1990s at the Greek Theatre. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

And of course, what do you need if you’re planning an outdoor event in May in Michigan? A rain plan! Christ Church Cranbrook serves as the inclement weather site of commencement, as seen here in 2015.

Cranbrook Academy of Art Class of 2015 Commencement, May 8, 2015 at Christ Church Cranbrook. Photograph by Chris Schneider, Courtesy Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Fast forward to 2020, where commencement existed only in the virtual sphere: on Zoom. Not quite an architecturally interesting locale!

Susan Ewing, Director, presides over the Cranbrook Academy of Art Class of 2020 Commencement, May 8, 2020, on Zoom. Available here.

And then, today, commencement moved to the football field. It was a sunny day with perfect weather and high spirits as the community gathered, safely and in person, to celebrate the achievements of the Academy students.

Cranbrook Academy of Art Class of 2021 Commencement, May 14, 2021 on the Thompson Oval at Cranbrook School. Photograph by Kevin Adkisson.

Now, scroll back up and notice one thing that stayed the same across the years: the Academy Flag! It was behind President Eliel Saarinen in 1943, and behind Director Susan Ewing today.

Today’s ceremony will be uploaded to the Academy’s Vimeo page soon. Meanwhile, there are still a few days left to see the Class of 2021 Graduate Degree Exhibition at Cranbrook Art Museum, which closes on Sunday, May 16, and you can also see the (coronavirus delayed) Class of 2020 Graduate Degree Exhibition at Wasserman Projects in Detroit through June 19, 2021.

Congratulations from the Center to the Cranbrook Academy of Art Class of 2021!

Kevin Adkisson, Associate Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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