Cranbrook Behind the Scenes: My Senior May Experience

Ms. Rice warned me that the first week of my Senior May Project would be hectic and slightly crazy, and it definitely was, but in the best possible way! Being a lifer at Cranbrook, I have learned a lot about our amazing campus over the years, but nothing could have prepared me for the intensely interesting and extremely entertaining Senior May opportunity I have encountered at the Center for Collections and Research.

Riya Batra on set in Saarinen House for the Susan Saarinen interview. Photo by Nina Blomfield.

I joined the department in the week prior to A House Party, the Center’s annual fundraiser, this year honoring Loja Saarinen. Within minutes I was fully immersed into the event preparation. From unboxing the beautifully printed mugs to sitting in on engaging interviews, I was able to experience and assist in a variety of tasks that made me feel like I was actually contributing, even though my contribution was likely quite small in the grand scheme of things.

Riya as Susan Saarinen’s camera stand-in. Photo by Nina Blomfield.

One moment I will never forget was driving Susan Saarinen back to her hotel, after her interview for the film, and seeing an actual dress created by her cherished grandmother Loja. Where else in the world would I ever get to experience something like this?

Leslie Mio packs up the dress by Loja Saarinen. Photo by Riya Batra.
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Traditions from the Weavers

Does your family have a certain pose that they always do for a family picture? My cousins and I always had to stand or sit by the same log at our cottage each summer to get a group picture. Even when the log had disintegrated, and we were all adults, we still stood in the same spot to take the picture.

The Swedish weavers of Studio Loja Saarinen were the same way. After every rug was completed, they would unroll it behind the studio, lay it on the lawn, and pose at the end. This not only documented their work, but also served as a record of who worked on each piece. In Cranbrook Archives, we have a few examples of these images.

Cranbrook Academy of Art Rug No. 14

This rug lay in the center of the Studio Loja Saarinen Weaving Room. A flatwoven rug with stylized meanders in the border, and an elegant color scheme of dark browns, blues, and beiges, in form, structure, color, and design it shows the contemporary style of Swedish weaving that would become the foundation of Studio Loja Saarinen’s work.

Cranbrook Academy of Art Rug No. 14, designed by Maja Andersson Wirde and woven by Lillian Holm for Studio Loja Saarinen, 1930. CAM 1955.2. Photographer James Haefner.

This was one of the first rugs executed under the “Design and Supervision” of Maja Andersson Wirde, who was Loja’s right-hand-woman from 1930 to 1933. The rug is actually a variation of a design Wirde made for the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris (the “Art Deco” World’s Fair).

When Wirde wrote to Cranbrook’s secretary from Sweden before immigrating, she said she would bring along prepared designs and wool and linen yarns to be able to get started right away. She certainly did! Below, you can see Wirde and possibly Lillian Holm and Ruth Ingvarsson holding up the rug behind Studio Loja Saarinen just months after their arrival to Cranbrook.

Studio Loja Saarinen weavers with Rug No. 14 behind the Cranbrook Arts and Crafts Studios, 1930. Courtesy Smålands Museum, Sweden.
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Cranbrook’s Great Books (Part II)

In Part I of this post, we explored Cranbrook’s love of the book, from its origins with founders George and Ellen Booth, to the existing special collections at the Archives and Academy of Art. I invite you now to learn of the many rare, valuable, and historical tomes whose existence may be unknown to most or simply overlooked in collections at the Schools, Institute of Science, and two historic homes cared for by the Center for Collections and Research: Saarinen House and Smith House.

Hoey Patch Collection at the Cranbrook School Library. Courtesy of Kate Covintree, Cranbrook Kingswood Upper Schools.

Like the Academy of Art, although not at all on the same scale, books from George and Ellen’s Cranbrook House Library were dispersed to the Cranbrook Schools Libraries, now comprised of five separate spaces. Following the Booth’s example, Cranbrook School Headmaster Harry D. Hoey (1950-1964) and Latin teacher George Patch (1928-1944, Emeritus 1944-1950) donated 120 books from their personal libraries to the School’s library in the 1950s, forming one of several special collections. Known as the Hoey Patch Collection, all of the volumes focus on an aspect of Abraham Lincoln or the American Civil War.

He Knew Lincoln, a fictionalized account written by Ida Tarbell, a progressive journalist, and published in 1907. The book’s custodial history is documented with correspondence from the author, written directly on the inside of the book. Courtesy of Kate Covintree, Cranbrook Kingswood Upper Schools.

Highlights include a First edition of The Life of Abraham Lincoln, the first full-scale biography of the President. Written by newspaper editor J.G. Holland, it was published shortly after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. Also included is a first edition, two-volume set of the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Ulysses S. Grant penned his autobiography shortly before his death in 1885 as a means of financial support for his family. It was published with the support of his friend Mark Twain by the Charles L. Webster Company (owned by Twain’s nephew).

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Clothed in Light: The Love Letters of Carl and Annetta Wonnberger

My darling, You are wonderful! I start with that because now again you have covered yourself with a light that sets you off from every other person I have ever known!” (Carl to Annetta, August 25, 1928).

The love letters of Carl and Annetta Wonnberger are among the most beautiful expressions of love, longing, and devotion I have ever read. With Valentine’s Day coming soon, it’s a perfect time to share with you some of their words that convey something of life’s highest mystery as it can manifest between two people.

Carl and Annetta Wonnberger. September 7, 1929. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Carl George Wonnberger (1901-1980) and Annetta Bouton Wonnberger (1909-1997) arrived at Cranbrook in 1929. Carl taught English at Cranbrook School until 1967, and they both founded the Cranbrook Theatre School in 1942. Their life is a love story of manifold paths. Their letters provide us with an intimate glimpse into the couple’s hearts in the two years preceding their marriage and the beginning of their life together at Cranbrook.

Annetta first met Carl in the Spring of 1926, when she visited the Storm King School, New York, to take the college entrance exam, which she failed. Carl, a teacher there, was the administrator. Annetta attended Drew Seminary as a post-graduate student and retook the exam in the spring of 1927, and that is when they connected. If sparks didn’t fly at their first meeting, they did at the second, as shortly after, on June 23rd, Carl asked Annetta to marry him.

Writing in July 1927, Annetta recalled that early evening in June—their walk in the woods, the perfect quiet except for the frogs and locusts around Black Rock, the ride back and the thunder shower. Annetta’s candid style of writing offers us quite a vivid sense of her character as well as a discernible process of maturation over the two years:

Carl, ever since I was a small child I have lived in a sort of fairyland of dreams and ideals. It was only natural, of course, that the people whom I met in real life differed from the creatures of star-dust and moon-mist fashioned by my fancy. And it has always been hard to realize the truth. But you, dear, there is no disillusionment about you. You are all I have ever dreamed the man I would love would be – and more. I only hope that I may be able to follow the road you’ve shown me, and reach the goal you’ve set.”

Letter from Annetta to Carl, November 30, 1927.

From 1927-1929, Annetta attended Smith College in Massachusetts, while Carl remained a teacher at Storm King in New York. They would meet up periodically, but the rest of the time was spent in yearning, which is recorded in their letters (sometimes more than one a day!).

Letter from Annetta Bouton to Carl Wonnberger, January 7, 1928. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives
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A Picture Tells a Thousand Words

Family was central to the Booths, and Henry Scripps Booth and Carolyn Farr Booth immortalized themselves and their children in portraiture.

Carolyn Farr Booth, 1950, by John Koch. Cultural Properties Collection, Thornlea. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. Bequest of Henry Scripps Booth and Carolyn Farr Booth to Cranbrook Educational Community.

Carolyn Farr Booth (1902-1984), who married Henry Scripps Booth (1897-1988) in 1924, was a devoted mother and grandmother who served as a volunteer leader within the metro-Detroit community. Henry Scripps Booth commissioned this portrait in 1950 from artist John Koch .

Henry Scripps Booth, 1961, by John Koch. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. Bequest of Henry Scripps Booth and Carolyn Farr Booth to Cranbrook Educational Community.

In 1961, Henry Scripps Booth commissioned this portrait of himself, again from Koch. In addition to these portraits, Koch depicted Henry and Carolyn’s daughters Melinda and Martha.

Artist John Koch (pronounced “coke”) was one of the key painters of the American Realist movement in the mid-20th century. His early art training was minimal. In the summers of 1927 and 1928, he painted and studied in the artists’ colony at Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he was influenced by the work and theory of Charles Hawthorne. Otherwise, Koch was largely a self-taught painter. In 1928, he went to Paris, where he stayed for four years painting on his own, never under a teacher. “The Louvre was my master,” Koch once said. Koch counted among his sitters not only the Booths, but also Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth II.

Henry Scripps Booth, 1922, by Ludwig Kühn. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. Bequest of Henry Scripps Booth and Carolyn Farr Booth to Cranbrook Educational Community.

Henry Booth’s pose in his Koch portrait mirrors an earlier portrait from 1922 by Professor Ludwig Kühn. Booth had this portrait painted in 1922 while on his 1922-1923 Grand Tour in Europe with University of Michigan classmate J. Robert F. Swanson. The cost was $100. Henry assembled photographs of the portrait being painted in his scrapbook, Pleasures of Life #5, in Cranbrook Archives.

Professor Ludwig Kühn was especially known for his lithographs and etchings. In Germany, the title of professor is awarded as an honorary title to people who do not necessarily hold a teaching professorship; Kühn received the title in 1900.

David Gagnier Booth, 1928, by Charles Benell. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. Gift of David Gagnier Booth and Frances Poling Booth.
Feet from David Gagnier Booth, 1928, by Charles Benell. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. Gift of David Gagnier Booth and Frances Poling Booth.

And, for one more portrait: David Gagnier Booth (1927-2020), one of the sons of Henry and Carolyn. According to David, and corroborated by one of Henry’s photo albums, the family did not like the portrait of young David painted in 1928. The painting was subsequently cut into three pieces: David’s face and upper body, David’s feet, and some irises. Henry displayed David’s feet in Thornlea Studio. We don’t know what happened to the irises (if you know their whereabouts, please reach out!)

Charles Benell, the Russian artist who painted the portrait of David Booth, lived in Detroit in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He was a long-time friend of painter Ossip Perelma, who painted portraits of other Booth family members. Benell attended the École des Beaux-Arts and studied under  Fernand Cormon, a French painter and teacher, who was also the teacher of Van Gogh.

Do you want more great stories about the Booth family portraits, and more? Come along as we open the doors to Thornlea, the home of Henry Scripps Booth and Carolyn Farr Booth for more than sixty years, for rare Behind-the-Scenes tours! Thornlea is full of architectural charm and artistic inspiration.

Led by the Center’s Curator, Kevin Adkisson, and featuring new research Kevin and I did over the past two years, the tour will explore the architecture of the home, examine its collection of fine and decorative arts, and reveal stories and photographs from the Booth family’s long life in the home. Used for a variety of purposes today, and rarely opened for public tours, the house will be specially staged for this event.

BEHIND-THE-SCENES TOUR

THE TREASURES OF THORNLEA HOUSE

Tuesday, November 30th, 2021
10:00am-11:30 am | 12:30pm – 2:00pm | 6:00pm – 7:30pm

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Collection Highlight: Walter Hickey Papers

Cranbrook Archives is pleased to announce a new collection available for research. An intriguing collection, it comprises the personal and professional papers, photographs, realia, and architectural drawings of Walter Preston Hickey, a student of Eliel Saarinen. Yet, while traces of key life events and relationships—birth, parentage, education, marriage, friends, and employers—can be found in the collection, Hickey’s life after Cranbrook remains largely a mystery.

Walter Hickey working in the Architecture Studio, 1935. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

A native of Detroit, Hickey attended the University of Michigan School of Architecture (1926-1930), during which time he worked with architects Albert Kahn (1928) and Thomas Tanner, as well as being one of the first staff members of the Cranbrook Architectural Office.

A Transportation Building for a World’s Fair, circa 1926-1930. A University of Michigan Class Project by Walter Hickey. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

He applied to study architectural design with instruction in city planning at Cranbrook Academy of Art, starting in September of 1932. He became especially interested in highway traffic control, which formed the topic of his 1935 thesis on the Waterfront Development for the City of Detroit. Hickey submitted designs to various Academy competitions and won a $10 prize from Loja Saarinen for design No. 13 in the Cranbrook Academy of Art Rug Competition in 1934.

Drawing by Walter Hickey, undated. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

After leaving Cranbrook, Hickey worked for various architecture firms, including Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls, and Clair W. Ditchy. After a short time with the Federal Housing Administration, he returned to work with Eliel and Eero Saarinen on the Kleinhans Music Hall project. He also completed private architectural designs for residences, including work on Ralph Rapson’s Hoey vacation home, Longshadows, in Metamora, MI. Around this time, he went to work at the General Motors Technical Center and continued to live in Birmingham, Michigan. And here is where his story ends in the collection.

Jane Viola Shepherd. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Although this is a very small collection, the diversity of content is rewarding for its ability to convey snapshots of his life in individual and unique items. It includes Christmas cards, such as one from “the Lorches” (Emil Lorch was the President of the University of Michigan Architecture School), a few letters from friends, and something of a typed love letter (on Cranbrook Academy of Art letterhead!) from Zoltan Sepeshy’s Secretary Jane Viola Shepherd to whom he was married on April 22, 1937.

A small series of photographs hold moments of his life and some of the people with whom he shared it, including his father, eminent roentgenologist (radiography) Dr. Preston Hickey; his wife, Jane; his teacher, Eliel; and his fellow Academy students. A series of snowy scenes of Cranbrook campus beautifully capture the quietness of falling snow with hints of sunlight upon the architecture and sculptures that were then in their infancy and are now historic.

The Walter Hickey Papers give insight into a short period in Hickey’s life and the Cranbrook of his time. It also gives us a lovely look into a life that was surely shaped by his experience at Cranbrook, but one that remains yet to be fully discovered.

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

A New Kiwi at Cranbrook

Since joining the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research in late July as the new Collections Fellow, I’ve been busy exploring. These last weeks have been spent learning the Cranbrook story, taking long walks through the beautiful grounds, and getting to know Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith, whose Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home will be the primary focus of my two-year fellowship.

Nina Blomfield with Eleen Auvil, Bird [Kiwi], c.1960s, in the Cranbrook Art Museum Collections Vault. Photograph by Kevin Adkisson, September 2021.

While there is much that is new and exciting to discover, I have been surprised to meet some familiar figures around campus.

I am originally from Auckland, New Zealand, but I come to Cranbrook directly from Bryn Mawr College, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where I’ve been a graduate student in History of Art since 2015. This historically women’s college and the six institutions founded by George and Ellen Booth have much more in common than one might first imagine.

Like Cranbrook, Bryn Mawr College was conceived as a total work of art: an aesthetic environment that would foster learning and mold young scholars into thoughtful and productive members of society. Major transformations of the College campus were undertaken in the first decades of the twentieth century, just as the Booths began building their vision for Cranbrook. Both institutions were founded on a deep engagement with the Arts and Crafts Movement and a shared belief that art and education were intrinsically entwined.

Christ Church Cranbrook under construction, 1927. Photograph by Oscar H. Murray. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Oscar H. Murray Photograph Collection.

Driving along Lone Pine Road, the architecture of Cranbrook forms a first point of connection between Bloomfield Hills and Bryn Mawr. The stone exterior and ornate windows of Christ Church Cranbrook transport the viewer to the same Gothic past that architects Cope & Stewardson imagined for their Collegiate Gothic Great Hall at Bryn Mawr.

Old Library Great Hall, completed 1907. Undated photograph, Bryn Mawr College Photo Archives, Bryn Mawr College Special Collections.

Further into campus, the organization of Cranbrook into quadrangles and cloisters, the use of hand-hewn materials, and the style of ornament make direct references to historical models. Through their architecture, both Cranbrook and Bryn Mawr, very new American institutions, ground themselves in the traditions of medieval and early modern Western Europe.

At Cranbrook House, the monumental entrance gates seemed even more welcoming when I learned they were fabricated under the direction of celebrated ironworker Samuel Yellin, whose stunning lanterns and wrought iron door handles were a highlight of my daily commute past Goodhart Hall at Bryn Mawr.

George Gough Booth and Samuel Yellin, Cranbrook entrance gates, 1917. Photograph by Kevin Adkisson, September 2021.
Samuel Yellin, lantern, c.1927-1929. Goodhart Hall, Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Nina Blomfield, August 2019.

Inside Cranbrook House, there are even more connections. Attending a meeting in the Oak Room, I was astonished to be seated in front of a beautiful fireplace surround designed by Henry Mercer of the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works.

Moravian Pottery & Tile Works, “Bible in Tile” fireplace detail, c. 1920. Oak Room, Cranbrook House. Photograph by Kevin Adkisson, September 2021.

Bryn Mawr is located close to Moravian’s headquarters in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and each of the College’s buildings is home to Mercer tiles arranged in a unique pattern. The little dragons in the photograph are adapted from fourteenth-century wyverns and recall the Welsh origins of Bryn Mawr’s name. The figurative tiles are sprinkled throughout the Old Library halls, where they often go unnoticed by busy students rushing between classes.

Moravian Pottery & Tile Works, floor tiles, c.1905-6. Old Library Vestibule, Bryn Mawr College, PA. Photograph by Nina Blomfield, August 2019.

Given the historical associations of these institutions with the Arts & Crafts, the artistic affinities between Cranbrook and my adopted home of Bryn Mawr are not wholly unexpected. But I was less prepared to be welcomed to Cranbrook by not one, but two compatriots from much farther afield!

Walking into Cranbrook Institute of Science for the first time, I was greeted by an adorable Apteryx haastii, the Great Spotted Kiwi, displayed in the ornithology case near the museum entrance. This fuzzy flightless bird is endemic to New Zealand and has become a moniker both for the country’s citizens and its most famous fruit. The Institute’s specimen has rare leucistic or dilute-colored plumage and entered the collection sometime in the 1950s.

Great Spotted Kiwi. Cranbrook Institute of Science. Photograph by Kevin Adkisson, September 2021.

Then, on my first visit to Cranbrook Art Museum I encountered another wee kiwi: a small bronze sculpture by Eleen Auvil, a 1961 graduate of the Academy’s Fiber department. Though dwarfed by the other Cranbrook creatures in the menagerie gallery of With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art Since 1932, Auvil’s tender modeling of the little bird instantly caught my eye.

Eleen Auvil, Bird, c.1960s. Photograph by Kevin Adkisson, September 2021.

As the Institute and the Museum both have their own kiwis, it is exciting that now the Center has one too!

I have enjoyed my first few weeks exploring, living, and working at Cranbrook. Even though this is my first time living in the Midwest, the connections between Cranbrook and my past homes—Bryn Mawr and New Zealand—have made me feel so welcome here. I look forward to making many more discoveries and to sharing them with you on the Cranbrook Kitchen Sink blog in the near future.

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

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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The Real Version of Orpheus and Eurydice

In early June, the Center’s Assistant Curator Kevin Adkisson and Collections Interpreter Lynette Mayman hosted the Cranbrook Kingswood Middle School for Girls students and staff for Greek Day tours around the sculptures of Cranbrook Academy of Art. Today, Lynette explores one of the myths central to the sculpture of Carl Milles: Orpheus and Eurydice.

The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice has many versions, most of them adding and leaving out various details. As in all Greek myths everything has a back story, and everything is linked. If you start to retell one tale, then you end up telling many more, which is how you might have been invited to stay at the palace indefinitely, recounting the myths.

These days many of these myths are known only in part, the grimmer consequences and endings forgotten or deliberately omitted to make them less peculiar and frightening.

Carl Milles’ Orpheus Fountain, well-described elsewhere, does not actually include the massive sculpture of Orpheus, though the model for it, once on display atop the column in the Arts and Crafts Court, is currently on display at Cranbrook Art Museum.

Carl Milles’ Sketch for Orpheus, circa 1926, on display in the Cranbrook Arts and Crafts Courtyard, July 17, 1945. Harvey Croze, photographer. Cranbrook Archives, Center for Collections and Research.

Ancient tellers of the myth include Plato and Virgil, but perhaps the best-known and longest version is from Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE) in books X and XI of his Metamorphoses. Ovid is renowned for relishing the lugubrious and not sparing the gory details in lightly tripping dactylic hexameters. He also gives us a rare glimpse into the how and why of tales which were well-known to his readers.

Ovid skips the early part of the myth where Apollo may or not be Orpheus’ father and how Orpheus plays his lyre and sings to the Argonauts to drown out the Sirens; he cuts to the chase, as it were.

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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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