Photographing the Rugs of Studio Loja Saarinen

In 2021, the home of Loja Saarinen at Cranbrook Academy of Art, which she shared with her husband Eliel, was designated as a site in the Historic Artists’ Homes & Studios program. As the team at the Center were going through the process of researching Loja, the too-often-overlooked designer of textiles, gardens, and clothing, we were constantly reminded that the rugs created by Loja and her professional weaving studio, Studio Loja Saarinen, were poorly documented in our records.

Studio Loja Saarinen made rugs, window treatments, wall hangings, upholstery fabrics, and more at Cranbrook between 1928 and 1942. Many of the Studio’s largest rugs were made for Kingswood School for Girls between 1930 and 1932. Because of the fragility of the rugs, and through natural wear-and-tear, almost all of the original Studio Loja Saarinen rugs were put in storage at Cranbrook Art Museum in the 1970s and 1980s.

Loja Saarinen, circa 1934. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

We have excellent archival records about the operation of the studio, including records of yarn orders and charts of the time spent weaving rugs (it was a lot!). But the rugs are very large, and often, we only had black-and-white photographs of the rugs on the floor in the 1930s. Color photographs were limited to poorly distorted slides, or photographs of portions of the rugs taken on early digital cameras while the rugs were half-rolled-up in storage.

We had almost no ‘born digital’ high-resolution photographs of Loja’s work–these are the best kind of photographs for sharing her work in slides, online, or in print. The lack of excellent, high quality images limited not only how we at Cranbrook understood and shared Loja’s legacy, but also made it difficult for students or scholars researching Loja Saarinen to get a complete sense of her artistic output.

This winter, as the Center prepares for our next fundraiser, A House Party at Cranbrook Celebrating Loja Saarinen on May 21, 2022, it has become mission-critical to get better documentation of Studio Loja Saarinen’s rugs.

Enter in our latest project!

On January 7, 2022, photographer James Haefner and his assistant Erik Henderson, with the help of Center Curator Kevin Adkisson, Center Associate Registrar Leslie Mio, Cranbrook Art Museum Registrar Corey Gross, Cranbrook Art Museum Head Preparator Jon Geiger, and Jon’s installation crew embarked on a very ambitious project: documenting all the Studio Loja Saarinen rugs in the Cranbrook collections.

First, we had to take the several-hundred-pound rugs down from racks where they are stored, rolled. Then, we covered the floor in clean plastic drop cloths. With a camera bolted via a vise-grip to the ceiling of the Cranbrook Art Museum Collections Wing, and controlled via computer from a remote workstation, we unrolled, photographed, and rerolled over forty works of Studio Loja Saarinen’s functional art.

No detail went undocumented, from weaver’s signatures knotted into the face of a rug, to maker’s labels written and sewn on by Loja herself.

Below is just a fraction of the forty-plus pieces photographed:

It was a joy to unroll and see these pieces up close after knowing many of them for years through black-and-white images. While even these photographs do not do justice to seeing their beauty in person, having such high-resolution photography of Studio Loja Saarinen’s rugs means that future scholars and fans of Loja Saarinen will be able to have a richer understanding of her, and Cranbrook’s, remarkable legacy.

For even more Loja Saarinen, join the Center in person or online on May 21, 2022 for A House Party at Cranbrook Celebrating Loja Saarinen. We’ll be premiering a new, thirty-minute documentary about Loja, produced by the Center, at the event–you don’t want to miss it!

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

Photo Friday: Greetings from Thornlea

The holiday season is upon us once again, and hopefully you and yours had a wonderful and safe Thanksgiving celebration.

Holiday gatherings were important to Cranbrook founders’ son, Henry Scripps Booth and his wife Carolyn, as evidenced by this card given to Henry by Carolyn in 1971. Although one of few Thanksgiving cards, it is an example of the many greeting cards included in the Henry Scripps and Carolyn Farr Booth Papers. Among those the couple gave to each other are cards which send greetings to family and friends from their home, Thornlea.

As we look forward to the holidays ahead, I leave you with the photo below, showing patriarch Henry Booth at his home, Thornlea, bringing in the turkey for what surely was a fabulous Christmas feast!

Henry Scripps Booth at Thornlea House, December 25, 1956. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Similar items from the Archives will be on display during the Center’s upcoming Behind-The-Scenes-Tour, The Treasures of Thornlea House, taking place next week. As of this writing, a few tickets are still available for Thursday, December 2nd – we hope you can join us!

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, 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

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

Photo Friday: Whatever Floats your Boat

Memorial Day Weekend marks the beginning of summer, and in Michigan, what better way to celebrate than with a typical summer activity: boating.

Florence Louise Booth and Warren Scripps Booth rowing on Glastonbury Lake (now Kingswood Lake) in 1906. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Florence and Warren are pictured in a rowboat at what was known as the Booth family’s summer retreat, two years before the building of Cranbrook House. In 1906, Henry Wood Booth recalled, “The millpond was enlarged and made into a lake by deepening and extending to the old millrace at the north-west end.” The lake was called Glastonbury Lake, after a pond near the village of Cranbrook, Kent, England (Henry Wood Booth’s birthplace). It has since been renamed Kingswood Lake.

Warren Scripps Booth sits in a boat near the original frame boathouse on Glastonbury Lake (now Kingswood Lake) in 1906. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

So, as summer begins, remember to be safe while boating. Although Florence (4) and Warren (12) may be missing their life jackets 115 years ago, a new Federal Law now requires children under 13 years of age to wear one when a vessel is underway.

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

Carl Milles Gems from the Cutting Room Floor

Cameras started rolling Monday for the Center’s new film celebrating Swedish American sculptor Carl Milles, premiering May 22nd at A Global House Party at Cranbrook and Millesgården. Centering on materials in the Archives, the day’s shoot featured handwritten correspondence, photographs, sketches, scrapbooks, and oral history recordings that help illuminate the story of the man behind the many iconic sculptures dotting Cranbrook’s campus.

The film production crew captures closeups of materials featured in the film.

In preparation for the day, I mined several collections in the Archives that document Milles’ twenty years as artist-in-residence at Cranbrook and his work in America during that time. In the process, I made a few delightful discoveries. While most of these treasures were expertly captured by the film production crew (Elkhorn Entertainment), there were a few that just could not be accommodated in Associate Curator Kevin Adkisson’s masterful, but already dense script.

One of these items is a notebook from the Nancy Leitch Papers. A student of Milles’ in the early 1940s, Leitch, like many of Milles’ students, became friends with both him and his wife Olga while at Cranbrook. The brief diary-like entries in Leitch’s pocket-sized book date from 1945, and are an intimate glimpse of daily activities, remembrances, and artist philosophies recounted from shared experiences and conversations with Carl and Olga. A loose paper tucked inside and titled “Carl” is a bonus, containing hasty notes recording his birthday, recommendations of where to visit in Italy (Café Greco in Rome, the cathedral in Orvieto), and words of wisdom, such as, “It is better to be an artist even though you are poor.”

Part of an entry made by Nancy Leitch in her notebook. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.
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Observing Landscapes: Topography and Photogrammetry

One of my favorite items in the collections of Cranbrook Archives is George Booth’s hand drawn map of Cranbrook, which he created over a 24-year period between 1904 and 1928. It is the earliest topographical record of Cranbrook and visually documents his ideas and plans for developing the landscape. In 1951, George’s son, Henry, created annotations to accompany the map, which are useful both in deciphering the map and identifying locations. Henry’s notes on what was envisioned and what was implemented during those early years, are a good starting point from which to venture into the manuscript collections for verification.

Cranbrook Map drawn by George G. Booth between 1904 and 1928.
Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

As Cranbrook’s landscape evolved from a family estate into a center for art and education, the means of recording and viewing the topography was assisted by developments in aerial photography, known as photogrammetry. Talbert Abrams, a native of Michigan, is regarded as a key contributor to this field of photography, as he founded the Abrams Aerial Survey Corporation in 1923. The earliest aerial photograph of Cranbrook I could locate is from circa 1918.

Aerial photograph of Cranbrook estate and environs, circa 1918.
Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

In the Cranbrook Photograph Collection there are many aerial photographs taken by Abrams, as well as other photography firms, ranging from the 1920s through the 1990s. Since the purposes of aerial surveys are manifold, correspondence provides some insight into why they were commissioned and how they were specifically used, for example, as publicity and advertising. In 1932 Cranbrook’s public relations manager, Lee A. White, engaged Cranbrook School Headmaster William Stevens to select an image for the coming year’s brochure, and aerial views appear in all the early Cranbrook brochures. Aerial surveys have also been used to assess and understand the landscape prior to making a change to it. This was the case in 1961, when a topographic map and aerial photography were requested for the Off-Street Parking Study.

Letter from Keith A. Smith to Arthur B. Wittliff, November 1961.
Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

Correspondence between Arthur Wittliff, Secretary for the Cranbrook Foundation Board of Trustees, and Abrams Aerial Survey Corporation, provides intriguing details about the scale of the photography and the material base of the prints. The images below are from a December 6, 1961 set of 12 double weight velvet prints of aerials covering 1 square mile at a scale of 1 inch per 600 feet.

Aerial photograph ASP-5 taken by Abrams Aerial Survey Corporation on 6 December 1961.
Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

ASP-5 (above) shows the intersection of Cranbrook Road and Lone Pine Road, and includes Kingswood School and Lake, the Institute of Science, Cranbrook House, Brookside School, Christ Church Cranbrook, and the Academy of Art and Academy Way. ASP-10 (below) shows another view of Cranbrook and its environs, encompassing the Institute of Science, Academy of Art, and Cranbrook School.

Aerial photograph ASP-10 taken by Abrams Aerial Survey Corporation on 6 December 1961.
Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

When looking across the topographical history of Cranbrook from George’s map through aerial photographs, it is always fascinating to discern the changing landscape alongside the features that are unchanging. And, for me, the great inspiration of George’s map is that, although each individual project necessitated getting into the weeds and meticulous details, his ideas were always guided by situating them within a bigger picture.

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

De Profundis: Olga Milles’ Drawings of the Soul

Olga Milles lived in the very depths. In her art, almost exclusively devoted to portrait painting, she sought to draw out the character from the depths of her models and to find the soul behind the façade. Using a variety of techniques including charcoal, crayon, pastel, watercolor, tempera, and oil in her work, Olga was considered an artistic prodigy and developed her talent from a young age, yet her art is largely unknown. In 1988, twenty-one years after her death, Cranbrook Art Museum hosted an exhibition in collaboration with Millesgården, Olga Milles Emerges, to exhibit examples of her art from both museums’ collections.

In the foreword to the exhibition catalog, Staffan Carlén, former Director of Millesgården, describes her as having an intuitive talent that produced factual character studies of extreme precision, with an “overwhelmingly melancholic” tone. In reading Inger Wahlöö’s account of Olga’s life, based on correspondence at Millesgården, Carlen’s interpretation of Olga’s artwork can almost be read as a profile of Olga herself:

“Sparseness of shadowed areas and stretched areas disrobe the faces and make them appear in a serious, introverted nakedness. Her efforts are primarily directed towards interpreting the character of the soul. This she did with great coloristic refinement, and with tenderness in the form. In her drawings, there is consistently a sensitive enlargement of the mouth, sometimes in interaction with the dreaming mood of the eyes, sometimes as a tension-filled contrast of unconscious sensuality.”

Staffan Carlen, Olga Milles Emerges
Print of Drawing of Carl Milles by Olga Milles, 1917. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Born Olga Granner in 1874 in Leibniz, Austria, she had two brothers and two sisters. She had a deep loyalty to her family, whom she visited for several months every year, except during World War II. Having been born and raised in the Catholic church, she initially aspired to become an art teacher in a convent. However, in early adulthood, Olga questioned what it meant to be disobedient to the church and broke away, while cultivating an increasingly ascetic life.

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Swedish Sculptors-in-Arms: Soderlind and Milles

The Nona Bymark Soderlind archival collection consists solely of one scrapbook, yet its contents provide an intriguing glimpse of the woman to which it is dedicated. In doing so, it also illuminates a brief but prolific period in the history of the Academy of Art and reveals a personal side to one of Cranbrook’s most celebrated Artists-in-Residence, the sculptor Carl Milles.

Nona Bymark Soderlind, circa February 1936. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Born Eleanora Maria Bymark on July 16, 1900 in a small Swedish immigrant community just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Nona attended the Minneapolis School of Art (1920-1922) on a full scholarship, where she studied sculpture under Charles S. Wells. She later attended the University of Minnesota where she studied under the painter Samuel Chatwood Burton. In 1927 Nona returned for a semester at the School of Art, around the time she had her first child with husband Dr. Ragnar Soderlind. The Soderlinds had three young boys (two, eight, and nine years of age) when in 1936 Nona boarded a train to Detroit to study under Carl Milles.

Nona Bymark Soderlind works on a sculpture in Carl Milles Studio, 1936. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

A February 13th letter from Richard Raseman, Academy of Art Executive Secretary, confirms Soderlind’s visit to campus and includes details of associated tuition and living costs required for the minimum period of study with Milles. Cross-referenced with items in her Academy student file, it is evident she had been invited by Milles to study for a month and arrived on the 18th. Perhaps it was Milles’ 1936 commission for Vision of Peace, in St. Paul, Minnesota that had first brought them in touch with each other?

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