A Fireplace’s Journey

One of the most stunning examples of art-in-architecture at Cranbrook is the Pewabic Pottery fireplace in Saarinen House. This massive, shimmering display of handmade ceramic tiles is the focal point of the living room and perfectly completes Saarinen’s vision of the home as a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art.

Yet the fireplace did not start at Cranbrook at all. It has a prestigious provenance one might not expect: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Eliel Saarinen’s 1929 fireplace, manufactured by Pewabic Pottery, installed in Saarinen House. James Haefner, photographer, 2015. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The Saarinen’s didn’t pick up the fireplace in The Met gift shop. Instead, it was designed and manufactured here in Michigan for a 1929 exhibition at the august New York museum: The Architect and the Industrial Arts—An Exhibition of Contemporary American Design. Under the direction of the Metropolitan’s Associate in Industrial Arts Richard F. Bach, Eliel Saarinen served as the principal designer for the exhibition.

The Met’s 1929 exhibition was a direct response to an earlier show: the 1925 Paris World’s fair, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. This fair launched several international design trends that would later be known as the Art Deco style (an abbreviation of the exposition’s name). The United States, however, was not represented in Paris—U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover declined to participate because, as he (incorrectly) explained, there was no modern art this side of the Atlantic.

But American visitors to the 1925 fair, including Cranbrook founders George and Ellen Booth and the Saarinen family, were transfixed by the new style on display in Paris. The show pushed American designers, museums, department stores, and manufacturers toward a modern aesthetic.

The Architect and the Industrial Arts at the Met was conceived four years later, in part as an American response to the Paris show. It was also intended to further advance an appreciation for modern taste in this country.

Entrance to The Architect & the Industrial Arts exhibition designed by Joseph Urban. Exhibition poster by W. A. Dwiggins. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For the Met’s exhibition, architects created a series of modern rooms. In addition to Saarinen, leading architects like Raymond Hood, Ely Jacques Kahn, Ralph T. Walker, and Joseph Urban participated. While quite elaborate and sumptuous compared to later iterations of modernism, the 1929 vignettes at the Met helped to educate the public about modern taste and décor. Although one of the goals of the show was to have the objects on display mass produced, the rooms remained luxurious, singular constructions.

Dining Room designed by Eliel Saarinen, featuring the fireplace produced by Pewabic Pottery, for The Architect and the Industrial Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 11 to September 2, 1929. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Saarinen’s dining room was considered by critics to be one of the most successful. Executed in shades of brown and tan, he created a dignified, formal dining room with furniture and objects of his own design produced by leading American manufacturers. In addition to furniture, silverware, glassware, rug, and lighting by Eliel, a hanging designed by Loja Saarinen (executed at Cranbrook by Studio Loja Saarinen) and wallpaper designed by their daughter Pipsan Saarinen Swanson helped finish the room.

The entire display was anchored by a massive fireplace, consisting of some 500 tiles stretching more than ten feet across the rear wall of the room. Designed by Eliel, this fireplace—which would eventually be installed at Cranbrook—was executed by the Pewabic Pottery in Detroit under the direction of Mary Chase Perry Stratton. Stratton co-founded the pottery in 1903, and by the time Saarinen’s fireplace was produced, she had already completed commissions at Cranbrook including the Rainbow Fountain (1916-1917) and Christ Church Cranbrook Baptistry and floor tiles (1926-1927). The Saarinen commission was unusual for Pewabic in that it was designed by an outside architect and not by Stratton herself.

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

The pottery described the color of the tiles as “deep raisin” and “silver,” a moderne colorway quite different from the mottled and iridescent glazes Pewabic was known for. Eight different tile molds (or shapes) were used to create the fireplace.

Detail of the Saarinen-designed fireplace, manufactured by Pewabic Pottery, 1929. PD Rearick, photographer, 2016. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The main surface of the fireplace is created from three tile shapes. The dominant tile is a six-sided polygon in the form of a 7” wide by 2¾” high equilateral triangle with each point cut off. The second shape is one-half of the polygon, used to create the straight vertical edges of the fireplace. Between each polygon is a small rectangle, just ½” by ¾” high, finished in a darker and more iridescent glaze. By laying the tiles in alternating directions, Saarinen created a series of zig-zag grout lines moving rhythmically across the fireplace. This zig-zag was picked up in Pipsan’s wallpaper at the Met, and later, in the Saarinen House furniture.

Detail of the L-shaped corner tiles with square depressions on the Saarinen-designed fireplace, manufactured by Pewabic Pottery, 1929. Kevin Adkisson, photographer, 2020. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Two more tile types form a silvery border around the fireplace. Circling the perimeter of the fireplace are darker, almost bronze, iridescent tiles 8½” long by 1¾” high and 1¾” deep. Along the front surface of each tile are eight repeating rectangular depressions.

At each corner of the border sit 3½” L-shaped tiles with three square depressions. These geometric motifs recall the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow or the Jugendstil designs popularized by designers like Josef Hoffmann. Similar square motifs are seen in the earlier 20th-century work of Saarinen in Finland. This L-shaped tile, with seven finished sides, is used for both the four outermost corners of the fireplace and the four inner corners around the firebox opening.

Detail of the Saarinen-designed fireplace showing all six of the front-facing tile shapes. Tiles manufactured by Pewabic Pottery, 1929. Kevin Adkisson, photographer, 2020. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The plinth of the fireplace is formed from six much larger Pewabic tiles, each 9¾” wide by 7¾” high and 2¾” deep. These tiles display the subtle color range, metallic iridescence, and richness of Stratton’s glaze recipe.

The last tile shapes are the most pragmatic: 7¾” by 3” tiles leading into to the roman brick firebox opening, and 7½” by 2¾” tiles that create a return running perpendicular to the fireplace face. These tiles allows the fireplace to project 5″ from the wall and negate the need of an overhanging mantlepiece.

If The Metropolitan Museum hoped its show would highlight the best of American production, Stratton succeeded in showcasing the power of handmade American ceramics. The entire exhibition turned out to be a blockbuster. Scheduled to be open for just six-weeks, from February 11 to March 24, 1929, its run was extended to September 2, 1929 due to popular demand. In the end some 186,000 visitors saw Saarinen’s dining room and Stratton’s fireplace as part of The Architect and the Industrial Arts, and the show became a defining moment in American Art Deco design.

At the same time as the show was on display in New York, Saarinen was busy back in Michigan developing designs for Kingswood School for Girls and continuing work on the nascent Cranbrook Academy of Art. This included designing his own residence, where Eliel planned to incorporate items from the Met exhibition into the interior.

Sometime between September 1929 and September 1930, the fireplace was dismantled in New York and shipped to Michigan. Like much of the work in the show, the tiles were paid for by the manufacturer, in this case, Mary Chase Perry Stratton and Pewabic Pottery. Instead of keeping or reselling the fireplace, Stratton donated the work to Cranbrook. As Florence Davies reported in The Detroit News at the time of the house’s completion, Stratton gave the tiles to Cranbrook out of an interest in furthering “the modern movement toward the creative design in the field of decorative art in America.”

The Saarinen fireplace installed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1929 (left), and at Saarinen House at Cranbrook in 1931 (right). Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

As installed at Saarinen House, the fireplace is 8” narrower than it was at the Met, or one polygonal tile narrower. Perhaps some of the tiles broke in transit, or Saarinen thought the original size was too large for the wall at Cranbrook? In addition to the fireplace and its bronze peacock andirons, Saarinen repurposed the rug from the Met exhibition in the Saarinen House dining room, and Loja Saarinen’s wall hanging was purchased by Booth for the Kingswood Headmistress’s office.

From New York to Bloomfield Hills, and from museum to private residence and back to a museum, guests continue to admire and appreciate the beauty of this fireplace and the unique collaboration between Saarinen and Stratton.

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

Eds. Note: This Sunday, we’ll be offering a tour of Mary Chase Perry Stratton’s own house! Located in Grosse Pointe Park, this is the first of our new Virtual Day Away experiences. Join me to explore this incredible house and learn more about Stratton and her Pewabic Pottery. Tickets are on sale now until 1:00pm EST on November 15th. And if you want to see the Saarinen House fireplace in person, you still can: tours of Saarinen House run Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 3:30pm EST through November 29!

A Tale of Two Chairs

When asked, late in life, about the furniture he designed for Kingswood School for Girls, Eero Saarinen referred to himself as “a child of my period.” Two chairs in particular show how the young, precocious designer was able to work in both traditional and modern modes. As designers in the 1920s and 1930s debated the merits of traditional and modern design, Eero worked with both.

Auditorium and Dining Hall chairs for Kingswood School for Girls by Eero Saarinen, 1929-1931. Cranbrook Art Museum.

He was just 18 years old when he began sketching designs for Kingswood in 1929.  Later that year, he departed for Paris to study sculpture for eight months. These two Kingswood chairs show an understanding of two major European designs trends of the era: the evolutionary Art Deco, with its roots in neoclassical design, and the revolutionary Modern movement, emerging most forcefully out of the German Bauhaus.

First, the Kingswood Dining Hall chairs. These birch wood chairs with painted coral-colored elements and linen damask upholstery are delicate adaptations of the ancient Greek klismos chair. The klismos form, which features curving splayed legs and a concave crest rail, became popular in late-18th-century Europe and America as part of the Greek Revival and the neoclassical style. The form again became a favorite among designers in the 1920s, when its clean lines and soft curves were used throughout Art Deco interiors. Kilsmos chairs were especially fashionable in Scandinavian modern design, with architects and designers like Aino and Alvar Aalto, Gunnar Asplund, Erik Bryggman, and Carl Malmsten producing versions of the chair. In fact, Carl Milles had a set of Malmsten-designed klismos chairs in his Cranbrook dining room. Eero Saarinen’s klismos chairs for Kingswood fit perfectly within the clean lines, rich materials, and Swedish Grace-styling of the light-filled dining hall.

Left: Klismos-stlye chair from Carl Milles House at Cranbrook Academy of Art by Carl Malmsten, manufactured by Firma David Blomberg, designed 1926. Right: Chair for Kingswood Dining Hall by Eero Saarinen, manufactured by Stickley Brothers Furniture Company, designed 1929-1931. Courtesy Cranbrook Art Museum.

Second, a chair that eschews historic forms for the avant-garde: the chrome plated, tubular steel Kingswood Auditorium armchair. Eero Saarinen’s cantilevered design recalls the furniture coming out of Germany in the 1920s, particularly the work of Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus. Breuer was a twenty-three-year-old student at the revolutionary German design school when, inspired by bicycle handlebars, he ordered tubular steel from the bicycle manufacturer Adler and built the world’s first tubular steel chair in 1925. Architect and president of the Bauhaus Walter Gropius was so taken with the initial tubular steel chair he invited Breuer to design most of the furnishings for the school’s new modern buildings in Dessau.

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Photo Friday: Underlying Principles of Beauty

St. Paul Chapel reredos. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

St. Paul Chapel reredos. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

In a letter to George G. Booth ca 1931, Detroit News Art Critic Florence Davies, writes of artist Hildreth Meiere, “All over the place she discovered these refinements of line, these essential underlying principles of beauty. I have taken many people to Cranbrook, never anyone who saw it with so much understanding.”

Meiere (1892-1961) was a distinguished Art Deco muralist, painter, and decorative artist. Her commissions range from the medallions on the exterior of Radio City Music Hall to the dome in the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C. to the reredos panels in St. Paul’s Chapel in Christ Church Cranbrook. Educated at Manhattanville, the Art Students League, the California School of Fine Arts, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and in Florence, Italy, Meiere was a renowned muralist, as well as an important figure in the history of American Liturgical Art, and a preeminent mosaicist.

“It drives me wild to be spoken of as ‘one of the best women artists,” Meiere wrote to a friend in 1936, “I’ve worked as an equal with men and my rating as an equal is all that I value.” In 1956, she was the first woman honored with The Fine Arts Medal of the American Institute of Architects. Although it has taken years for her work to be discovered and viewed in its rich cultural context, we are grateful for her artistry here at Cranbrook.

Note: You can view more information and images of Hildreth Meiere’s work here.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

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