Stepping into the Smith House on a grim and wintry day, one is instantly enveloped in warmth. The warm tones of brick and tidewater cypress walls, and the soft, textured furnishings help to create a cozy atmosphere, but the real effect is felt through radiant heat rising from the pigmented concrete floors.
Underfloor heating was a frequent feature of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses. Concerned with elegant and efficient use of space, these modest buildings for middle-income families utilized radiant heating set into the concrete slab flooring. Warm floors prevented heat transfer from bodies to cold buildings and allowed the air to be kept at a cooler temperature than conventional radiator-heated homes.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s ideas about underfloor heating were adapted from the principles of the Korean heating system called ondol, literally ‘warm stone,’ that he encountered during his time in Japan. While working on the Imperial Hotel project, Wright was invited to visit the Tokyo residence of Baron Okura Kihachiro. After dinner in a freezing cold dining room, the party was invited for coffee in the Baron’s heated “Korean Room.” In his 1943 autobiography, Wright described the shift in temperature in rapturous terms:
The climate seemed to have changed. No, it wasn’t the coffee; it was Spring. We were soon warm and happy again – kneeling there on the floor, an indescribable warmth. No heating was visible nor was it felt directly as such. It was really a matter of not heating at all but an affair of climate.
Frank Lloyd Wright, 1943
Wright was instantly taken with this “indescribable warmth” and immediately specified electric heating in the Imperial Hotel bathrooms. On returning to the United States, he continued to explore the use of heating systems in both residential and commercial projects.
His first private home to incorporate underfloor heating was the Herbert Jacobs House, in Madison, Wisconsin, completed in 1937. The Jacobs House would become a model for Wright’s Usonian houses and an inspiration to architects and homeowners worldwide. By the time that Melvyn and Sara Smith began construction of Smith House in 1949, developers like William Levitt were popularizing the use of radiant heating in tract housing developments across the United States.
The Smiths employed engineer Clarence Toonder to help implement the heating plan designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s office. Blueprints show the copper tubing as it snakes through the L-shaped floor plan of Smith House, ensuring that every room would be warm and comfortable.
If you walked into Cranbrook House, Saarinen House, or Smith House this week, you might have noticed some surprising guests have arrived at the table. Your Center for Collections and Research team have been busy installing Brought to the Table, the fifth intervention of new work by Cranbrook Academy of Art students and Artists-in-Residence in our three historic homes.
This year’s virtual exhibition is a Cranbrook-wide collaboration that brings site-specific work from across the Academy’s eleven departments into conversation with objects from Cranbrook’s Cultural Properties, Art Museum, and Institute of Science collections.
Brought to the Table engages with the long tradition of functional art at Cranbrook and pairs new works of art with objects from the Cranbrook collections made for dining tables, coffee tables, desks, or side tables. Before the exhibition kicks off at the Virtual Opening and Lecture on March 27th, I’d like to give you a sneak peek at the exhibition process.
This was my first experience curating contemporary art and I was grateful to learn from my capable co-curators, Metalsmithing Artist-in-Residence (AIR) Iris Eichenberg and Center Curator Kevin Adkisson.
From planning with Kevin and Iris; coordinating with our wonderful Academy artists; selecting objects with colleagues at the Institute of Science and Art Museum; installing with the help of students; and assisting with photography, this exhibition took me all over the Cranbrook campus.
When Frank Lloyd Wright visited Smith House in 1951, he affectionately referred to the home as “my little gem.” Over the years, Melvyn and Sara Smith filled up their “little gem” with many treasures of their own. As I continue my detailed research into the Smith House collection, I am learning that even the smallest of these objects has a rich story to tell.
One such detail is a yellow enamel butterfly. For over 50 years, the butterfly has rested its wings on an artificial ivy vine in a small corner between the Smith House living space and dining room.
The butterfly is in fact a brooch, manufactured by costume jeweler Albert Weiss & Co. Albert Weiss began his career as a designer for Coro Jewelry before breaking off to start his own firm in 1942. Better known for elaborate rhinestone creations, Weiss also produced jewelry featuring enameled flowers and animals. My research has revealed that the Smith House brooch was part of a 1964 collection described in the New York Times as “a flock of butterflies that are meant to settle – one at a time – on the neckline of a dress or coat.” An advertisement for the collection shows the brooches pinned, labeled, and framed as if specimens in a natural history display.
It is no surprise that the Smiths were drawn to the butterfly form, as these flying jewels have captivated artists as diverse as Vincent van Gogh and Damien Hirst. The Smiths’ collection no longer includes the Knoll BKF ‘butterfly’ chairs seen in family photographs, but there are still other butterflies in the house.
Silas Seandel’s sculptural butterflies were formed form torch-cut metal and their craggy brutalist forms are attached to flexible wire that give them movement and life. On a windowsill in the guest room, real butterfly specimens take flight in a Perspex cube. Given the dynamism of these other butterflies, it makes sense that the Smiths used the enamel pin to adorn their home rather than allowing it to languish in a jewelry box. Instead, this ivy-clad corner created a kind of habitat for the butterflies.
Melvyn and Sara Smith filled their Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home with a fascinating mixture of objects. Over three decades in the house, they collected everything from finely crafted ceramics, handwoven textiles, and original sculpture to the kinds of reproductions one might find in a museum gift shop. This eclectic blend of mass-produced décor and unique art objects can be seen on the hallway shelves, where two sets of plates demonstrate two very different engagements with the artistic legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The center shelf displays a reproduction of the dinnerware used in the cabaret of the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo. The Imperial Hotel was a monumental project, commissioned in 1916 and completed in 1923. Frank Lloyd Wright conceived the hotel as a total aesthetic environment, a space in which all decoration was unified: from the carved Oya stone of the exterior structure all the way down to the coffee pots and sugar bowls on breakfast tables. Famously, the structure survived the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, although it was not completely undamaged as Wright proclaimed.
The porcelain cabaret service was designed by Wright and manufactured by Noritake Porcelain Company. Its pattern served both an aesthetic and practical purpose. The floating bubbles not only reinforced the festive atmosphere of informal cabaret dining (Wright had designed more conservative gilt porcelain for the banquet hall), the red circle at the lip of the teacup would also conveniently disguise any inelegant lipstick marks. Noritake produced replacement pieces for the hotel while the service was in use and continued to reissue the original designs for sale to consumers.
By 1968, the original design for the hotel had been significantly compromised and the building was demolished to make space for an expansion. Cary James captured the hotel in its final years in his book The Imperial Hotel: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Architecture of Unity. The Smith House library includes this volume and, slipped inside the front cover, a clipping from Ada Louise Huxtable’s New York Times article “Anatomy of a Failure,” a lament of the hotel’s destruction.
In the late 1970s, architect and Frank Lloyd Wright scholar Thomas Heinz began selling Wright furniture designs and reproductions of the Imperial Hotel porcelain. Although produced by Noritake, the original manufacturer, the legitimacy of the reissued dinnerware was contentious, and the service was the subject of lengthy legal disputes between Heinz and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The Smith Noritake is from “The Oak Park Collection,” dated to 1979. As a mass-produced reproduction issued a decade after the Hotel’s demolition, the acquisition of the service gives a small glimpse into the Smiths’ devotion to everything Frank Lloyd Wright. Along with copies of work by Marc Chagall and Auguste Rodin in the Smith House collection, the Imperial Hotel dinnerware speaks to a mode of collecting that was perhaps less concerned with authenticity than with aesthetic appeal and personal taste.
On the shelf above the Imperial Hotel dinnerware, a painted teak plate tells a very different story. This plate is one of a set of twelve that were designed and hand-painted for the Smiths by artist Val M. Cox. Each plate features a unique design of rhythmic arcs, segments, and overlapping circles in gold leaf, red and green enamel, and dark stain.
The geometric forms belong to a tradition of abstraction developed by Frank Lloyd Wright and the community of architects and artists that gathered around him at his homes in Wisconsin and Arizona. This community was formalized as the Taliesin Fellowship in 1932, an educational program for those interested in furthering Wright’s theories of organic architecture and “learning by doing.”
The Smiths maintained a lifelong connection with the Fellowship. It was a Taliesin apprentice who invited Melvyn and Sara Smith to first meet Frank Lloyd Wright. Members of the Fellowship aided in the 1950 construction of the house, designed the 1968 Garden Room addition, and continued to correspond with the Smiths about future projects (including an unbuilt teahouse and jacuzzi). The Smiths brought the set of undecorated plates with them on a visit to Taliesin in 1982 and asked Cox, then a fellow, to develop an original design for their table.
Although the geometric patterns of the teak and the porcelain plates harmonize, the circumstances of their production are quite different. One, a personal commission from an artist with an intimate connection to Taliesin, represents the meaningful artistic relationships that the Smiths cultivated throughout their lives. The other, a mass-produced reproduction from one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most well-known designs demonstrates the breadth of their lifelong interest in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. These two sets of plates symbolize the varied ways that the Smiths acquired art and filled their home with beauty.
—Nina Blomfield, The Decorative Arts Trust Marie Zimmermann Collections Fellow for Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, 2021-2023
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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