Behind-the-Scenes: Bringing Art, Science, and History to Cranbrook’s Tables

Eric Perry photographs work from Megha Gupta (CAA Ceramics 2023) alongside collections from the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Smith House and eggs from Cranbrook Institute of Science.

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.

Kiwi Nguyen (CAA Metals 2023), Iris Eichenberg (Metals Artist-in-Residence), and Kevin Adkisson (Center Curator) strategize in the Saarinen House studio.

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.

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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

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

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

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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Ted Luderowski: Head of Design, 1949-1957

When I was asked, last summer, to make an impromptu display about Theodore (Ted) Luderowski, I found an inspiring story that begins in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City and continues with a lasting contribution to the landscape at Cranbrook and its educational, artistic, and cultural ethos.

Luderowski first arrived at Cranbrook as a student in 1939 after being awarded a competitive scholarship to study architecture under Eliel Saarinen while also “delving into the problems of metalwork and ceramics.” Born and raised in New York City, Luderowski left high school in 1927 at the age of 17, later graduating in 1932 after taking evening classes. He continued to take evening classes at Columbia University, where he studied design, shades and shadows, and perspective. He also studied for three years at the Mechanics Institute (General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York), which was founded in 1785, where he was awarded the John E. Hoe Prize.

His initial instruction in architecture was through on-the-job training at firms, including the office of James Gamble Rogers. Luderowski was involved in designing schools, office buildings, residences, and institutional buildings, and in the planning of the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair.

Theodore Luderowski, November 1950. Cranbrook Archives.

Arriving in 1939, Luderowski entered many external design competitions during his studentship at the Academy. The documents around these competitions are always a rich resource for researching and understanding the relationships between student artists, their peers, and mentors. The documents held at Cranbrook Archives that outline the problem of the competition, who entered and with whom, the photographs of the submissions and participants, as well as personal letters, reveal the camaraderie between the participants—whether they were competing against each other or working on a submission together.

The competitions Luderowski participated in include the Radio Cabinet Competition (Fall 1939) with Edward Elliott and Vito Girone, in which Florence Schust and Christopher Chamales won 2nd prize; the Insulux Glass Brick Competition no. 4: A Newspaper Plant (with Elliott) (March 1939); and Insulux no. 3: A Dairy (August 1939), in which Ralph Rapson won 5th prize.

Aerial view of model for “A People’s Forum in Washington, D.C dedicated to the Bill of Rights.” February 1940. The team included Edward Elliott (architect), Theodore Luderowski (Landscape Architect), Tex Schiwetz (sculptor), and Margaret Garceau (Painter). This team won a second prize of $100. Richard G. Askew, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

More notably, Luderowski, with Edward Elliott, Ted Schiwetz, and Margaret Garceau, won Second Prize in the 14th Annual Rome Collaborative Competition of Spring 1940 (Jan 6 to Feb 10). The competition for students of architecture, landscape architecture, painting, and sculpture presented the problem of ‘A People’s Forum dedicated to the Bill of Rights’. It was hosted by the Association of the Alumni of the American Academy in Rome and the President was Paul Manship, whose work can be seen in the Quad at Cranbrook School, and the Secondary Vice President was Francis Scott Bradford, whose work can be seen at Christ Church Cranbrook.

After his studies, Luderowski worked as designer in the architectural offices of Eliel and Eero Saarinen before a period of service in the U.S. Navy as a Chief Petty Officer stationed in New York. He was stationed there with his wife, Ulla Ugglas, who had entered the Academy as a weaving student in 1940. Ulla, the daughter of Baron Gustaf Ugglas of Sweden, studied with Marianne Strengell and won first prize in rug design at the Fairchild Publications Weaving Competition in January 1941.

The newlyweds traveled in Scandinavia, Belgium, France, and England, where Luderowski studied architecture and design production methods, before returning to Cranbrook to work in the Saarinen offices again.

Ted Luderowski, left, with students in the design studio, February 1952. Cranbrook Archives.

In 1949, he became Head of the Department of Design at the Academy, which had been established in 1936 with instructor William W. Comstock under the supervision of Saarinen. While the initial emphasis was placed on design of interiors and their furnishings, after 1939, when Charles Eames was instructor, the courses became focused on “preliminary training in design for all branches of work.”

As an architect and furniture designer, a painter, and an exhibition designer, Luderowski brought a breadth of interests to the department which allowed the cultivation of a diversity of design problems, including his supervision of fifteen students in the redesign and mural decoration of the Academy recreation room.

Gate designed by Ted Luderowski, 1952, with Eliel Saarinen’s Nichols Gate, 1941, behind. Kevin Adkisson, Courtesy Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

In 1952, he was asked to design and create wrought iron gates to be placed on the steps leading to Shoe Falls, which are at the far end of Triton Pools opposite the Arts and Crafts Courtyard. In a letter dated January 3, 1952, Henry Scripps Booth suggests that the design should, “be thoroughly practical and discourage youngsters from climbing over the gates, we should also make use of the opportunity to embellish the grounds with an interesting piece of iron work.” Luderowski’s design for the gates is held in our architectural drawing collection and the gates remain in situ on campus providing a wonderful continuance of the founding principle of beautiful and useful.

While within Cranbrook Archives we do not have a discrete collection for Luderowski, who passed away in 1967, he is heavily documented through photographic materials and with supporting information in the Cranbrook Academy of Art Records and Publications. It turned out the impromptu display I was asked to make about Theodore Luderowki last summer was for his son, who lived along Academy Way with his parents as a child and had returned, decades later, as part of a group tour.

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

[Editor’s Note: This post has been edited to add information on Luderowski’s study at the Mechanics Institute.]

Cranbrook-LIFE

2020 marks ninety years of temporary traveling exhibitions at Cranbrook Art Museum. Perhaps one of the best examples that brings to life this aspect of the Museum’s programs is Cranbrook’s brief but wildly successful partnership with LIFE Magazine.

The Cranbrook-LIFE Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting opened in 1940, ten years after Cranbrook Art Museum hosted its first traveling exhibition, organized by the American Union of Decorative Artists and featuring contemporary interior design. The idea of temporary traveling exhibits at Cranbrook began the same year as the permanent collection was established by founder George G. Booth. It furthered Booth’s commitment to presenting contemporary art as foremost a learning tool for Academy of Art students. It was intended “to remind our students that art is a living thing and that the record of our times is being created from day to day by the artists of this age, and in so doing perhaps to stimulate the creative spirit among those who work here.”

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Judges examine paintings in New York, April 1940. Hansel Meith, photographer. Copyright Time Inc.

Cranbrook-LIFE was a celebration of contemporary U.S. art meant to symbolize “America’s increasing responsibility as a democratic world art center.” (Life, May 27, 1940) As such, LIFE invited sixty painters, living and working in America, to submit three paintings to be voted on by a jury of six. The painters included Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, and Cranbrook’s own Zoltan Sepeshy. The jury, comprised of Sepeshy, two leading art museum directors, an editor at LIFE Magazine, a representative from the Federal Works Agency Section of Fine Arts, and a well-respected American painter and educator, convened in a New York City warehouse where they spent four hours whittling down 180 submissions to the final sixty paintings shipped to Cranbrook for the show. One of these was Grant Wood’s American Gothic! Loaned by the Art Institute of Chicago, the already famous painting appears to be the only piece in the exhibition to come from another art museum.

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Opening night attendees arrive. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

If you’re at all familiar with LIFE, you may be asking yourself why a popular weekly magazine, known for its photographic general-interest stories, would make a foray like this into the art world? According to a 1940 TIME Magazine article, in the previous three years,  “the No. 1 U.S. source of popular knowledge of U.S. art has been LIFE, which has reproduced for the man-in-the-street’s weekly dime some 452 paintings (usually in full color) by U.S. artists.” Your next question might be why it was held at Cranbrook, as opposed to, say, the newly constructed Museum of Modern Art building in New York City? Florence Davies of the Detroit News may have answered that, when she wrote at the time: “Life Magazine picked Cranbrook not only because of the enchanting setting of the place as a whole, but more particularly because it found there ‘work in progress—an atmosphere of creative activity.’”

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Academy of Art students parade through the opening night gala reminding attendees of the student exhibition simultaneously on display at the Cranbrook Pavilion. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The exhibition drew an estimated 2,500 national and international visitors in the short two weeks it was on display from May 17-June 2, 1940. Because of the size of the show, it could not be held in the current museum building on Lone Pine Road and Academy Way (Eliel Saarinen’s museum building began construction during the exhibition). And, as the Academy student exhibition was currently occupying the Cranbrook Pavilion, the decision was made to utilize the Academy’s Painting Department Studios. Opening night was a festive gala. Attendees, including George and Ellen Booth, Loja and Eliel Saarinen, Edsel B. Ford, Albert Kahn, and “1,000 Detroit socialites braved wintry winds” in formal attire. (Time, June 3, 1940)

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Marianne Strengell, Charles Eames, and Richard Reinhardt. Richard A. Askew, photographer. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Coming on the heels of the Great Depression and during the beginning months of the War in Europe, pro-American sentiment was high, as evidenced by the placement of potted American-grown tomatoes in windowsills as decoration. According to TIME Magazine, the music for the evening was by U.S. composers and refreshments included “Rhine wine flavored to taste like U.S. new-mown hay.” (!?)

Cranbrook-LIFE marks the beginning of the Cranbrook Art Museum Exhibition Records, which illuminate thirty-six years of temporary traveling exhibits, and are rife with names of renowned artists that have exhibited at Cranbrook throughout its history.

It’s not all in the past, though! Don’t miss Cranbrook Art Museum’s current traveling exhibition,  In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969, on view until March 8, 2020.

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist

Milles: “Please do not knock”

A research request put me in search of Carl Milles this week. In the process of research, I noticed again a short letter written by Milles to Richard Raseman, Executive Secretary and Vice President of the Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1932-1943, which demonstrates a wonderful sense of humor:

Milles letter 1981-05 24-23

Letter from Carl Milles to Richard Rasemen, September 12, 1938: “Richard, Please Print in your shop following, [Please do not enter without knocking/please do not knock]. Big letter, thick bristol paper. I need 6 such prints. Carl.” Cranbrook Foundation Records, Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

 

While Cranbrook Archives does not have a discrete collection of Milles’ papers, there are many letters written by him to his friends and colleagues within several collections. For those minds that become curious to know more about Milles (who served as Head of the Department of Sculpture from 1931 to 1951), we have a subject guide to help in finding his handwritten treasures hiding within our collections. Milles’ letters show a great sensitivity to the recipient of his writing and his descriptions of the ups and downs of circumstance reveal a man of great warmth and fortitude.

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View of various sculptures in side Carl Milles’ studio at Cranbrook Academy of Art, c. 1940. Harvey Croze, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

I am often inclined to read the letters of an artist or historical figure alongside a study of their work in the world–what a person writes and how they write it provides a wonderful glimpse into a person, and enhances an understanding of the context of their work and deeds.

Cranbrook has many offerings for things to do this summer–through the Center for Collections and Research, Cranbrook House and Gardens, Cranbrook Art Museum, and the Institute of Science. There is something for everyone, and while you are here you can use this guide to walk and view the Milles sculptures on the Academy’s campus.

– Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

Photo Friday: Academy of Art Graduation Day

Congratulations to the Cranbrook Academy of Art students who graduated with their MFA’s and MArch’s today! The ceremony was held in Christ Church Cranbrook, after too much rain water-logged the Greek Theater. Did you know the ceremony used to be held in the library?

Although the Academy welcomed students in 1932, it first granted degrees in 1942 after being chartered by the State of Michigan as an institution of higher learning.

AA2349 (002)

Cranbrook Academy of Art Convocation in the Academy of Art Library, May 1948. Harvey Croze, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

The first convocations were held in the Academy Library. Here, in 1948, we see Henry Scripps Booth speaking, with Zoltan Sepeshy seated to his far left and Carl Milles and Eliel Saarinen to Booth’s right. In the foreground of the image, bursting with blooms, is Maija Grotell’s blue and platinum vase of around 1943.

– Kevin Adkisson, 2016-2019 Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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