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.

Continue reading

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.]

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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:

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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.

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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

Sisu, the Amazing Maija Grotell

Sisu is a Finnish concept described as stoic determination, a tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery, resilience; it is also the word weaver Marianne Strengell used to describe her friend Maija Grotell.

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Maija Grotell at Cranbrook Academy of Art Faculty Breakfast, 1939. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Maija Grotell was born August 19, 1899, in Helsinki, Finland. She studied painting and sculpture in Helsinki, graduating in 1920. While working at a textile firm as an artist, she completed six years of graduate work in ceramics (1920-1926) under Alfred William Finch, a noted Belgian ceramicist and painter who practiced in Finland.

In October 1927, Grotell immigrated to the United States, settling in New York where she studied for one summer under Charles Fergus Binns. Her first employment was as an Instructor at Inwood Pottery Studios in New York City (1927-1928). She went on to teach children at the Union Settlement (1928-1929) and at the Henry Street Craft School Settlement (1929-1937), both in New York. While teaching ceramics and researching glazes, Grotell was also exhibiting and selling her own ceramics. From 1937 to 1938, Grotell was a ceramics instructor and research assistant at the Department of Ceramics at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. She became a naturalized United States citizen in 1934.

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Maija Grotell in the Cranbrook Academy of Art Ceramics Studio. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Maija Grotell was one of the most significant potters working independently during the late 1930s. Although a relatively large number of women played important roles in the art pottery movement in the early twentieth century, few female ceramists were active between the first and second World War. Grotell was one of the exceptions.

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Maija Grotell at work. From the Maija Grotell Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

As Eliel Saarinen’s complex of buildings at Cranbrook began to take shape, he sought out distinguished artists and craftspeople to work in the studios. Impressed with a gallery exhibition of Grotell’s work, Saarinen envisioned her ceramics contributing to the architecture of Cranbrook. In the fall of 1938, Saarinen invited Grotell to join himself, Carl Milles, and Marianne Strengell at the Cranbrook Academy of Art as head of the ceramics department, a position she held until her retirement in 1966.

Grotell described the way she worked as such, “I always have something I am aiming at, and I keep on. I do not sketch on paper, I sketch in clay. So if it is not what I want, I make another one and keep on. In that way I have many similar pieces. My reason is not for repeating, but for improving.”

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Maija Grotell overlooks her students in the Cranbrook Academy of Art Ceramics Studio, 1939. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

In her teaching, Grotell emphasized ceramics as a medium of artistic expression. Many students trained by her went into teaching and were integral to the development of America’s university ceramics programs following World War II. In her twenty-eight years at Cranbrook, her students included Richard DeVore, Toshiko Takaezu, John Glick, Susanne Stephenson, Lydia Kahn Winston Malbin, and Jeff Schlanger.

Of Grotell, Takaezu said, “Majia’s astute, honest, sharp criticism would sometimes fall into place months later, but it was always true. Maija didn’t say very much and what she didn’t say was as important as what she did say, once you realized she was thoroughly aware of everything you did.”

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Under This Roof Six Dreams Were Dreamed and All Came True – 1908, 1961. Commissioned by Henry Scripps Booth and executed by Maija Grotell, the vessel commemorates the founding of Cranbrook. Courtesy of the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Her “astute, honest, sharp criticism” may have been what Marianne Strengell was thinking of when she started calling her Sisu. She had the tenacity to tell her students the truth; no holding back to spare feelings.

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“MG” signature on the bottom of a vessel at the Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House. Courtesy of the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Throughout her career, Grotell actively engaged in research on glazes. She developed copper reds, ash glazes, intense blues, and crackle glazes. One of her original discoveries was the use of chromium and iron in place of uranium to produce a brilliant orange glaze. Her work opened the door to the architectural uses of glazed, colored bricks in midcentury architecture, including those used by Eero Saarinen at the General Motors Technical Center (1953-1955).

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A glaze recipe from the Maija Grotell Papers in Cranbrook Archives.

She died on December 6, 1973, in Pontiac, Michigan, but Grotell’s glaze formulas remain a large part of her legacy. Another legacy came in 1977: the “Arts & Craft Court” at the Cranbrook Academy of Art was renamed the “Maija Grotell Court” in her honor.

Exceptional that such a strong, well-respected woman was so influential at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in its formative years as well as the art world.

– Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar

Links:

Maija Grotell Papers, Cranbrook Archives, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

“Mary, Maija, and Toshiko: Re-Thinking Open Storage in the Collections Wing.” Cranbrook Kitchen Sink. Website.

The Marks Project, The Dictionary of American Studio Ceramics, 1946 Onward. Website.

The Multiple-George Theory

From my office window in Cranbrook House, I have a great view of the motor court. I can see the comings and goings of the house: coworkers rushing to meetings, facilities moving tools and tables, the busy bees of the Cranbrook House and Gardens Auxiliary at work, and visitors to the campus exploring the house and grounds.

As guests walk around finding flowers, sculptures, and fountains, I always see them step up to the locked side entrance of the house and try and figure out one of the most unusual pieces of art at Cranbrook: George Washington brandishing a flyswatter over George Booth. DSC_0523The acrylic painting, set within a blind window, shows George Booth napping on the daybed in his Still Room (those guests who’ve been on a Cranbrook House tour know the Still Room’s daybed is literally right behind this wall). Behind him is the ghostly figure of Washington, holding a copy of the July 4, 1776, Philadelphia Gazette and his swatter. It is a (not-terribly-convincing) trompe-l’œil fitted within the existing window frame. The 47×22” painting was completed in 1976 by Academy student Gregory High (MFA, Painting, 1977). George and GeorgeHenry Scripps Booth commissioned the painting while he was serving as a Cranbrook Educational Community trustee and while he was using George’s office suite for his own offices. He told the alumni magazine, the window commemorates “the long list of founders who seized opportunities that have been bequeathed to them from those who have gone before.”

Further, Henry explained that “there is at least one fly in almost every organizational ointment as well as in many of our best dreams…Those pesky flys require a decisive swat by a person of intuition and experience of historical perspective. George Washington, in a haze of tradition, plays that part of this bit of symbolic fantasy.”

Henry commissioned the painting as part of the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976, and it was revealed on Cranbrook’s Founders Day by George and Ellen’s three-year-old great-great-granddaughter Stephanie Booth, who was dressed in an 1867 dress belonging to Ellen.

The Cranbrook Quarterly (Fall 1976) wrote, “[the painting] could be considered one of the more unusual commemorations of the Bicentennial because it…develops the ‘multiple-George theory’ of Cranbrook’s—and the nation’s—founding.” Henry told the Quarterly that he “hoped that this window will be enjoyed by the passerby as it would be by Cranbrook’s founders if they were suddenly to come upon it and discover one of them was being spoofed.”

I can certainly attest that the painting gets a lot of looks and begs a lot of questions from the viewer. It’s one of the strangest—and most accessible—works on campus.

Happy Fourth of July everyone!

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

From Drawing to Driftwood: The Artwork of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell

During the Archive’s Reading Room relocation at Cranbrook Art Museum, we have been digitizing negatives for preservation and access. This has enabled a new collection for CONTENTdm which highlights the artwork of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell (1911-1977). There are thirty images so far, with more being added soon. Five of Mitchell’s paintings can also be viewed during tours through Saarinen House: Presidents/Residents, 1946-1994.

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Wally Mitchell in his studio, early 1940s. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The collection features images of the rich diversity of Mitchell’s artwork, from his early drawings and still life paintings to his later geometric abstract works and painting-constructions. Mitchell’s later works include many driftwood sculptures and Plexiglas paintings.

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Driftwood in Three Sections, 1965. Estate of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

In 1946, two of his paintings were included in the European Exhibition of the Guggenheim-funded Museum of Non-Objective Painting. These two pieces, with two other paintings added in 1948, are now in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Between 1950 and 1962, Mitchell’s work was frequently exhibited at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York. He was also commissioned to design murals, such as one installed at the University of Kentucky in 1962, based on his painting Turnabout Number One from 1952.

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University of Kentucky Mural, installed in 1962 based on a painting ‘Turnabout Number One’ from 1952. Estate of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Mitchell’s archival collection will be available for research again when the Archives Reading Room reopens in July. Mitchell’s collection contains professional papers relating to his studentship and work as an instructor and administrator at Cranbrook. It also includes interviews and correspondence related to Joan Bence’s 1983 publication, The Art of Wallace Mitchell. There are also audio-visual materials including negatives, transparencies, slides and photographs.

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Villa-Neuve-Les-Avignons, 1938. Estate of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Mitchell was born in Detroit in 1911. After receiving his BA from Northwestern University in Chicago, Ill. in 1934, he studied with Zoltan Sepeshy for a year (1934-1935). He then toured Europe before returning to Cranbrook in 1936 as a painting instructor. His career at Cranbrook spanned 1936-1977, during which time he taught Arts and Crafts at Cranbrook School (1944-1947) while he was painting instructor (1936-1956), he was Registrar for the Academy of Art (1944-1956), Director of the Cranbrook Art Museum (1956-1970), and President of the Cranbrook Academy of Art (1970-1977). A retrospective exhibition of his work planned for his retirement at the end of the 1976/1977 academic year became a memorial exhibition following his death in January 1977.

-Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

Sources:

Wallace McMahon Mitchell Papers (1990-21)

Chad Alligood, What to Paint and Why: Modern Painters at Cranbrook, 1936-1974 (Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Art Museum, 2013)

Joan Beehler Bence, The Art of Wallace Mitchell – Cranbrook’s Op Art Master Colorist (Unpublished, 1983, 1996)

Wallace MacMahon Mitchell, 1911-1977: a memorial exhibition of paintings and painting-constructions, 1936-1976 (Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Academy of Art, 1977)

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