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

Come to the great hall, where the Yule log sparkles bright!

“Come to the great hall, where the Yule log sparkles bright!” is the jester’s call to commence the Christmas Pageant. Ninety years ago today the first Cranbrook School Christmas Pageant was held on Friday, December 20, 1929. Seeing a need for symbolism and tradition, Dr. Vernon B. Kellett, a Cranbrook School teacher of German, Latin, and Music (1929-1943), initiated the pageant to recreate an old English Christmas banquet as it is thought to have been celebrated in the baronial castles of the middle ages.

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Cranbrook School Christmas Pageant, December 1940. Copyright Cranbrook Archives

For nine decades, students, faculty, and select guests have gathered in the Commons at six o’clock in the evening during the last week of term before the Holiday recess, awaiting the Court Jester’s greeting and invitation to proceed to the Great Hall. On the occasion of the first Christmas Pageant, the great dining hall was reported to have been illuminated by thousands of candles at tables and in windows, where the candle flames gently flickered against the frosted panes, creating a warm ambience of bygone times. Mrs. Stevens, the Headmaster’s wife, was a contributor to the candlelit backdrop. Mrs. Kellett, Miss Walker and other faculty ladies wore commendable costumes, which were based on those of the fifteenth century.

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Cranbrook School Christmas Pageant Procession of the Boar’s Head, December 1940. Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Throughout the years, the pageant has kept tradition and followed the same program of readings, carols, and processions. To begin, all remain standing to sing an old Latin hymn, “Adeste Fideles,” followed by readings by the Chaplain. As the Chaplain reads the Christmas story from St. Luke, shepherds proceed through the dining hall to a manger scene. Old French and English carols are sung before the Chaplain reads the story of the Magi from St. Matthew. During the reading, three Wise Men appear, and more carols are sung. After the Chaplain reads “The Collect,” the glee club sings “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming,” and then dinner is served. The jester reappears and entertains for the evening.

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Cranbrook School Christmas Pageant Program, December 1937. Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Following dinner are three processions with carols for each– that of the Boar’s head, the Plum puddings, and the Yule log. Then enter the Mummers who perform the “Mummer’s Play.” In the middle ages, Mummers were amateur actors who attended feasts to perform plays. At the first Christmas Pageant, the mummers performed a dramatization of St. George and the Dragon, which was a popular story in medieval England and continues to be celebrated there on April 23rd, St. George’s Day. To bring the evening to a close, the headmaster gives his Christmas greeting and everyone sings the school hymn. Dr. Kellett, the founder of the pageant, also wrote the words to the school hymn and established the first Glee Club and soccer team for Cranbrook School.

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Dr. Vernon B. Kellett, October 1942. Copyright Cranbrook Archives

The first Christmas Pageant was reportedly a resounding success and all who had participated agreed that an inspirational and beautiful tradition had been established for future years. Indeed, it has continued an unbroken annual tradition for ninety years.

–Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

 

Craft in Time: Oscar Bach and the Cranbrook School Dining Hall Clock

For nearly ninety years, diners in the Cranbrook School dining hall have marveled at the clock that hangs high above the fireplace. Designed and fabricated by New York metalsmith Oscar Bruno Bach, the clock is a tribute to George Booth’s beloved Arts and Crafts Movement. Each hour is represented by an art or craft, ranging from metalworkers to woodworkers.

Cranbrook School Dining Hall, 1928. Peter A. Nyholm, photographer.

Cranbrook School Dining Hall, 1928. Peter A. Nyholm, photographer.

Oscar Bruno Bach (1884-1957), who was born in Germany, came to the United States in 1913 and established a metal design studio with his brother in New York City. As they built up their reputation and the business grew, Bach exhibited his work through The Architectural League of New York and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others. His work graces numerous churches, industrial buildings, and residences primarily in New York but also in the Midwest. His first known work in Michigan was ornamental metalwork for the Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Detroit (1915).

Bach was known for incorporating a variety of metals and metal techniques in his work. Cranbrook’s clock (1926) is made of four concentric iron rings with a center element (two male figures at an anvil) of repoussé brass surrounded by three brass “flame” rings. Each of the twelve figures representing arts, crafts, and trades are also made of brass, surrounded by floral elements made of iron. Copper was used for the rivets and for the small fleur-de-lis elements on the outer rim. Finally, the hour and minute hands are made of aluminum with brass rivets.

Detail of the center panel, 2001. The clock was restored courtesy Cranbrook Class of 2000.

Detail of the center panel, 2001. The clock was restored courtesy Cranbrook Class of 2000.

The clock however was not Bach’s first contribution to Cranbrook. In 1919, he fabricated lead “conductors” for the exterior of the east and west wings of Cranbrook House. George Booth also acquired a smoking stand (1922) and two table lamps (1929) for Cranbrook House, and commissioned Bach to fabricate Cranbrook School’s Peacock Gates (after Eliel Saarinen’s drawings) and the Treasury Door (1928) at Christ Church Cranbrook. Other local commissions include The Detroit Players Club (1925), Moulton Manor (1926), the estate of William Scripps (Ellen Booth’s brother) in Lake Orion, and the First National Bank (1927) in Ann Arbor.

One of the four Oscar Bach “conductors” at Cranbrook House, 2004. Mira Burack, photographer.

One of the four Oscar Bach “conductors” at Cranbrook House, 2004. Mira Burack, photographer.

One of the most interesting discoveries I made in writing this post was that the clock used similar elements as doors Bach designed for the new wing of the Toledo Art Museum (1925). They both feature arts and crafts figures – a potter, sculptor, glassblower, draughtsman, metal worker, and bookbinder. In January 1926, Bach received the “Medal of Honor in Design and Craftsmanship in Native Industrial Art” from the Architectural League for his design for the doors so it’s no wonder that he incorporated some of the same elements in the Cranbrook School dining hall clock. I may be a bit partial, but I think our clock is even more magnificent than the doors and I imagine you will too!

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

 

From the Outside Looking In

In the fall of 2015, one of the leaded glass windows in the Cranbrook Dining Hall was damaged. The window, one of many designed by Eliel Saarinen in 1927, is known as a lancet – a tall, narrow window, usually with a point at the top. The extent of the damage required that the window be removed and restored offsite by Thompson Art Glass in Brighton, Michigan. Yesterday, the window was returned and reinstalled.

The window, ready for reinstallation.

The window, ready for reinstallation.

Glaziers from Thompson Art Glass reinstalling the window.

Glaziers from Thompson Art Glass reinstalling the window.

An interior view of Charlie from Thompson Art Glass puttying the window. Photo by Giuliano N. Stefanutti, CKU '15.

An interior view of Charlie from Thompson Art Glass putting in the window. Photo by Giuliano N. Stefanutti, CKU ’15.

A putty knife and a steady hand completed the finish work.

A putty knife and a steady hand completed the finish work.

Watching Matt and Charlie from Thompson Art Glass work on the glazing made me think of all the craftspeople, artisans, and contractors who worked hard to create Cranbrook. You can find some of their stories archived on The Kitchen Sink.

Leslie Mio, Assistant Registrar

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