Material Honesty in Saarinen’s Structures

Eliel Saarinen wasn’t much for philosophizing about his work. Cranbrook’s principal architect demonstrated his beliefs about architecture through the bricks and stones of his buildings, rather than through academic lectures or theoretical treatise.

When I give tours of campus, I often highlight the fact that in Saarinen’s buildings, a brick wall is a structural brick wall, and a stone column is a structural stone column. If that sounds obvious, well, it’s because architects are excellent at deception.

Bricks and Mankato Kasota stone pilasters at Cranbrook Art Museum. Photograph by Daniel Smith CAA Architecture 2021. Courtesy Cranbrook Center.

In the 1920s and 1930s (and straight through to today), it was much cheaper to build a wall of concrete block or wood and then cover it in a façade of brick, or to design a reinforced concrete column and then wrap it in thin stone veneer. Solid brick walls and true stone columns are more expensive and more limiting to the designer (you can build taller, wider, and cheaper in steel and concrete). Regardless of a building’s style, by the early 20th century most of our country’s institutional buildings were constructed of modern materials and wrapped in traditional ones.

This habit of facadism (a focus on the material appearance without regard to the structural reality) was abhorrent to devotees of modernism. In International Style modern architecture, then, architects simply did away with brick walls and stone columns—materials used in construction for millennia—in favor of concrete, glass, and steel. The structure and the appearance of the architecture were one in the same.

But at Cranbrook, with its deep roots in the Arts and Crafts Movement, Saarinen went the other direction. True stone and brick construction was integral to our founding ethos, and to Saarinen’s designs.

Detail of brickwork on the dormitories of Cranbrook School for Boys (Cranbrook Campus, Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School). Photograph by Kevin Adkisson, Courtesy Cranbrook Center.

While many of Saarinen’s contemporaries were dealing with so-called ‘dishonest’ forms of architecture (steel and concrete frames clad in traditional styles rooted in masonry construction), Saarinen avoided the problem of ‘dishonesty’ by building modern buildings traditionally. Saarinen did use concrete vaults and floor slabs, as well as steel trusses, but he connected these to brick load bearing walls and stone columns.

Adding to the unusual fact that Cranbrook’s brick walls and brick vaults are structural, the beauty of Saarinen’s brickwork stands out. He achieved a special blend of true engineering and true artistry. This combination of beauty and utility was key to the Arts and Crafts Movement, and to the form-following-function ethos of Saarinen’s modernism.

More simply, the brickwork of Cranbrook is a visual delight.

Patterned brick and Mankato Kasota stone bench at Kingswood School for Girls (Kingswood Campus, Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School). Photograph by James Haefner, Courtesy Cranbrook Center.

In Edward Ford’s The Details of Modern Architecture (1996), the architecture historian and professor writes that:

“Few Modernists were less interested in industrialization and standardization than Eliel Saarinen, and it is more than ironic that fate was eventually to place him at its heart, Detroit, and that he was to spend the second half of his career…at Cranbrook, fifteen miles from Highland Park and twenty miles from River Rouge, designing schools for the children of auto executives.”

Basket-woven brick barrel vault in the Arts and Crafts Courtyard, Cranbrook Academy of Art. Photograph by James Haefner, Courtesy Cranbrook Center.

There is much more to say about Saarinen’s brickwork, and bricks at Cranbrook more broadly. On October 25, 2021, I invite you to join me for the Center’s next Uncovering Cranbrook virtual lecture: The Bricks of Cranbrook: Humble Material, Monumental Design. I’ll discuss the history of bricks, where our bricks came from and what makes them unique, and, most importantly, revel in the beauty of the billions of bricks on this campus. And, after the lecture, join me on campus for a special behind-the-scenes brick themed tour!

Kevin Adkisson, Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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

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

A World of Opportunity: Ellen Scripps Booth Memorial Scholarships

In preparation for the Center’s upcoming seminar, featuring research on weaver Nelly Sethna, I became curious about an Academy of Art scholarship established in honor of Cranbrook founder, Ellen Scripps Booth.

Sethna had been a recipient of this financial award, which had allowed her to study abroad (Sethna was a citizen of India) at Cranbrook for one year, 1958-1959. Though it was Sethna’s artistic ability, not financial need, that earned her the award, she would never have made it to Cranbrook without this assistance, as indicated in letters to Weaving Department Head, Marianne Strengell.

Nelly H. Sethna, circa 1958. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Sethna’s subsequent successful career in textile design demonstrated the value of providing assistance for artists to attend the Academy. I wondered how many other similar stories there were in the Archives. I did not need to look past the first decade of memorial scholarship awardees to find plenty.

While the scholarship was granted to deserving artists in metalsmithing, painting, ceramics, and weaving in the ten years between 1951-1961, it was two fellow weavers of Sethna’s that caught my eye. They, too, had proven themselves worthy of distinction through their artistic accomplishments, but they, too, had financial needs that would have prohibited their attending the Academy otherwise.

Dixie Roto Magazine article featuring Katherine Choy, Sept. 14, 1952. Copyright The Times-Picayune, New Orleans States. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The first recipient of the scholarship was Katherine P. Choy, a Chinese expatriate and graduate of Mills College in Oakland, California. Choy came to Cranbrook in 1951 to study ceramics for one year as a non-degree student. She would spend near equal time in both the ceramics and weaving departments, under the dual tutelage of Maija Grotell and Marianne Strengell.

Upon leaving Cranbrook, she would enjoy success in both fields, first heading up the legendary Newcomb College Ceramics Department at Tulane University and later joining the design team at Isabel Scott Fabrics in New York. With fellow artist Henry Okamoto, Choy also founded The Clay Art Center in Port Chester, New York, which still exists today. Choy’s ceramics can be found in the collections of the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, as well as the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Tsuneko Yokota, circa 1955. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Another scholarship winner, and weaver, in the first decade of the award was Tsuneko Yokota (Fujimoto), for the academic year 1957-1958. A graduate of the Design Department at Tama College of Fine Arts in Tokyo, Yokota distinguished herself in fabric dying, winning several awards and a scholarship for an additional year at Tama as an honor graduate. At the suggestion of one of her instructors, and with a recommendation from Marianne Strengell, who knew her instructor, Yokota came to Cranbrook to further her studies in weaving and textile design. Unlike Sethna and Choy, though, Yokota stayed an additional year at the Academy and earned her MFA in Weaving.

By all accounts, Yokota lived up to Strengell’s confidence that she, “will most certainly have ample chance and desire to spread our particular brand of education and design in Japan,” working with celebrated modernist interior designers like Isamu Kenmochi.

Cranbrook Academy of Art scholarship announcement, 1960. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The Ellen Scripps Booth Memorial Scholarship was established in 1951 along with the George Gough Booth and Eliel Saarinen Memorial Scholarships by the Academy of Art Board of Trustees. Academy faculty, under the leadership of Director Zoltan Sepeshy, recommended these scholarships be granted based on unusual merit of work submitted rather than financial need. Academy administrative documents indicate that the Ellen Scripps Booth Scholarship Fund had wide support from not only Academy faculty and staff, but also many at the Foundation, Press, Central Committee, and House. Scholarship award amounts varied somewhat from year to year, (in 1953 they were evenly split between two awardees), but the scholarship continued to be granted until at least 1965. While these named scholarships are no longer awarded (and I was unable to deduce exactly why or when they stopped), scholarships and financial aid for talented students are still vital to the success of the Academy and its artists.

—Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Editor’s Notes: On Tuesday, June 22 the Center broadcasts live from Cranbrook and India for scholar Vishal Khandelwal’s examination, using materials from Cranbrook Archives, of a fascinating connection between mid-century textile design in the United States and India, as seen through the work of Nelly Sethna. Register here for this illuminating virtual event. 

Along with Nelly Sethna (1958-59), find early scholarship winners, such as Paul R. Evans (1952-53) and Howard William Kottler (1956-57) featured in Cranbrook Art Musuem’s new exhibit and companion publication, With Eyes Opened. Find details and purchase advance tickets to the exhibit on the Museum’s website.

Read a recent exciting announcement about new scholarship and financial opportunities for students on the Academy’s website.

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

Cranbrook Gets the Royal Treatment

Not once, but twice, Cranbrook has pulled out the figurative red carpet and with appropriate fanfare welcomed Swedish royalty to its campus. Anyone who knows and loves Cranbrook might not be all that surprised by this revelation. After all, Cranbrook is a very special place—the home of dozens of sculptures by Sweden’s celebrated sculptor Carl Milles, who lived and worked at Cranbrook for twenty years, as well as many tapestries woven by Loja Saarinen’s renowned Swedish weavers. But the larger Detroit community has also boasted a significant Swedish cultural presence.

While most Michiganders might be familiar with the role that Swedish immigrants played in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula mining and lumber industries, Swedes also played major roles in Detroit’s development, from the auto industry to the fine and performing arts. Not least of all were the contributions made by Milles, including his sculpture The Hand of God, which has stood in front of the city’s Frank Murphy Hall of Justice since 1970. The founding in 1963 of the Detroit Swedish Council by Charles J. Koebel (who, decades earlier, had commissioned Eliel Saarinen to design his family home in Grosse Pointe Farms), saw a concerted effort to promote Swedish culture in the area. It was likely the unique combination of Cranbrook’s artistic works and Detroit’s vibrant Swedish community that attracted visits from Sweden’s royal family on two separate occasions.

Program for the day’s activities. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

So it was that on October 26, 1972, Princess Christina of Sweden set foot on Cranbrook grounds as part of her two-week tour of the States. And sixteen years later, her brother and his wife, King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia, followed suit on April 18, 1988. Both visits focused largely on Carl Milles’ Cranbrook legacy, directly involved the Academy of Art and Art Museum, and were the result of collaborations between Cranbrook and the Detroit Swedish Council. Yet each visit had its own unique activities and sense of purpose.

Continue reading

Photo Friday: Weaving an Artist’s Tale

Loja Saarinen showing Eliel a cartoon of their hanging, The Sermon on the Mount, April 1941. Photograph by Betty Truxell. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. 

In this iconic Cranbrook image, we see our two heroes, Eliel and Loja Saarinen, posed before a cartoon (or drawing on paper) of their Sermon on the Mount weaving. This image was taken in the studio of Saarinen House on Cranbrook’s Academy Way. I’ve always liked the commanding pose of Loja as she confidently points out a detail within the cartoon to her husband. Her beautifully curled hair, dress with piped detailing, likely of her own design and making, and practical dark lace-ups show a woman with an eye for detail and style who’s also ready to work. Eliel, nattily dressed, looks admiringly on. Both stand in anticipation of this paper drawing’s impending conversion by the weavers of Studio Loja Saarinen into a monumental hanging of wool and linen.

Almost eighty years after this staged photograph was taken by photojournalist Betty Truxell, Loja and Eliel Saarinen and their studio are again in the news. On February 10, 2021, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added Saarinen House, along with three other sites, to its prestigious Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios (HAHS) program. Forty-eight sites form this national coalition of independent museums, including the homes and studios of Georgia O’Keefe, Winslow Homer, Frederic Church, Donald Judd, Daniel Chester French, Edward Hopper, Thomas Cole, and other canonical American artists. We are thrilled to be a part of this august group.

While Saarinen House is often identified with architect Eliel Saarinen, our site’s recent acceptance into the HAHS network celebrates the life and career of weaver, designer, and entrepreneur Loja Saarinen. This makes sense, both because the Historic Artists‘ Homes and Studios program is focused on artists (not architects), and because Loja Saarinen is a force of design talent all her own. It’s high time she gets her national spotlight!

I’ve always enjoyed comparing the photograph above to a study for one of Eliel and Loja’s great collaborations, the Festival of the May Queen Tapestry, hanging at Kingswood. In this weaving sample, we see another woman with the same grace, strength, style, and dark lace-ups as Loja Saarinen:

Studio Loja Saarinen Showroom, September 13, 1933. Photograph attributed to Richard Askew. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. 

It’s in this picture that we see the beauty and variety of products from Loja’s commercial weaving enterprise: rugs, upholstery, drapes, tapestry hangings, pillows and poofs. And although the ‘pillow’ at right is actually the Saarinen House bathmat, styled as a pillow for this photoshoot, we get a sense of the design and quality of work for which Studio Loja Saarinen was known. It is a well-deserved honor that her home and studio now join the sites of other great American creatives in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s HAHS program.

While you can see a complete directory of Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios sites on the program’s website or in their guidebook (Saarinen House will be in the second edition, eventually!), you’re also invited to hear about the program from its founding director, Valerie Balint, in a special talk coming up next month. Sign up now for the Center’s next event, Genius Loci: A Tour of America’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios on Sunday, March 14th, 2021, at 3:00pm ET. You won’t want to miss Valerie’s presentation of the program, overview of its member sites, and discussion about why (Loja) Saarinen House is the perfect addition to this special group.

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

Le Corbusier Comes to Cranbrook

On November 21, 1935, celebrated French architect Le Corbusier arrived in Detroit and promptly demanded to be taken to Henry Ford’s River Rouge Complex. That one of the world’s leading modernist architects wanted to visit Ford’s factory shouldn’t have been too surprising, as for the previous two decades Le Corbusier—born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret—had been advocating for a revolution in architecture like Ford’s revolution in transportation.

In his groundbreaking 1923 book, Toward an Architecture (or, as it was titled in its first English translations, Towards a New Architecture,) Le Corbusier made the famous claim, “A house is a machine for living in.” As he believed, “Machines will lead to a new order both of work and of leisure.”

Le Corbusier told reporter Florence Davies of the Detroit News that “Detroit is the logical city for the production of the houses of tomorrow, the pre-fabricated efficient mass-production house.” He went on to claim that it would be automobile manufacturers, not architects, who would “undertake the production of the homes of tomorrow” because they understood the problems of mass production.

But while Ford may have attracted Le Corbusier to visit Detroit during the his one and only trip to America, it was Cranbrook Academy of Art and its president Eliel Saarinen that played host to the great architect.

Le Corbusier, with pipe, and Eliel Saarinen at Cranbrook, November 1935. Richard G. Askew, photographer. Cranbrook Archives.

After seeing the Ford complex and a making a few stops downtown, Le Corbusier wound his way up to Bloomfield Hills. On display in the Cranbrook Pavilion (now St. Dunstan’s Theater) were twenty-four enlarged photographs, a selection of movies, fourteen building and city plans, and a single model documenting his work. These items were part of a small show on the architect open from November 19 to November 22. But the main event was Le Corbusier’s lecture at 8:00pm on November 21, 1935.

Delivered in French and translated by his American associate Robert Jacobs, Le Corbusier enthralled an at-capacity audience with his theories of architecture. He spoke of his work in Europe, including the recently completed Villa Savoye in Poissy. The focus, however, were his theories of city planning and mechanization. Le Corbusier used a sheet of tracing paper some 8- to 12-feet-long and pinned along the wall to execute large, colorful pastel sketches that illustrated his ideas of architecture and planning. This drawing was saved by the Academy, though it has since, sadly, been lost.

Installation view of Modern Architecture:
International Exhibition
at the Museum of Modern Art with Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye at center and in photographs on left, February 9–March 23, 1932. While no photographs of Le Corbusier’s lecture or exhibition at Cranbrook survive, it was likely similar to this installation. MoMA Archives.

Le Corbusier lectured throughout most of his career as an architect. As he told an interviewer in 1951:

I never prepare my lectures…Improvisation is a wonderful thing: I draw, and when you draw and speak at the same time, you create something new. And all my theory—my introspection and retrospection on the phenomenon of architecture and urbanism—derives from my improvisation and drawings during these lectures.

After the Cranbrook lecture, Le Corbusier was the guest of the Academy of Art’s Executive Secretary Richard Raseman and Instructor in Interior Design Rachel DeWolfe Raseman. The couple had both studied architecture at Cornell (Rachel Raseman was Cornell’s first woman architecture graduate) and resided at Academy Residence #3 across Academy Way from Saarinen House. In the morning, Le Corbusier continued by train to the next stop on his cross-country journey.

As the Detroit Free Press reported November 22, “With a few deft strokes Thursday, Le Corbusier, the famous French modernist-architect…sketched the vision that he sees through what is perhaps the most ponderous pair of eyeglasses ever fabricated.”

Le Corbusier in his famous eyeglasses at Cranbrook, November 1935. Richard G. Askew, photographer. Cranbrook Archives.

Alongside an earlier lecture in April 1935 by Frank Lloyd Wright, the visit to Cranbrook by Le Corbusier was one of the highlights of the Academy’s first decade. Reflecting in his Annual Report to the Cranbrook Foundation, Richard Raseman wrote that:

The Le Corbusier lecture, although delivered in French, was a good show, and as he is a world figure we were well satisfied…the public must have agreed with us as these lectures [by Wright and Le Corbusier] were by far the best attended of any of our functions…men of this caliber are rare indeed.

To learn more about Le Corbusier and his visit to Cranbrook, sign up for the Center’s History of American Architecture: Cranbrook Visitors Lecture Series! For the next five weeks, I will be discussing visitors, like Le Corbusier, who have lectured at Cranbrook since the Academy opened in 1932. From Le Corbusier, Wright, and Alvar Aalto in the 1930s through to Jeanne Gang, Greg Pasquarelli, and David Adjaye in the 2010s, I will tell the story of American design through architects who’ve spoken at Cranbrook. Learn more and sign up on our website. “See” you Monday at 11:00am or 7:00pm EST for our first virtual lecture!

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

A Fireplace’s Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Competition, Many Designs: Ralph Rapson and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

Of the 5,000 plus architectural drawings in Cranbrook Archives, one of my favorite series is the work of Ralph Rapson. His drawings convey a seemingly endless stream of unique inspiration, and his letters to his friends and colleagues are always wonderfully lively and convivial. Rapson’s work covers diverse projects including residences, embassies, businesses, and competitions.

Today, I want to share some examples from just one architectural competition to showcase this creativity: Rapson’s studies for his entry into the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial competition.

Ralph Rapson’s preliminary study for a submission to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial competition in 1948. This is very similar to his final submission.

A decade before the Memorial competition, Rapson had been invited to study architecture and urban planning at Cranbrook Academy of Art by Eliel Saarinen. Saarinen had been much impressed by Rapson’s submission to the George G. Booth Traveling Fellowship at the University of Michigan in 1938. After studying at the Academy between 1938 and 1940, Rapson collaborated on various projects with Saarinen and his associates before moving to teaching positions in Chicago during the early 1940s and at MIT in 1946.

Ralph Rapson, January 1943. Cranbrook Archives

In March 1947, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association announced an ‘Open Two-Stage Competition’ to design and execute a memorial located in St. Louis, Missouri. The first stage of the competition was open to all architects who were citizens of the United States and the second stage was limited to five competitors as selected by the jury in the first stage.

The competition brief was distributed to some 1,100 architects and students around the country. 172 entries were received by the September 1, 1947 deadline. Cranbrook Archives.

In the architectural drawing set for Rapson’s submission, there are nineteen conceptual studies. These have recently been digitized and added to the Ralph Rapson Projects in our Digital Collections online. Below is a selection of his studies that show the diversity and breadth of Rapson’s creative vision:

It is interesting to see Rapson work out his ideas in ink and colored pencil about what shape, materials, and structure might best serve as a memorial to Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and America’s westward expansion.

In addition to Rapson, Cranbrook alumni and faculty including Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Weese, Gyo Obata, and both Eliel and Eero Saarinen submitted designs. Of course, it was Eero’s monumental stainless steel arch that won the competition and remains an iconic landmark to this day.

There is much to see and learn from Rapson’s drawings for just this one project. As we hold sets of drawings for another 87 of his projects, stay tuned to the Kitchen Sink—there is so much more to see and say about Ralph Rapson.

Laura MacNewmanAssociate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Eds. Note: On Tuesday, October 27, 2020, Associate Curator Kevin Adkisson will deliver our next Uncovering Cranbrook virtual lecture. This month’s lecture, Eero Saarinen and Yale University: Education and Architecture, will examine the younger Saarinen’s time at Yale as both a student of architecture and designer of three important campus buildings. Tickets are available now for the 10:00am and 7:00pm EDT lectures.

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