From the moment I entered Saarinen House twenty-seven years ago to give my first public tour, to my upcoming presentation for the Kingswood Middle School for Girls Explore Cranbrook students, I remain . . . simply enthralled. No more so than by the vibrant Peacock Andirons gracing the living room hearth.
Designed by Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen and produced by Sterling Bronze Company, New York between 1928 and 1929, these cast bronze andirons were paid for by the Cranbrook Foundation and entered in the 1928-1930 Arts & Crafts Building ledger on pages 40-41 (third line from the bottom)—Date: 1-7-30; No.: 515; Name: Sterling Bronze Co; Remarks: 1 pair/ Andirons for Saarinen Res[idence]; Amount: $152.50 (the equivalent of $2,631.50 in 2023).
The pair of birds are fabulous. Ready and alert, they face each other, ankles bent, balanced upon splayed toes.
In Part I of this post, we explored Cranbrook’s love of the book, from its origins with founders George and Ellen Booth, to the existing special collections at the Archives and Academy of Art. I invite you now to learn of the many rare, valuable, and historical tomes whose existence may be unknown to most or simply overlooked in collections at the Schools, Institute of Science, and two historic homes cared for by the Center for Collections and Research: Saarinen House and Smith House.
Like the Academy of Art, although not at all on the same scale, books from George and Ellen’s Cranbrook House Library were dispersed to the Cranbrook Schools Libraries, now comprised of five separate spaces. Following the Booth’s example, Cranbrook School Headmaster Harry D. Hoey (1950-1964) and Latin teacher George Patch (1928-1944, Emeritus 1944-1950) donated 120 books from their personal libraries to the School’s library in the 1950s, forming one of several special collections. Known as the Hoey Patch Collection, all of the volumes focus on an aspect of Abraham Lincoln or the American Civil War.
Highlights include a First edition of The Life of Abraham Lincoln, the first full-scale biography of the President. Written by newspaper editor J.G. Holland, it was published shortly after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. Also included is a first edition, two-volume set of the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Ulysses S. Grant penned his autobiography shortly before his death in 1885 as a means of financial support for his family. It was published with the support of his friend Mark Twain by the Charles L. Webster Company (owned by Twain’s nephew).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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 theWaterfront 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Interestingly, Eero’s later chair designs are all much inspired by nature—the Grasshopper chair, the Womb chair, and the Tulip Chair.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fast forward to 2020, where commencement existed only in the virtual sphere: on Zoom. Not quite an architecturally interesting locale!
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.
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.
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 immigrantsplayed 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 Councilby 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 VisitorsLecture 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