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

Christmas Greetings for Marianne Strengell

Correspondence, including special occasion cards, are not uncommon in archival collections, but sometimes you find remarkable standouts such as the panoramic handmade masterpiece in the Marianne Strengell Papers. Measuring 5 x 24 inches, I invite you to click on the image below and zoom in to see all of the amazing details.

Titled, “This Way to the Strengell-Hammarstrom Gallery,” the card depicts a wall of portraits of Strengell family members, each complete with a short anecdote.

First portrait in the gallery. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

At the end of the gallery is an abstract portrait of “Marianne Strengell Hammarstrom ‘Our Birthday Gal’” (curious, since she was born in May!). The card is signed, “love from your Weavers.”

Portrait and greeting detail. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Since no real names are used and the card is not dated, the origins and meaning behind the drawings and greeting remain as yet unknown. So far, research has not yielded any definitive answers. What we do know, however, is that Strengell enjoyed a wonderful relationship with her students and developed many deep friendships with both students and colleagues such as Wallace Mitchell and Zoltan Sepeshy. The wry, irreverent humor that imbues the card certainly suggests the close-knit, sociable atmosphere Marianne experienced at the Academy. “In all a very happy studio and many wonderful, now famous students. For me, 25 marvelous years.” (Marianne Strengell, 1989)

Last portrait in the gallery. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Strengell’s students included Nelly Mehta Sethna, Ed Rossbach, Robert Sailors and Jack Lenor Larsen, but she also had students from other departments study with her. These ‘Minors’ as Strengell dubbed them included Charles Eames, Benjamin Baldwin, Harry Bertoia, and Harry Weese.

Letter to Mark Coir, Archives Director, 1995. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Strengell, in fact, highly encouraged interaction between the departments, establishing Open House Days in the weaving studio, as well as Weavers Parties, which were very popular.

Revelers at a Weavers Party, 1959. Harvey Croze, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Marianne Strengell was a weaving instructor (1937-1942) and head of the Department of Weaving and Textile Design (1942-1961) at the Academy of Art. She often worked closely with her second husband, Olav Hammarstrom, architect and furniture designer, whom she married in 1948.

Farewell dinner for Marianne Strengell in the weaving studio, 1961. Strengell is shown middle left. Harvey Croze, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

There are several other examples of holiday greetings in the Archives’ collections from Strengell’s contemporaries, but, in my opinion, none as witty as the one created by her Academy admirers.

May your holiday season be as merry and bright!

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

Collections Highlight: Benjamin Baldwin

A recent reference request took me into the collection of the architect and interior designer Benjamin Baldwin. While the bulk of his collection contains the drafts and revisions of his autobiography, An Autobiography in Design, his collection holds an abundance of historical treasures in the form of letters, drawings, and photographs. Finishing his autobiography shortly before his death in 1993, Baldwin dedicated it to, “many who have touched my life with the magic of friendship and love.”

Such magic is timeless and ineffable; yet, a glimpse of it is captured in the trove of letters written by his friends, his fellow Cranbrook Academy of Art alumni. Baldwin won a scholarship to attend the Academy while at Princeton, where he had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Architecture in 1935, and MFA in Architecture in 1938 following a year studying painting with Hans Hoffman.

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Benjamin Baldwin as a Navy ensign in Morocco in 1942. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Baldwin arrived at Cranbrook in 1938, the same year as Ralph Rapson and Charles Eames, and he formed a lifelong friendship with Harry Weese, who married Baldwin’s sister Kitty. The collection includes many letters to Harry Weese from Baldwin and others, notably Ralph Rapson, who signs himself “Le Rapson,” Wally Mitchell, Marianne Strengell, Eero Saarinen, Aline Saarinen, and Lily Swann Saarinen.

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Page of a letter from Ralph Rapson to Harry Weese, written despite Rapson being “not in a writing mode,” April 9, 1939. Perhaps unexpectedly, Baldwin’s collection has many letters connected to Weese but not Baldwin, likely because the collection was donated by Baldwin’s niece/Weese’s daughter, Shirley Weese Young. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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Section of letter from Lily Swann Saarinen to Harry Weese discussing the importance of letters and friendship, July 17, 1939. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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Drawing of an animal by Lily Swann Saarinen from the Baldwin collection, no date. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The handwriting and the composition of these letters open a window into their world, their ideas and projects, and their hopes and concerns for each other. Certainly, this correspondence provides richer detail, and perhaps the inside view, to information found in other collections, like Rapson’s early projects in Chicago and his design for Longshadows (the Hoey summer house). It also documents events that I have previously only seen in secondary sources, such as Wally Mitchell’s car accident over the Christmas of 1942, which is poignantly described by Marianne Strengell. It is also quite striking that the gift of art is not a “thing set apart” but pervades their everyday life.

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Postcard from Harry Weese to Ralph Rapson, c. 1942. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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Letter from Marianne Strengell to Harry Weese, October 1939. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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Section of a letter from Wally Mitchell to Harry Weese, with Mitchell apologizing for his letterhead, c. 1940. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

During his year at Cranbrook, Baldwin and Weese built a much celebrated and sought-after folding loom. In the Fall of 1939, Baldwin returned to Cranbrook to work with Eliel and Eero Saarinen and J. Robert F. Swanson on the model for the Smithsonian Art Gallery competition. The submission won, but the design was never built.

In 1940, when the Smithsonian work was finished, Baldwin joined Harry Weese in Chicago, where they opened a private practice (1940-1941). The same year, they also won a competition called ‘Organic Design,’ which focused on contemporary furniture. Following Navy service during World War II, Baldwin initially worked with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in New York before setting up an independent workshop, also in New York.

Although a registered architect, Baldwin’s career predominantly focused on interior design, including designs for furniture, textiles, chinaware, and gardens, which he loved the best. His aim was one of simplicity: flowing space and comfort to reflect the serenity that he found in nature. Baldwin’s designs for textiles and chinaware, filled with color and symmetry, are a truly wonderful part of this collection.

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Ben Baldwin’s award-winning Ritz chair, 1979. Cranbrook Art Museum, Gift of Ben Baldwin.

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An invitation for the opening of the Ben Baldwin Collection for Larsen Furniture, completed for fellow Cranbrook alum Jack Lenor Larsen, 1978. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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A design for textiles by Benjamin Baldwin, c. 1970. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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Ben Baldwin’s Flower Garden Series, c. 1970. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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A design for chinaware by Benjamin Baldwin, c. 1970. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

From 1973, Baldwin split his time between East Hampton, New York, and Sarasota, Florida. He died in Sarasota on April 4, 1993. He had just completed his autobiography and his niece, Shirley Weese Young, made great efforts to finalize its publication. It was published in 1995.

– Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

Cranbrook Up North

For many of us who grew up in Michigan, going up north during summer vacation was (and still is) something very special – a way to escape the hustle and bustle of city and suburban life and become one with the natural beauty it has to offer. Throughout the 20th century, Cranbrook scientists, artists, architects, students and faculty, as well as members of the Booth family, took advantage of the native woods, white sandy beaches, and waters of Lake Michigan.

Logo for Pinehurst Inn, Indian River, 1940. Cranbrook Archives

Logo for Pinehurst Inn, Indian River, 1940. Cranbrook Archives.

Shelley Selim, Cranbrook Art Museum’s Ralph and Jeanne Graham Assistant Curator, curated the exhibition Designing Summer: Objects of Escape which features Michigan designers and companies who have contributed to summer innovations including tents, boats, and bicycles as well as a summer home designed by Florence Schust Knoll. In response to the opening of the exhibition on Saturday, June 20th, I opted to post a few highlights of Cranbrook’s ongoing relationship with northern Michigan.

Dudley Blakely painting at group site, Bois Blanc Island, 1938. Cranbrook Archives.

Dudley Blakely painting at group site, Bois Blanc Island, 1938. Cranbrook Archives.

As early as 1929, staff and faculty from the Institute of Science traveled north to conduct studies of animal and plant life on the many islands in Lake Michigan – from Bois Blanc to the Manitous. Reports of these research trips were documented in photographs, field notes, and ultimately published in Institute of Science newsletters and bulletins.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Henry Scripps Booth took his family up north for several summers, often vacationing with friends. One of their favorite spots was Good Hart, where they stayed either at The Krude Kraft Lodge or the Old Trail Inn.

Carolyn Farr Booth and Chauncy Bliss on the Fire Tower at Good Hart, ca 1940. Cranbrook Archives.

Carolyn Farr Booth and Chauncy Bliss on the Fire Tower at Good Hart, ca 1940. Cranbrook Archives.

Communities like Cross Village, Harbor Springs, and Glen Arbor have been inspirational for Cranbrook artists and architects for centuries. Former head of architecture, Robert Snyder, designed an A-Frame beach cottage for Wally Mitchell, while architecture student Harry Weese designed a trifecta of summer homes (two for the Weese family) at Glen Arbor. “Shack Tamarack” (named after the tamarack logs used in its construction) was built in 1936 and is still used by Weese descendants today. Harry followed that with “Cottage Two” in 1939, a one story house designed with his brother John, and the Pritchard House which spoke to the modern aesthetic Weese experienced as an architecture student at Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Robert F. Swanson and Pipsan Saarinen Swanson spent decades designing commissions up north including the ultra-modern MacDonald Building in Harbor Springs, the L’Arbre Croche Condominium development, and the family’s own summer cottage at Menonaqua (along with son, Bob). Check out Shelley’s blog about Pipsan’s Sol Air furniture which is featured in the Designing Summer exhibition.

While architect Tod Williams (Cranbrook School ‘61) served as project manager for Richard Meier’s Douglas House project also located in Harbor Springs, other Cranbrook-related projects up north include The Munising Design Strategy Matrix – a community design project managed by The Community Design Advisory Program (CDAP). Established in 1987 by Design Michigan, a non-profit, state outreach program housed at Cranbrook Academy of Art, CDAP provided tailored community design and revitalization services to the city of Munising.

And, in 2013, Peter Pless (CAA ‘02) lead a design collaboration between the Human Centered Design Program at Northern Michigan University and the Lloyd Flanders furniture company of Menominee, Michigan.

Thankfully, there is seemingly no end in sight to the inspiration and possibilities of art, architecture, science, and plain old fashioned relaxation one can find up north.

Promotional Literature, Charlevoix Chamber of Commerce, 1941. Cranbrook Archives.

Promotional Literature, Charlevoix Chamber of Commerce, 1941. Cranbrook Archives.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

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