Photographing the Rugs of Studio Loja Saarinen

In 2021, the home of Loja Saarinen at Cranbrook Academy of Art, which she shared with her husband Eliel, was designated as a site in the Historic Artists’ Homes & Studios program. As the team at the Center were going through the process of researching Loja, the too-often-overlooked designer of textiles, gardens, and clothing, we were constantly reminded that the rugs created by Loja and her professional weaving studio, Studio Loja Saarinen, were poorly documented in our records.

Studio Loja Saarinen made rugs, window treatments, wall hangings, upholstery fabrics, and more at Cranbrook between 1928 and 1942. Many of the Studio’s largest rugs were made for Kingswood School for Girls between 1930 and 1932. Because of the fragility of the rugs, and through natural wear-and-tear, almost all of the original Studio Loja Saarinen rugs were put in storage at Cranbrook Art Museum in the 1970s and 1980s.

Loja Saarinen, circa 1934. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

We have excellent archival records about the operation of the studio, including records of yarn orders and charts of the time spent weaving rugs (it was a lot!). But the rugs are very large, and often, we only had black-and-white photographs of the rugs on the floor in the 1930s. Color photographs were limited to poorly distorted slides, or photographs of portions of the rugs taken on early digital cameras while the rugs were half-rolled-up in storage.

We had almost no ‘born digital’ high-resolution photographs of Loja’s work–these are the best kind of photographs for sharing her work in slides, online, or in print. The lack of excellent, high quality images limited not only how we at Cranbrook understood and shared Loja’s legacy, but also made it difficult for students or scholars researching Loja Saarinen to get a complete sense of her artistic output.

This winter, as the Center prepares for our next fundraiser, A House Party at Cranbrook Celebrating Loja Saarinen on May 21, 2022, it has become mission-critical to get better documentation of Studio Loja Saarinen’s rugs.

Enter in our latest project!

On January 7, 2022, photographer James Haefner and his assistant Erik Henderson, with the help of Center Curator Kevin Adkisson, Center Associate Registrar Leslie Mio, Cranbrook Art Museum Registrar Corey Gross, Cranbrook Art Museum Head Preparator Jon Geiger, and Jon’s installation crew embarked on a very ambitious project: documenting all the Studio Loja Saarinen rugs in the Cranbrook collections.

First, we had to take the several-hundred-pound rugs down from racks where they are stored, rolled. Then, we covered the floor in clean plastic drop cloths. With a camera bolted via a vise-grip to the ceiling of the Cranbrook Art Museum Collections Wing, and controlled via computer from a remote workstation, we unrolled, photographed, and rerolled over forty works of Studio Loja Saarinen’s functional art.

No detail went undocumented, from weaver’s signatures knotted into the face of a rug, to maker’s labels written and sewn on by Loja herself.

Below is just a fraction of the forty-plus pieces photographed:

It was a joy to unroll and see these pieces up close after knowing many of them for years through black-and-white images. While even these photographs do not do justice to seeing their beauty in person, having such high-resolution photography of Studio Loja Saarinen’s rugs means that future scholars and fans of Loja Saarinen will be able to have a richer understanding of her, and Cranbrook’s, remarkable legacy.

For even more Loja Saarinen, join the Center in person or online on May 21, 2022 for A House Party at Cranbrook Celebrating Loja Saarinen. We’ll be premiering a new, thirty-minute documentary about Loja, produced by the Center, at the event–you don’t want to miss it!

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar, and Kevin Adkisson, Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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

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