Does your family have a certain pose that they always do for a family picture? My cousins and I always had to stand or sit by the same log at our cottage each summer to get a group picture. Even when the log had disintegrated, and we were all adults, we still stood in the same spot to take the picture.
The Swedish weavers of Studio Loja Saarinen were the same way. After every rug was completed, they would unroll it behind the studio, lay it on the lawn, and pose at the end. This not only documented their work, but also served as a record of who worked on each piece. In Cranbrook Archives, we have a few examples of these images.
Cranbrook Academy of Art Rug No. 14
This rug lay in the center of the Studio Loja Saarinen Weaving Room. A flatwoven rug with stylized meanders in the border, and an elegant color scheme of dark browns, blues, and beiges, in form, structure, color, and design it shows the contemporary style of Swedish weaving that would become the foundation of Studio Loja Saarinen’s work.
This was one of the first rugs executed under the “Design and Supervision” of Maja Andersson Wirde, who was Loja’s right-hand-woman from 1930 to 1933. The rug is actually a variation of a design Wirde made for the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris (the “Art Deco” World’s Fair).
When Wirde wrote to Cranbrook’s secretary from Sweden before immigrating, she said she would bring along prepared designs and wool and linen yarns to be able to get started right away. She certainly did! Below, you can see Wirde and possibly Lillian Holm and Ruth Ingvarsson holding up the rug behind Studio Loja Saarinen just months after their arrival to Cranbrook.
Among the treasures in Cranbrook Archives is a manuscript that, although I can’t read anything written inside, is one of my favorite things at Cranbrook. Bound in handwoven cloth by the author herself, the cover hints at what’s inside. This is Ruth Ingvarsson’s weaving book.
One of two manuscripts written in Swedish and assembled by Ingvarsson between 1932 and 1935, each of the more than 100 pages discuss different weave structures, materials, patterns, and techniques. Who was Ingvarsson, and how did these treasures end up at Cranbrook?
Rut “Ruth” Elisabeth Ingvarsson was born on October 1, 1897 in Glemminge, Skäne, Sweden. Like many Scandinavian girls, she learned weaving first from her mother and then at school, graduating from the Glemminge Folkskola in 1918. In 1922, Ingvarsson began studies at the celebrated weaving studio of Märta Måås-Fjetterström in Båstad, Sweden.
Ingvarsson continued working for Måås-Fjetterström until 1928, learning technical skills including knotted pile rya or flossa weaves, rölakan flatweave, and a discontinuous (or supplemental) weft style of tapestry weaving known as the MMF technique. Under Måås-Fjetterström, Ingvarsson developed great skill painting watercolor sketches on graph paper in the popular “Swedish Grace” (or “Swedish Modern”) style. She also befriended another young weaver, Lillian Holm, who entered into the Måås-Fjetterström studio in 1926.
In late 1929, Ruth Ingvarsson and Lillian Holm immigrated to America to start work that December at Studio Loja Saarinen, Cranbrook’s weaving workshop. Here, Ingvarsson executed designs from Loja herself and other members of the Saarinen family, as well as designs by the Studio’s shop supervisor and prominent Swedish weaving expert Maja Andersson Wirde.
While Kingswood alumnae will recognize Studio Loja Saarinen’s largest weaving at Cranbrook, The Festival of the May Queen, did you know there’s an even larger piece by the studio off campus?
Ordered in connection with Eliel Saarinen’s commission for the Tabernacle Church of Christ in Columbus, Indiana (today the First Christian Church), the monumental Sermon on the Mount hanging was an artistic and technical triumph completed by Studio Loja Saarinen in 1941.
Interior view of First Christian Church, showing Studio Loja Saarinen’s The Sermon on the Mount hanging. 1942. Courtesy of Progressive Architecture.
The subject was chosen by the church, and according to their archives, the Sermon on the Mount was selected as a topic because it is “the ideal for human conduct.” The tapestry, they went on, would need to suggest “worship as well as obedience.”
Eliel Saarinen likely produced the sketch of the hanging, an unsigned colored pencil and gouache drawing now in Cranbrook Art Museum. Interestingly, this is the only textile with a religious subject to come out of the Saarinen studio.
The small sketch was then enlarged onto full-size paper mock-ups, which allowed the Saarinens to review and edit the design and provided direction to the weavers at the loom.
Thirteen patterned and colorfully-robed worshipers in two rows stand looking toward Christ, rendered in all white yarn on a cream background. Christ is surrounded by arcs and beams of white light that masterfully descend throughout the hanging, adding a rich depth to the composition.
Much like The Festival of the May Queen, the weaving is subdivided asymmetrically into rectangular shapes of varying dimensions by rhythmic bands of alternating rust, coral, and gold. These lines link into the scene’s landscape, which is made up of a series of highly stylized branches connecting green and white masses. These color-blocks sometimes read like meadows or hills; in other places, the green reads like flowering shrubs, climbing vines, or a branching tree. In the lower fields are sheep, as the tapestry moves up, birds rest within the branches.
These climbing, abstract elements helps provide movement and energy to the tapestry, balancing the white radiance of the Christ-figure with the wonder of nature. The movement of the geometric green, rust, and white blocks courses between the worshipers, much like the swag of triangles (are they flowers, butterflies, or perhaps something more abstract?) that flow through the maiden’s hands in the Festival of the May Queen hanging at Kingswood.
The Columbus tapestry was woven by two Swedish weavers who’d worked for Studio Loja Saarinen (intermittently) since 1929: Lillian Holm, who also taught at Kingswood from 1933 until 1966, and Ruth Ingvarson. After previous projects for Loja Saarinen had been met with less-than-thorough credit given to the weavers themselves, Holm and Ingvarson demanded acknowledgement from Loja Saarinen in the press materials, as well as on the weaving itself–supposedly, Holm wove her name into the tapestry in multiple places.
After Holm and Ingvarson had completed their work at the loom, Loja worked on the hanging for weeks, unrolling it section by section on a large table in her studio and accentuating the colors through the inlay of additional threads into the primary weave. This was possible because of the discontinuous weft, known as the Handarbetes Vanner (H.V.) technique after the Stockholm school where it was developed, used in all of Studio Loja Saarinen’s large hangings.
The hanging is labeled on the reverse, with an ink-signed piece of appliqued fabric label listing Eliel, Loja, Lillian, and Ruth and their roles. Everyone’s names were also included in the invitation to the hanging’s reveal at Cranbrook in the winter of 1942, where it was displayed in the forty-foot high studio of Carl Milles.
Cranbrook neighbor and diarist Kate Thompson Bromley described the event in February 1942:
“It had been months in the weaving…One of the biggest tapestries woven in this country, and probably as beautiful as any, for the colors are soft and rich. The large studio [Carl Milles’] was the only place with a high enough ceiling at Cranbrook to hang it. At the end of that huge room it was decorative and glowing. It must have been a great happiness to the weavers to see it in place, for as they could only judge the section on which they were working.”
Once installed in Indiana, the weaving completed the remarkable church by Eliel Saarinen. Protected by curtains meant to shield the hanging from light and smoke, The Sermon on the Mount hangs opposite a wooden organ screen, which itself reads like a tapestry. Outside, the building façade and its glass-illuminated bell tower take on the grid and rhythm of weaving. Even the meandering lines and subtle arcs of the stone architectural ornament relates back to the design of The Sermon on the Mount.
In all its beauty, The Sermon on the Mount served as a high-point on which Loja Saarinen was forced to close her studio. As she wrote to George Booth, she was being “forced into” retirement because of a number of pressures: declining commissions, her husband’s exit from the Academy’s presidency, World War II, and a shift in focus for the Academy Weaving Department away from pictorial handweaving. Studio Loja Saarinen closed in 1942.
A colleague recently inquired about a painting on the mezzanine wall leading to the music practice rooms at Kingswood School. The painting is of a girl, “Kitty Kingswood,” who is holding a pennant and is accompanied by a swan on the waves of Kingswood Lake. Eliel Saarinen painted the image in the 1930s to camouflage clay sewer pipes.
Painting by Eliel Saarinen in Kingswood School of Kitty Kingswood. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Nelson.
In 1950, Lillian Holm (Head of Weaving at Kingswood School from 1933-1965) copied the pattern of the gown from the painting and Louise Raisch hand-wove the first Kitty Kingswood doll. This doll was auctioned at the 1950 Autumn Festival.
The original Kitty Kingswood doll auctioned at the 1950 Autumn Festival. Photograph by Harvey Croze. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
Is there more to the Kitty Kingswood story? A recent trip over to the Girls Middle School, as well as a dive into our files here at the Archives, indicates that there is much more—and the iconic Kitty still plays an integral role.
Fast forward to 1964. The Kingswood Alumnae Association presents a new award to a seventh or eighth grade girl who has contributed to the spirit of Kingswood and is an outstanding citizen. The Association commissions Kingswood sculpture teacher, Pamela Stump Walsh, to create a statue of Kitty Kingswood for the award. The Birmingham Eccentric describes the sculpture as “a typical KSC girl who holds a hockey stick and a pennant and stands on the KSC seal.”
A sketch for the Kitty Kingswood award by Pamela Stump Walsh. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
Today, the statue resides at the Girls Middle School as does a plaque (also donated by Pamela Stump Walsh) with the award recipients’ names. An additional case at the middle school displays a Kitty Kingswood doll, which was reproduced and auctioned off for many years to raise funds for the school.
Kitty Kingswood sculpture by Pamela Stump Walsh at the Girls Middle School today.
The Kitty Kingswood Citizenship Award is still presented to an outstanding student each year at the Girls Middle School. The award is determined by vote of the faculty. Pamela Stump Walsh presented the award to the first recipient in 1964, and her words still inspire students today: “Good citizenship is more than simple obedience to a set of rules or laws. It is a loving obedience to just laws and the courage to change the unjust…but most of all, it is serious concern for the condition of others, even for the condition of our enemies.”
Eliel Saarinen taught his students to always consider how the design of one object fits within the next largest context; the building within the city plan, the furniture within the room, down to the fork on the table. Kingswood School for Girls embodies this philosophy, and is considered a “total work of art” designed by the Saarinen family. But that doesn’t mean the Saarinens designed everything in the building: Eliel knew when to delegate, not only to his wife Loja, daughter Pipsan, and son Eero, but also to others, like rugs and fabrics in the school designed by Studio Loja Saarinen weavers Maja Andersson Wirde, Lillian Holm, and others.
Instrumental in decorating the school, Loja Saarinen also used her design eye to choose existing wares from the market to compliment the environment being created at Kingswood. The 1938 Kingswood School Cranbrook Inventory of Equipment and Supplies is full of entries like this one from May 1934: “Voucher No. 5547, Nessen Studio, Inc., 18 Nut Dishes for Kingswood School (ordered by Mrs. Saarinen).” The flatware in the Kingswood Dining Hall is another prime example of an existing design used to complete the Saarinens’ vision.
The International Silver Company was a conglomerate of New England silver producers formed in 1898. Subsidiaries of International Silver, like Rogers Bros. and Wilcox Silver Plate Company, continued using their marks on works created under the new organization. The silver-plate pattern selected for the Kingswood School for Girls dining hall was the International Silver Company’s “Silhouette” pattern. Though Eliel Saarinen collaborated as a designer with International Silver on a number of projects—including his famousTea Urn and Tray—the “Silhouette” pattern was designed by Leslie A. Brown, who held a number of design patents while working for International Silver Company. “Silhouette” was produced under both the International Silver Company name and the 1847 Rogers brand.
Advertisement from Hotel Management, Volume 17, Issue 6 (June 1930), Section 2, page 365.
The ladies of Kingswood used these beautiful pieces on Saarinen designed tables, with plates from the Syracuse China Company (hotel ware division) with a Saarinen-designed Kingswood School crest on them. Dinners at Kingswood were formal affairs, so there were many pieces to each complete set of flatware.
Detail from an image of the Junior-Senior Banquet at Kingswood School, June 1941. Notice the “Silhouette” flatware, the crested serving ware, and the Saarinen-designed Silver Centerpiece (KS 1991.1). Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.
The 1938 Inventory lists the following forms purchased through Marshall Field & Company for use in the dining hall: Viande* Knives, Viande* Fork, Individual Salad Forks, Individual Fish Forks, Bouillon Spoons, Butter Spreaders, Teaspoons, Dessert Forks, Cocktail Forks, Dessert Spoons, Table Spoons, Coffee Spoons, Soup Ladles, and Cold-Meat Forks. The flatware had a “Butler finish” – a matte or frosted finish — on 18% nickel silver blanks — a metal alloy of copper, nickel and zinc, highly resistant to corrosion and tarnish. All pieces were marked “Kingswood School.”
Viande fork (top of page), butter spreader, and bouillon spoon from the Cultural Properties Collection, Kingswood School for Girls. Courtesy of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.
The flatware was used for everyday dining as well as more formal dinners, but as dining at Cranbrook became less formal and the student body increased in size, more utilitarian commercial-grade knives, spoons, and forks were introduced. Luckily, we still have many of these original pieces in storage for study and display.
*”Viande” is French for “meat” but in this case refers to a form of flatware with longer handles with shorter blades or tines. It was supposed to fit more comfortably in the hands, advertised as having “smartness and being chic.”
Leslie S. Mio is the Assistant Registrar for the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research and the Cranbrook Art Museum.