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.

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De Profundis: Olga Milles’ Drawings of the Soul

Olga Milles lived in the very depths. In her art, almost exclusively devoted to portrait painting, she sought to draw out the character from the depths of her models and to find the soul behind the façade. Using a variety of techniques including charcoal, crayon, pastel, watercolor, tempera, and oil in her work, Olga was considered an artistic prodigy and developed her talent from a young age, yet her art is largely unknown. In 1988, twenty-one years after her death, Cranbrook Art Museum hosted an exhibition in collaboration with Millesgården, Olga Milles Emerges, to exhibit examples of her art from both museums’ collections.

In the foreword to the exhibition catalog, Staffan Carlén, former Director of Millesgården, describes her as having an intuitive talent that produced factual character studies of extreme precision, with an “overwhelmingly melancholic” tone. In reading Inger Wahlöö’s account of Olga’s life, based on correspondence at Millesgården, Carlen’s interpretation of Olga’s artwork can almost be read as a profile of Olga herself:

“Sparseness of shadowed areas and stretched areas disrobe the faces and make them appear in a serious, introverted nakedness. Her efforts are primarily directed towards interpreting the character of the soul. This she did with great coloristic refinement, and with tenderness in the form. In her drawings, there is consistently a sensitive enlargement of the mouth, sometimes in interaction with the dreaming mood of the eyes, sometimes as a tension-filled contrast of unconscious sensuality.”

Staffan Carlen, Olga Milles Emerges
Print of Drawing of Carl Milles by Olga Milles, 1917. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Born Olga Granner in 1874 in Leibniz, Austria, she had two brothers and two sisters. She had a deep loyalty to her family, whom she visited for several months every year, except during World War II. Having been born and raised in the Catholic church, she initially aspired to become an art teacher in a convent. However, in early adulthood, Olga questioned what it meant to be disobedient to the church and broke away, while cultivating an increasingly ascetic life.

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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

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!

Cranbrook-LIFE

2020 marks ninety years of temporary traveling exhibitions at Cranbrook Art Museum. Perhaps one of the best examples that brings to life this aspect of the Museum’s programs is Cranbrook’s brief but wildly successful partnership with LIFE Magazine.

The Cranbrook-LIFE Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting opened in 1940, ten years after Cranbrook Art Museum hosted its first traveling exhibition, organized by the American Union of Decorative Artists and featuring contemporary interior design. The idea of temporary traveling exhibits at Cranbrook began the same year as the permanent collection was established by founder George G. Booth. It furthered Booth’s commitment to presenting contemporary art as foremost a learning tool for Academy of Art students. It was intended “to remind our students that art is a living thing and that the record of our times is being created from day to day by the artists of this age, and in so doing perhaps to stimulate the creative spirit among those who work here.”

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Judges examine paintings in New York, April 1940. Hansel Meith, photographer. Copyright Time Inc.

Cranbrook-LIFE was a celebration of contemporary U.S. art meant to symbolize “America’s increasing responsibility as a democratic world art center.” (Life, May 27, 1940) As such, LIFE invited sixty painters, living and working in America, to submit three paintings to be voted on by a jury of six. The painters included Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, and Cranbrook’s own Zoltan Sepeshy. The jury, comprised of Sepeshy, two leading art museum directors, an editor at LIFE Magazine, a representative from the Federal Works Agency Section of Fine Arts, and a well-respected American painter and educator, convened in a New York City warehouse where they spent four hours whittling down 180 submissions to the final sixty paintings shipped to Cranbrook for the show. One of these was Grant Wood’s American Gothic! Loaned by the Art Institute of Chicago, the already famous painting appears to be the only piece in the exhibition to come from another art museum.

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Opening night attendees arrive. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

If you’re at all familiar with LIFE, you may be asking yourself why a popular weekly magazine, known for its photographic general-interest stories, would make a foray like this into the art world? According to a 1940 TIME Magazine article, in the previous three years,  “the No. 1 U.S. source of popular knowledge of U.S. art has been LIFE, which has reproduced for the man-in-the-street’s weekly dime some 452 paintings (usually in full color) by U.S. artists.” Your next question might be why it was held at Cranbrook, as opposed to, say, the newly constructed Museum of Modern Art building in New York City? Florence Davies of the Detroit News may have answered that, when she wrote at the time: “Life Magazine picked Cranbrook not only because of the enchanting setting of the place as a whole, but more particularly because it found there ‘work in progress—an atmosphere of creative activity.’”

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Academy of Art students parade through the opening night gala reminding attendees of the student exhibition simultaneously on display at the Cranbrook Pavilion. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The exhibition drew an estimated 2,500 national and international visitors in the short two weeks it was on display from May 17-June 2, 1940. Because of the size of the show, it could not be held in the current museum building on Lone Pine Road and Academy Way (Eliel Saarinen’s museum building began construction during the exhibition). And, as the Academy student exhibition was currently occupying the Cranbrook Pavilion, the decision was made to utilize the Academy’s Painting Department Studios. Opening night was a festive gala. Attendees, including George and Ellen Booth, Loja and Eliel Saarinen, Edsel B. Ford, Albert Kahn, and “1,000 Detroit socialites braved wintry winds” in formal attire. (Time, June 3, 1940)

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Marianne Strengell, Charles Eames, and Richard Reinhardt. Richard A. Askew, photographer. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Coming on the heels of the Great Depression and during the beginning months of the War in Europe, pro-American sentiment was high, as evidenced by the placement of potted American-grown tomatoes in windowsills as decoration. According to TIME Magazine, the music for the evening was by U.S. composers and refreshments included “Rhine wine flavored to taste like U.S. new-mown hay.” (!?)

Cranbrook-LIFE marks the beginning of the Cranbrook Art Museum Exhibition Records, which illuminate thirty-six years of temporary traveling exhibits, and are rife with names of renowned artists that have exhibited at Cranbrook throughout its history.

It’s not all in the past, though! Don’t miss Cranbrook Art Museum’s current traveling exhibition,  In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969, on view until March 8, 2020.

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist

Weaving Lesson: Saarinen’s Sermon on the Mount

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.

First Christian Church from Progressive Architecture

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.”

ccCAM2000.13 Sketch for the The Sermon on the Mount, 1941. Eliel Saarinen (attributed). Pencil, colored pencil, and gouache on paper. 26 7/8 x 11 7/8 inches. Courtesy of Cranbrook Art Museum. Gift of Robert Saarinen Swanson.

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.

CEC1198 Loja Saarinen showing Eliel a cartoon of their tapestry, The Sermon on the Mount, April 1941. Photo by Betty Truxell. Cranbrook Archives.

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.

Sermon On The Mount Tapestry_004The Sermon on the Mount Hanging. 1941. Loja & Eliel Saarinen (designers), Lillian Holm, Ruth Ingvarson (weavers). Wool and linen with supplemental wool weft; 12 x 27’. First Christian Church, Columbus, Indiana. Photo by Hadley Fruits.

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.

Sermon On The Mount Tapestry large_006 Detail of The Sermon on the Mount showing the lambs, branches, and worshipers. Notice the rich variety of patterning and depth of color on the figures. Photo by Hadley Fruits.

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.

Cranbrook_Kingswood_8-31-15-0025-dc2_TAPESTRYFestival of the May Queen hanging, 1932.
Loja & Eliel Saarinen (designers), Studio Loja Saarinen (production). Loose linen warp and weft of wool and synthetic yarns; 216 x 192.” Photo by James Haefner, Courtesy of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

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.

LojaSaarinen001The Sermon on the Mount on display in Carl Milles’ Cranbrook studio. February 1942. Saarinen Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

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.

You can learn more about Studio Loja Saarinen, her weavers, and her products; see where the works were woven on campus; and visit Kingswood’s weaving studio and dining hall on my upcoming Behind-the-Scenes: Studio Loja Saarinen, 1928-1942 tours August 22 and 29.  You can also experience the exhibition on any of our regular Saarinen House tours. If you find yourself in Indiana, see the Sermon on the Mount any Sunday at First Christian Church or through tours with Visit Columbus.

-Kevin Adkisson, Curatorial Associate

Special thanks to Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate Hadley Fruits (Photography, 1990) for the contemporary color photographs of The Sermon on the Mount and First Christian Church.

Vroom Vroom goes the Loom

In preparation for the Center’s upcoming show, Studio Loja Saarinen: The Art and Architecture of Weaving, 1928-42, we recently moved a historic Cranbrook Loom from the Kingswood Weaving Studio across campus to Saarinen House.

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The Cranbrook Loom at home in the Kingswood Weaving Studio.

I wanted a Cranbrook Loom to be a part of the exhibition as a teaching and demonstration tool, so guests can understand how the many beautiful rugs on display were produced. Studio Loja Saarinen started with just one loom in 1928, but grew to include thirty-five. The original looms used by the Studio were quite heavy and difficult to work with; Saarinen’s unhappiness with them eventually resulted in her demand for a loom built exactly to her specifications. She worked with John Bexell, a skilled cabinet maker and husband of one of the Studio’s weavers, Marie, to construct a loom that was lighter, sturdier, and easier to operate. The first Bexell loom was delivered in 1936.

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Bexell (or Cranbrook) looms in the Cranbrook Weaving Studio, April 1936. Cranbrook Archives.

John P. Bexell descended from a long line of woodworkers. Born in Korstrask, Sweden in April 1899, he emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Flint, Michigan in the 1920s. He had made looms back in Sweden, and when he made the first to Saarinen’s specifications he saw potential in the design and made others to sell.

Loja Saarinen and her weavers were so pleased with the new Bexell-made loom she immediately ordered more. Other weavers ordered the looms too, and Bexell also received a commission from the federal Farm Security Administration for several hundred looms. His career as a loom specialist took off. In 1945, at Loja Saarinen’s suggestion, Bexell named his now quite popular (and profitable) loom the “Cranbrook Loom.” He produced the looms with his son, Bert, in Flint until 1977, when he sold the business.

All that to say, I still needed to get a Cranbrook Loom across campus.

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Our first victory! Getting the loom out of the weaving studio and into the truck. Ed looks pleased.

Working with my colleagues Leslie Mio and Matt Horn, along with Matt’s husband Marc Meyers and game members of Cranbrook’s moving crew Ed and Trevor, we got the loom on the go. To exit the weaving studio, we each grabbed a leg of the loom and walked it above the others and out of the double doors, through the courtyard, and into the moving truck.

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Trevor, Marc, Matt, and Ed walking the loom toward increasingly smaller doors.

At Saarinen House, we had to remove the warp stick catcher to get the loom through the door. It then had to turn completely on its side to fit through the narrower interior doors. Nothing but our nerves were harmed in the process.

You might be thinking to yourself, don’t looms come apart? Well, yes. However, the loom had been partially prepped for weaving, and we didn’t want to have to reassemble it from scratch inside the studio. I am not, after all, a loom expert. So instead we twisted and turned until the loom was in place in the Saarinen House Studio!

A few days later, Lynn Bennett Carpenter, Academy alumna and instructor in weaving and fashion at Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School, came to finish setting up the loom for weaving a plaid. There was much tensioning, counting, tensioning, threading, twisting, and tying. It was fun, and quite stressful! One wrong heddle threaded, and our weave would be ruined.

Guests to Saarinen House will now be able to learn about the history of the Cranbrook Loom, see it in action, and even throw the shuttle back and forth to help us make our 12 foot plaid. Tours of Saarinen House start in May and run through December 1, 2019. The exhibition will open during Open(Studios) on April 28, 2019. Come and join us to explore the house and exhibition during our free Opening Reception from 1:00—5:00pm, with demonstrations and lessons from Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School weavers!

– Kevin Adkisson, 2016-2019 Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Special thanks to Lynn Bennett Carpenter for loaning us the loom, for her time prepping the loom, for volunteering her students to assist in our Open House, and for teaching me how to weave.

Loja Saarinen: Lady of Fashion

If this were an article for Harper’s Bazaar it would be an imagined interview between a reporter and Loja Saarinen, but since my status is beneath lowly, I won’t presume. Loja Saarinen is a fascinating person in many respects: she was professionally a sculptor, photographer, textile designer, maker of architectural models, landscape designer, teacher, weaver, entrepreneur, designer in general, without mentioning the unquantifiable but no less important aspects of her life. Married to architect Eliel Saarinen and mother of two extraordinarily gifted children, she must have been party to some incredible family discussions on style, architecture, design of practically everything, including fashion.

Daughter Pipsan Saarinen Swanson briefly led a fashion course at Cranbrook Academy Art, and she and her mother made many of their own clothes.  Even though the ready-made clothing industry was growing, women in the 1930s and beyond who had sewing skills but not necessarily the money for special garments would make their own. Commercial patterns abounded: Vogue, Butterick, Simplicity, McCall, among others not all of which survive today.

Here is a Vogue pattern from the times:

Vogue Dress for Lynettes blog

Courtesy of Etsy.com

Remember this look.

Considering Loja Saarinen’s formal training in sculpture in Paris and her own textile designs, not to mention her model-building skills and creativity, one must assume she was ideally set up for making her own special clothes. They would be unique. What could be better?  And then there was the wonder of downtown Detroit’s J. L. Hudson’s vast floor of fabrics.

Hudsons detroit fabric shop

Fabric Department at J. L. Hudson Company Department Store, 1920s. H.W. Brooks, Commercial Photographer. Courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society.

Of course, the essence of fashion is being appropriately dressed. Working from the informal to the more formal attire, one may examine a few photographs of Loja Saarinen as samples of her impeccable taste and ingenuity.

Here is Loja on a relaxed afternoon standing with husband Eliel Saarinen in the 1930s:

Eliel and Loja Saarinen at Cranbrook copy neg CEC493 copyright Cranbrook Archives

Eliel and Loja Saarinen. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

This looks like a take on a peasant dress with its loose sleeves and wide flat fell seams and flared, lightly gathered skirt. What says hand-made to me is the embroidered belt.  While it is possible Loja bought the dress and altered it to fit sleeve length and hem, I think this would have been easy enough to whip up. It is casual, comfortable and different enough to mark her as a person with an eye for good design who is not going to be dressed like anyone else.

Here is a dress in tasteful black which looks a lot like the above Vogue pattern:

Loja Saarinen in Saarinen House Dining Room c 1940 copy neg CEC490 Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Loja Saarinen in her dining room, c. 1940. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The sleeves are a bit longer. Note the Chemex coffeemaker as accessory.

Next is a design so Loja-esque, given the proliferation of triangles all over the campus in every medium you can think of, including in her own contributions, this fabric and the garment have to be Loja Saarinen designs.

I am not sure what the pale fabric is, obviously soft and drapey, but the design could be embroidered or appliqued ribbon. (Family boost: she’s sitting in one of the Eero-designed auditorium chairs.)

Loja Saarinen c 1934 Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Loja Saarinen, c. 1934. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

This is one of the best examples of Loja’s sense of style, though probably not her own work. She is warm, stylish and utterly without fuss. Attention PETA, this is before the days of reasonable-looking faux fur. The coat is a thick wool with light-colored top-stitching down the sleeves and front bodice panels.

Eliel and Loja Saarinen at the rear of Saarinen House copy neg CEC491 Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Eliel and Loja Saarinen. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

Dress-up clothes, we have them: a lovely photograph of a younger L. S. Swirls of fabric and triangle earrings.

Portrait of Loja Saarinen by Max Habrecht 1932 copyright Cranbrook Archives

Portrait of Loja Saarinen, 1932. Max Habrecht, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

This looks like a dress with swaths of color in the bodice such as you might see in her rug design. This could be silk satin, or what was called “art silk.” It looks bias-cut, which would make for a good fit, but which is unforgiving for the seamstress. You can’t see her hair very well, but it appears fashionably cropped.

In the following Crandemonium photograph Loja’s attire looks like a variation on a theme.  I suspect this is a top she made for the occasion, worn over a separate skirt.  Eliel Saarinen’s jacket has matching color stripes. The Saarinen column hats make the outfit for both party-goers. Loja’s dress has a train as befits the queen of Crandemonium. The orb of office for King Eliel is a grapefruit.

Loja and Eliel Saarinen at Crandemonium Ball Feb 1934 Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Loja and Eliel Saarinen at the Crandemonium Ball, Feb. 1934. Richard G. Askew, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

At last a color photograph. This may be the same top with a matching skirt, and quite a few years later, but now we see the Saarinen choice of color (Family boost: another Eero chair.)

Loja Saarinen in Vaughn Road home c 1962 Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Loja Saarinen in her Vaughn Road home, c. 1962. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Loja Saarinen was not a self-promoter. Her work speaks for itself. Her hand is in so many aspects of design all over the Cranbrook campus. This is just a glimpse at a few (fashion) design choices Mrs. Saarinen made about herself. She told Virginia Christ-Janer in a 1964 interview, “With our family [art is] a disease.” More than that, the Saarinens were all so capable, why would they not keep designing? Just like Karl Lagerfeld, to design is to breathe.

For a last word on anything to do with fashion, from all-time humorist Mark Twain: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

–Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter

Kalevala Curtain?

When I started giving tours of Saarinen House more than twenty-two years ago, I was enthralled by the geometric designs architect Eliel Saarinen and his wife Loja Saarinen created for their own home.

Second Floor Hallway Seating Alcove reproduction curtain, circa 1993-94. Balthazar Korab, Photographer.

In the Second Floor Hallway Seating Alcove, I tended to focus upon the dramatic dance between Loja’s curtain design and Eliel’s leaded glass windows. Her woven bands of blue and green triangles layered over his geometric forms. His leaded triangles, squares, and rectangles peeking from behind her sheer textile. The combination of the two casting mesmerizing shadows across the upstairs walls, shifting with the weather and the season.

As a decorative art historian, I reveled in sharing the story of the Saarinens’ support of Finnish National Romanticism—a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century movement celebrating the revival of Finnish language and culture, particularly architecture, arts, and crafts. And to my eye, the upstairs curtain was just another pattern derived from the Saarinens’ Finnish heritage, specifically traditional Karelian motifs found in eastern Finland and Russia.

But then, an unnamed visitor from Finland introduced me to the Kalevala—Finland’s epic poem. And I learned that the upstairs alcove curtain quite possibly had a more intriguing story to tell…

Said the aged Väinämöinen,
And he spoke the words which follow:
“Now my inclination leads me
Unto Metsola to travel;
To the forest’s daughter’s dwelling,
And to the Blue Maiden’s homestead.

Leaving men, I seek the forest,
Heroes leave, for distant regions;
Take me as thy man, O forest,
Take me, Tapio, for thy hero.
May good fortune now be granted,
And to fell the forest-beauty![”]

Translation from the original Finnish by William Forsell Kirby in Kalevala: The Land of the Heroes, in Two Volumes, 1907, “Runo XLVI: Väinämöinen and the bear.”

Could a figure from the Kalevala be hidden within the bands of triangles on the upstairs curtain?

The Kalevala recounts Finnish and Karelian folklore—heroic tales spanning the story of creation to the introduction of Christianity. Compiled by Elias Lönnart from oral tradition, it was first published in Finnish in 1835 and expanded in 1849. Many translations followed, often with creative spellings.

With ever-increasing nationalism—leading to the creation of Finland as an independent country in 1917—Finns, particularly artists, makers, musicians, and performers, turned to the Kalevala for inspiration. Apparently, the Saarinens were no exception.

Second Floor Hallway Seating Alcove with original curtain, circa September 1930. Max Habrecht, Photographer. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The original curtain for the upstairs seating alcove was designed by Loja Saarinen and woven by Studio Loja Saarinen, circa 1930. Bands of triangular forms embellish the top and bottom of the sheer panel. In typical northern-European style, its purpose was to provide a level of privacy without preventing limited daylight from streaming through. Fitting, as the Saarinens took breakfast upstairs in the west-facing seating alcove each morning at 7:30 a.m.

Cranbrook’s black and white photograph of the upstairs seating alcove was published in the October 1933 issue of House Beautiful, with the caption:

In this hall on the second floor the specifically designed furniture from the Cranbrook Cabinet Makers’ Shop and the curtains of natural linen with blue and green geometric figures, from the Cranbrook Looms, give the note of distinction that is seen throughout the house. Pattern in pleasantly contrasted here with plain surfaces, and the result is the restfulness that comes with restraint[.]

Sadly, Loja Saarinen’s original curtain no longer exists. And other than the black and white photograph and magazine caption, there is no archival documentation—sketches, studio production records, receipts, or letters—to reveal Loja’s intentions or inspirations. Close analysis of the black and white image does reveal two shades of color—presumably blue and green as stated in the magazine caption—enabling the Saarinen House restoration team to determine which color was applied where.

Second Floor Hallway Seating Alcove reproduction curtain circa 1993-94, detail. Balthazar Korab, Photographer.

The curtain was reproduced in 1992, by Paula Stebbins Becker, designer and Laura Sansone, weaver. Based on Loja Saarinen’s original design, two horizontal repeats—one at the bottom and one at the top—were woven in blue and green. Measuring 61 inches by 140 inches, the reproduction curtain was constructed with linen warp, lumpy low linen weft, and wool inlay, using a plain weave with supplementary weft inlay border, and fringe.

With my newfound Kalevala clarity, the repeating pattern of Loja’s textile took on new meaning.

The stacked blue triangles at the bottom of the curtain suddenly assumed the form of a towering male figure sprouting a green triangular head. This recurring figure now balanced upon blue cliffs. And blue hills and trees, flanked by green meadows, unfurled below him, while blue mountaintops and clouds danced above.

The scale of the figure in relation to the surrounding elements suggested a deity or hero, not an ordinary man.

Was Loja depicting Väinämöinen?

The central figure of the Kalevala, Väinämöinen is the symbolic first man. Of mythical origins, he rises from a primordial realm beneath the sea. An ancient hero and wise man—think Gandalf or Dumbledore—he possesses a magical voice for song and poetry. He contributes to the creation of the world by cutting down forests and mowing meadows.

Wainamoinen, wise and ancient,
Made himself an axe for chopping,
Then began to clear the forest,
Then began the trees to level,
Felled the trees of all descriptions,
Only left the birch-tree standing
For the birds a place of resting,
Where might sing the sweet-voiced cuckoo,
Sacred bird in sacred branches.

#

Wainamoinen, wise and ancient,
Brings his magic grains of barley,
Brings he forth his seven seed-grains,
Brings them from his trusty pouches,
Fashioned from the skin of squirrel,
Some were made from skin of marten.
Thence to sow his seeds he hastens,
Hastes the barley-grains to scatter,
Speaks unto himself these measures:
“I the seeds of life am sowing,
Sowing through my open fingers,
From the hand of my Creator,
In this soil enriched with ashes,
In this soil to sprout and flourish.

Excerpts from “Rune II: Wainamoinen’s Sowing” as translated by John Martin Crawford in his 1888 publication, The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland based on a German translation by Franz Anton Schiefner published in 1852.

Or was it Tapio himself gracing Loja’s curtains?

The God of the Forest and Woodlands, Tapio is the personification of Nature. Described as a tall, slender figure, wearing a coat of tree moss and a fir-leaf hat, the proverbial Green Man was said to have a lichen beard and eyebrows of moss. Cue the green triangle atop Loja’s figure—perhaps a stylized pre-Christian foliate head?

“Grant, O Ukko, my Creator,
That the signs may guide our footsteps,
That the notches in the pine-tree
May direct my faithful people
To the bear-dens of the woodlands;
That great Tapio’s sacred bugle
May resound through glen and forest;
That the wood-nymph’s call may echo,
May be heard in field and hamlet,
To the joy of all that listen!
Let great Tapio’s horn for ages
Ring throughout the fen and forest,
Through the hills and dales of Northland
O’er the meadows and the mountains,
To awaken song and gladness
In the forests of Wainola,
On the snowy plains of Suomi,
On the meads of Kalevala,
For the coming generations.”

From Crawford’s translation of The Kalevala, “Rune XLVI: Otso the Honey-eater.”

Musical inspiration for the curtains?

We can hear Tapio’s horn and the mystical vibrations of Tapiola—the forest where Tapio lived and ruled—in the haunting tone poem “Tapiola” by the Saarinens’ close friend and noted Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius.

Click here to listen to “Tapiola,” Opus 112 as performed by the Gothenburg Symphony, conducted by Detroit Symphony Orchestra Music Director Emeritus Neeme Järvi, set to scenes of Finland’s forests, lakes, rock formations, and clouds edited from the 1984 Christopher Nupen film, Jean Sibelius: The Early Years, and published on the GreatClassicRecords YouTube channel in 2012.

Yet, Väinamönen plays his own role in Sibelius’s repertoire. “Väinö’s Song,” a cantata for mixed chorus and orchestra, evokes the song of our hero as a suitor in “Rune XVIII: The Rival Suitors” from the Kalevala.

Click here to listen to “Väinö’s Song,” Opus 110 as performed by the Finnish National Opera Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by the late Eri Klas, former Principal Guest Conductor of the Finnish National Opera.

Sibelius composed “Väinö’s Song” in 1926, and it was first performed in Sortavala, Republic of Karelia, Russia, in June of that year. Simultaneously, he was working on “Tapiola,” a commission from the New York Philharmonic Society first performed in New York the day after Christmas 1926.

Sibelius provided the following prose, as adapted by his publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, to clarify his score and the role of Tapio and the Tapiola forest in Finnish mythology:

Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

However fanciful it might be, I like to picture the Saarinens in the 1926 Karelian and New York audiences, supporting their good friend’s compositions and drawing inspiration for their own work. The timing is feasible as they summered in Finland and resided in Michigan during the winter—their custom excepting the war years. But more likely, they learned of the compositions through their regular correspondence with Sibelius, now in the collection of the Sibelius Museum. Perhaps the subject of a future blog post and my excuse for another trip to Finland?

It is fair to assume that by 1930, when the upstairs alcove curtain was created, the Saarinens were familiar with “Väinö’s Song” and more so, “Tapiola,” now considered to be Sibelius’s last great masterpiece for orchestra. In all, Sibelius created over a dozen works inspired by the Kalevala. He profoundly impacted the development of the Finnish national identity—and thereby the Saarinens’—adding another layer of interpretation to Loja’s figurative pattern.

Karelian geometric patterns? Väinämöinen creating the world? Tapio ruling the forest?

Whether the curtain in the Second Floor Hallway Alcove at Saarinen House depicts Tapio, God of the Forest and Woodlands . . . or Väinämöinen, the hero of the Kalevala . . . or simply references Karelian geometric patterns, I do not know. But it seems clear that Finnish Nationalism Romanticism impacted Loja Saarinen’s textile designs, reflecting both tradition and her distinctive sense of visual harmony in their arrangement of color and form.

A trained sculptor familiar with traditional weaving, Loja established Studio Loja Saarinen at Cranbrook in 1928 in order to supply textiles for the growing campus. This led to the formation of the Department of Weaving and Textile Design at Cranbrook Academy of Art, for which she served as Head from 1929 until her retirement in 1942.

Studio Loja Saarinen was initially engaged in creating textiles for Kingswood School for Girls and the Saarinens’ own home at Cranbrook. The studio also received commissions from major architects of the period such as Frank Lloyd Wright. Textiles designed by Loja and Eliel Saarinen for Studio Loja Saarinen continue to grace the interiors of notable edifices designed by Eliel, including First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana, and, of course, Saarinen House.

Tours of Saarinen House resume on May 3, 2019. And our upcoming Day Away trip just happens to be to Columbus, Indiana—tentative dates: May 17-19. We hope to see you next season.

In the meantime, don’t forget to celebrate Kalevala Day on February 28—commemorating the date of its first publication by Elias Lönnart in 1835!

Diane VanderBeke Mager, Collections Interpreter, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

 

 

Dolls Make the House

Who doesn’t love dolls? Apparently plenty of people who come through Saarinen House and comment on the two dolls enjoying pride of place in the Cozy Corner. The first response is often “What are those?” The second “What is she looking at?” What indeed. These are two vintage dolls, boy and girl, that Loja and Eliel Saarinen had in their possession and who now sit on the carpeted bench in the sitting alcove or “Cozy Corner” of the Saarinen House studio.

Dolls in Saarinen House. Photograph by James Haefner, 2015.

They were in place in 1947 when Margaret Fish, then art critic from the Milwaukee Sentinel, came to Cranbrook to interview Saarinen as he embarked upon plans for Milwaukee’s war memorial. [Saarinen Cites Keynote for City’s War Memorial. February 22, 1947.] Saarinen confessed to Fish, “Unless your home belongs to your spiritual as well as your physical life, you are entering among strangers.” He went on to explain that the dolls had belonged to his own children (Pipsan and Eero) and that his grandchildren played with them when they came to visit.

The dolls made their way back as a gift from grandson Ron Saarinen Swanson to the house as restoration neared completion in 1994. Greg Wittkopp, then Curator of Collections at Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum, accepted them in a letter of thanks writing “These dolls are critical to the restoration of Saarinen House as they help us interpret [the house] as a ‘home’ not merely an architectural space.” Interesting that this is still the object of the set up of the house and now also of the changing exhibits within curated by current Collections Fellow Kevin Adkisson.

The girl doll was made by the Italian company of Lenci founded in 1918 by Elena König Scavini (1886-1974), nicknamed Lenci, and husband Enrico in Turin. According to the appraisal by the Berkley Doll Hospital, our girl was probably created in 1920.  Lenci dolls became famous for their high quality and cost and the eyes looking away. One wonders what little girls had to do to get the doll to look at them.

Our doll has a felt, jointed body with painted features on pressed felt and those famous eyes looking off to the right. Her hair is a mohair wig, “intentionally tousled” in “little girl fashion” and her clothes are made of felt. Her cheeks swell in petulant child fashion and her third and fourth fingers are sewn together.

After World War II, the company changed hands and the dolls themselves evolved, becoming known as Lenci-type dolls.

Käthe Kruse (1883-1968), the actress creator of the boy doll, was ahead of her time, spurred to create a doll for her children when their sculptor father told them he was not about to buy them the unsatisfactory commercial products then available (this in 1899). Kruse started out with a washrag filled with sand and tied in four corners, carving a potato for the head. This was apparently an unqualified success for her 5-year-old daughter who had asked for a “real child.” Kruse herself realized that a doll should fill an emotional need and not “provide some technical education for running a kitchen.” In response to the doll named Oskar by her daughter, she thought to create a gender-neutral doll so that the children themselves could decide what gender the doll was to be, then the clothes could follow. In the pictures below you have the same doll dressed in different clothes:

Theriault and Bukowskis doll images

Identical Käthe Kruse dolls dressed in different outfits. c. 1930-1940. Courtesy of Theriault and Bukowskis Auction.

Her dolls became an unexpected hit, especially in New York where she sold 150 dolls to FAO Schwarz in 1911. As time passed and Germany was embroiled in World War I, Kruse was pressured to join the patriotic movement catering to the increasing militarism of German society. So her doll grew into a male and appeared in a generic military uniform. So much for the little girls who might not want a soldier baby to play with.

Geheugenvanndederland Dolls

Boy and girl clothes on Käthe Kruse dolls, 1918. Courtesy of Geheugen van Nederland.

Kruse’s doll was destined for further changes, however, because another war loomed, and the gender-neutral baby was once more required to grow male and don a uniform of more sinister aspect.  Kruse lost two sons of her eight children to this war, and as she continued to produce dolls, their facial expressions grew decidedly sad. Who knows why Hitler or his head honchos in the midst of a war would be paying attention to a toy manufacturer, but somehow the dolls’ apparent lack of politically correct optimism attracted attention, as did the Jewish workers Kruse refused to fire, and Kruse’s workshops were closed down. No more dolls until 1946 when Kruse sent three more children to restart the manufacture.

Our doll is dated by the Berkley Doll Hospital to 1910. He is the Doll 1 type with a molded muslin head and hand-painted features and hair in oils. His wide-hipped body is jointed cloth stuffed with reindeer hair, and he has the typical Doll 1, “frog” hands. His clothes are cotton and wool with a knitted wool hat and leggings.

Whoever played with these dolls, they were certainly handled carefully and not loved to pieces. And yet, when Margaret Fish came to call, she reported there were three dolls “European in appearance, sitting primly on the benches.” What happened to doll number 3? Would this have been a doll of yet another nationality? French maybe?

Kathe Kruse and Dolls

Käthe Kruse and dolls, 1905. Courtesy of Käthe Kruse History.

Some visitors find the dolls creepy, others fascinating. When they come to Saarinen House, visitors do not expect to be taken back to their own childhood as these dolls will do to you, if you let them: she looking off to her right, grumpily in search of better things, and he looking sturdily down.

The Kruse dolls are still in production 50 years after Kruse’s death at the age of 85, still desirable, still looking a bit like baby Friedebald Kruse, the model for the first commercial doll, and still stuffed with reindeer hair if you are willing to pay.

– Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter

 

You can see the Saarinen dolls on Saarinen House tours, led by the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research Collections Interpreters every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, May-November.

Additional sources:

Edwards, Linda. Doll Values: Antique to Modern 13th Edition. New York. Page Publishing. 2017

Ganaway, Michael. Toys, Consumption, and Middle-class Childhood in Imperial Germany, 1871-1918. Bern. Peter Lang. 2009

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