What many people do not know is that Albert Kahn had a famous daughter, Lydia Kahn Winston Malbin (1897-1989). She was not an architect, nor a famous actress or TV personality, but was referred to as the “First Lady of Modernism” in a 1984 Detroit News magazine article by art critic Joy Hakanson Colby. Malbin, a lifetime trustee and honorary curator of the DIA, chairman of the Detroit Artists Market, and a member of the Detroit Arts Commission, was also a student at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1934 and then again from 1940-1944 when she received her MFA in Ceramics. (Malbin took additional ceramics classes with Maija Grotell and painting with Zoltan Sepeshy through 1950.)
But what she was best known for was her vast collection of modern art, an interest that began for her in the 1930s and continued throughout her lifetime. This week I received a query from an art auction house in London, England. They have a work by German-American painter, Lyonel Feininger, that had once been in Malbin’s collection and was on display in a 1951 exhibition at Cranbrook Art Museum called “The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Lewis Winston.” (Winston was Lydia Kahn’s first husband.) As auction houses often do, they wanted to verify that Feininger’s painting “Becalmed” had indeed been in this exhibition. As I researched this work, it reminded me of Malbin’s additional connections to Cranbrook.
Not only was Malbin a student at the Academy of Art, she was also one of the six Cranbrook-related artists who contributed to the Saarinen-Swanson Group, an affordable, coordinated line of modern home furnishings, which debuted in 1947. Malbin designed the oven-ware pottery, manufactured by Frankoma Pottery Company, and china with glazes meant to “simulate the quality and color of semi-precious stones” manufactured by Glenco Porcelain Company. She also designed ash trays and vases – a line of “red ware” – which featured clay and glazes from Ferro Enamel in Cleveland, Ohio.
Malbin began collecting modern art in the 1930s. Though her father, Albert Kahn, couldn’t stand modern art, he did instill in all of his children the lesson that they should be independent thinkers. So, Malbin sought out what SHE liked – “tough, off-beat things” rather than popular artists or “pretty pictures.” She and her first husband, Harry Winston, were an art collecting team until Harry’s death in 1965, and Malbin’s second husband, Barnett Malbin, while not a collector himself, supported her collecting activities and even made photographic records of her art for her archives.
For more on Malbin’s collecting interests, check out the Lydia Winston Malbin Papers at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Barnett and Lydia Winston Malbin Papers, 1940-1973 at the Archives of American Art.
– Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist