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!

Christ Church Cranbrook Baptistry

To the north of the narthex at Christ Church Cranbrook stands the Baptistry, where infants are christened with the pouring of water over the head.

Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. – The Book of Common Prayer

The whole Baptistry is a work of art, featuring an ornate wooden screen topped by the Lamb of God, a baptismal font with an ornate cloisonné cover that sits upon an exquisitely carved base, and a beautiful mosaic ceiling.

1992-16 Christ Church Baptistry

Christ Church Cranbrook, Baptismal Font, 1928. Peter A. Nyholm, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Oscar H. Murray Photograph Collection.

Today, I want to focus on the ceiling by Mary Chase Perry Stratton and her Pewabic Pottery.

As George G. Booth was constructing Christ Church, he looked for the best craftspeople. In a 1926 letter to Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue Associates, architects of the church, Booth states, “I should be pleased if we are able to have a piece of Pewabic work in the Church and have thought the most suitable location would be the vault of the Baptistry”

After a seven-year rift with his old friend Mary Chase Perry Stratton over not allowing her creative license on projects at Cranbrook House, Booth offered an olive branch by giving Stratton the artistic freedom to create the Baptistry ceiling in 1926. This included the mosaic’s material and size, and how to incorporate the symbols of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit into the work.

Baptistry ceiling

Christ Church Cranbrook, Baptistry Ceiling, 2015. P.D. Rearick, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit, which the initiant receives at baptism, are represented as follows: Wisdom is a Beehive (also a favorite symbol of the Booth family), Understanding is a Lamp, Counsel is the Star, Fortitude is an Oak, Piety is a Cross, Knowledge is a Book, and Godly Fear (Peace) is a Dove.

Baptistry ceiling 3

Christ Church Cranbrook, detail of Baptistry Ceiling, 2015. P.D. Rearick, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

As former Cranbrook Center Collections Fellow Stephanie Kae Dlugosz-Acton wrote in the publication from her exhibition, Simple Forms, Stunning Glazes: “These symbols are centered on treetops resembling fleurs-de-lis. At the base of each of these saplings, a sea of blue tiles of varying shades surround two different animals, usually one mammal and one bird. All of the small tesserae tiles have the signature iridescence of Pewabic and create a glittering effect that shifts as one moves through the intimate and reverent space.”

Baptistry ceiling 2

Christ Church Cranbrook, detail of Baptistry Ceiling, 2015. P.D. Rearick, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

What a wonderful gift to all families who share a Christening in this Baptistry, and to all the visitors to Christ Church Cranbrook.

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar

New Center Logo & A Fond Farewell

The Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research has officially launched our new logo! What follows is a description of where each of the letters comes from in the history of Cranbrook or the location on the campus!

The (first) C in Cranbrook is from the logo George Gough Booth created for the Cranbrook Press in 1901, three years before he and his wife Ellen established their estate in Bloomfield Hills.

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The Cranbrook Press (1900-1902) was founded by George Booth in the attic of the Detroit Evening News Building.  Booth emulated the work of William Morris and his Kelmscott Press, not just in design but also in the level of hand-craftsmanship.

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The Green Lobby: A Cranbrook Gem

Cranbrook’s largest installation of Pewabic Pottery tile is at Kingswood School, boasting several fireplaces, and all of the dormitory bathrooms (forty-nine total), and most notably the infamous Green Lobby. Pewabic was not, nor was it ever intended to be a commercial manufacturer. And although the pottery was incredibly prolific, it was envisioned as an Arts & Crafts pottery, where each piece of tile was hand-molded.

As a result of its high quality craftsmanship, Pewabic had issues producing the amount of tile needed in the timeframe for the installation and completion of Kingswood School. The contractors responsible for installing the tile were forced to travel to Detroit twenty-six times for small batches of tile; in other words, as the pottery produced the tile batch by batch, the contractor would pick them up in an effort to maintain their scheduled completion date! Unfortunately this caused financial issues between Pewabic and the contractor due to the delayed production and inevitable delayed installation, not to mention the extra time and travel needed to obtain the batches which hindered the completion of the building.

Kingswood School Green Lobby, photographer PD Rearick, 2015

Kingswood School Green Lobby, photographer PD Rearick, 2015.

Despite these issues, the Green Lobby remains today as one of the gems of Cranbrook’s campus and is a favorite of students, faculty, and visitors alike. In 1931, the lobby featured a Pewabic fireplace, wainscoting, and flooring, as well as the staircase and railing to the second floor. However, when the lobby was restored in 1997, new floor tiles needed to be installed. Unfortunately, the floor tiles we see today are reproduction, not Pewabic though the original fireplace, wainscoting, and stairwell remain.

Green Lobby stairwell leading to the second floor, photographer PD Rearick, 2015.

Green Lobby stairwell leading to the second floor, photographer PD Rearick, 2015.

Stefanie Dlugosz-Acton, Collections Fellow, Center for Collections and Research

 

 

First Impressions; or Pride and Appreciation

As the newest staff member at the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, I am on a HUGE learning curve.  I knew, taking this position, that Cranbrook had a deep and rich history, and a long association with famous artists, designers, and architects.  However, my first days here were spent touring campus, witnessing just what those associations created.

My first impressions of the cultural properties I will be working with are “Wow! What?! Cool.”  I hope in the coming months to be able to share some of those moments on the Kitchen Sink, but here are my first three:

Wow: Green Lobby, Kingswood School.

Kingswood School Green Lobby, photographer George W. Hance, 1932. Cranbrook Archives.

Kingswood School Green Lobby, photographer George W. Hance, 1932. Cranbrook Archives.

What: The 319-acre campus was designated a National Historic Landmark on June 29, 1989 for its significant architecture and design – 319-acres full of cultural properties!

Cool: Thornlea – and I get to explore all the rooms.

Leslie S. Mio, Assistant Registrar, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Mary, Maija, and Toshiko: Re-Thinking Open Storage in the Collections Wing

Open storage.  Two words that mean nothing to the wider public, the phrase is a loaded one for museum professionals.  Love it or hate it (and I personally love it), open storage is an increasingly popular method of getting a museum collection—usually hidden away in the bowels of the institution—exposed to a wider audience.  Most museums only exhibit about 10% of their collection at one time, so building or retrofitting storage spaces to allow for public viewing of objects provides an opportunity to leverage museum storage and increase visitor-object interactions.  From the Luce Centers at the New York Historical Society and the Smithsonian American Art Museum to the open ceramics storage at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, more and more institutions are removing the physical barrier between their visitors and their objects—or at least replacing an opaque barrier with a glass one.

In 2008, Cranbrook Art Museum had the opportunity to redesign the museum’s storage from the ground up.  The museum chose to strike a balance between the all-access open storage model of a Luce Center or the new American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the traditional, old-fashioned model of closed-off storage with the rare “behind the scenes” mediated tour.  What resulted was the ceramics  vault in the new Collections Wing, a secure room with a glass wall that gives visitors—who enter the Collections Wing on one of the regularly scheduled weekly vault tours—a chance to look into storage and get a sense of the scope and depth of CAM’s holdings.  To add to the potential learning opportunities for visitors, no museum objects are assigned a permanent home on the first row of shelves in the vault.  Instead, the empty shelves serve as a miniature curatorial opportunity, with staff members changing out the objects on display there and tour guides serving as docents for “curated” shelves.

Ceramics vault in the newly built Collections Wing.  The first shelf is temporary shelving - it is used to curate within the collection. 2012. Jim Haefner/SmithGroup/Cranbrook Art Museum

The ceramics vault in the newly built Collections Wing. The first shelf is temporary shelving – Museum and Center staff use it to curate within the collection. Jim Haefner/SmithGroup/Cranbrook Art Museum, 2012.

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