Out of the Ordinary: Cranbrook and the Chair

Last week, I was happy to welcome a small group tour into the reading room to view archival materials about chairs. After the tour request appeared in my inbox, I learned a lot about chairs in a short time and found a new appreciation for this commonplace object. 

As I searched and gathered materials for the display, I began to see how imagination and inspiration can transform an ordinary thing from complete obscurity to one of curiosity and sometimes great celebrity.  

Florence Knoll in Eero Saarinen’s Grasshopper Chair in the Dallas Original Showroom, 1950. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

The chair has been creatively reinvented time and again according to the social context of its use, the cultural meaning imbued in it, or the inspiration from which its design sprang. Just think throne, pew, sofa, deck chair, chaise-lounge, and so on. 

Take one of Cranbrook’s most iconic chairs – Eliel Saarinen Cranbrook School dining hall chair. Designed to withstand use by teenage boys, it combines durability with sophistication and has stood the test of time as they are still in use after 94 years. At the back of each chair is a bronze crane insert, a symbol that subtly gives identity to the community using the chair.

Cranbrook School Dining Hall, October 1936. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The 1940s and 1950s saw a flourishing of chair design from Academy of Art graduates, including Florence Schust Knoll BassettRalph Rapson (the first Cranbrook-trained designer to work for Knoll), Charles Eames, Benjamin Baldwin, Harry Weese, and Ruth Adler Schnee. The Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1941 generated many of these designs, including collaborative entries from Baldwin and Weese, as well as Eames and Eero Saarinen. 

Interestingly, Eero’s later chair designs are all much inspired by nature—the Grasshopper chair, the Womb chair, and the Tulip Chair.  

Eero Saarinen sitting in the prototype of his Womb Chair at his Vaughn Road home. 18 June 1947. Photographer: Harvey Croze. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Inspired by nature in a different way, Finnish architect and furniture designer Olav Hammarstrom has a variety of designs that are born of the possibilities to which natural materials lend themselves. Hammarstrom worked with Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen and Associates, working on projects such as the Baker House dormitory at MIT and the furnishings at the GM Tech Center. Married to Head of the Weaving Department Marianne Strengell, he designed their house in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, as well as houses for friends and colleagues, along with chairs to go in them.

Bamboo Experimental “Basketchair” by Olav Hammarstrom. 10 February 1956. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Furniture design was also the focus of another Academy affiliated designer, Pipsan Saarinen Swanson. Working in partnership with her husband, architect J. Robert F. Swanson, Pipsan typically designed the interiors while he designed the structure and exterior.

Chair designed by Pipsan Saarinen Swanson. December 8, 1945. Photographer: Harvey Croze. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

But Robert Swanson also designed furniture. Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned was that Swanson invented a ‘Stackable Chair,’ patented in 1957. A form we take for granted nowadays, these chairs can still be found in many buildings and classrooms on Cranbrook’s campus.

The “Stackable Chair” by J. Robert F. Swanson, 1957. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

It was a great pleasure to share these archival stories with our guests and to explore Cranbrook’s part in the story of the chair. In the process I learned to see an everyday thing in a new light and how creativity can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. 

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

One Competition, Many Designs: Ralph Rapson and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

Of the 5,000 plus architectural drawings in Cranbrook Archives, one of my favorite series is the work of Ralph Rapson. His drawings convey a seemingly endless stream of unique inspiration, and his letters to his friends and colleagues are always wonderfully lively and convivial. Rapson’s work covers diverse projects including residences, embassies, businesses, and competitions.

Today, I want to share some examples from just one architectural competition to showcase this creativity: Rapson’s studies for his entry into the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial competition.

Ralph Rapson’s preliminary study for a submission to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial competition in 1948. This is very similar to his final submission.

A decade before the Memorial competition, Rapson had been invited to study architecture and urban planning at Cranbrook Academy of Art by Eliel Saarinen. Saarinen had been much impressed by Rapson’s submission to the George G. Booth Traveling Fellowship at the University of Michigan in 1938. After studying at the Academy between 1938 and 1940, Rapson collaborated on various projects with Saarinen and his associates before moving to teaching positions in Chicago during the early 1940s and at MIT in 1946.

Ralph Rapson, January 1943. Cranbrook Archives

In March 1947, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association announced an ‘Open Two-Stage Competition’ to design and execute a memorial located in St. Louis, Missouri. The first stage of the competition was open to all architects who were citizens of the United States and the second stage was limited to five competitors as selected by the jury in the first stage.

The competition brief was distributed to some 1,100 architects and students around the country. 172 entries were received by the September 1, 1947 deadline. Cranbrook Archives.

In the architectural drawing set for Rapson’s submission, there are nineteen conceptual studies. These have recently been digitized and added to the Ralph Rapson Projects in our Digital Collections online. Below is a selection of his studies that show the diversity and breadth of Rapson’s creative vision:

It is interesting to see Rapson work out his ideas in ink and colored pencil about what shape, materials, and structure might best serve as a memorial to Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and America’s westward expansion.

In addition to Rapson, Cranbrook alumni and faculty including Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Weese, Gyo Obata, and both Eliel and Eero Saarinen submitted designs. Of course, it was Eero’s monumental stainless steel arch that won the competition and remains an iconic landmark to this day.

There is much to see and learn from Rapson’s drawings for just this one project. As we hold sets of drawings for another 87 of his projects, stay tuned to the Kitchen Sink—there is so much more to see and say about Ralph Rapson.

Laura MacNewmanAssociate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Eds. Note: On Tuesday, October 27, 2020, Associate Curator Kevin Adkisson will deliver our next Uncovering Cranbrook virtual lecture. This month’s lecture, Eero Saarinen and Yale University: Education and Architecture, will examine the younger Saarinen’s time at Yale as both a student of architecture and designer of three important campus buildings. Tickets are available now for the 10:00am and 7:00pm EDT lectures.

Discovering the University of Michigan in the collections of Cranbrook Archives

In October, the University of Michigan Osher Lifelong Learning group visited Cranbrook for a lecture, luncheon, and tours of our historic houses, the Art Museum, and Cranbrook Archives. In gathering materials related to the university, I found that my growing archival display began to tell a wonderful story of the early relationship between the Booth family and the University of Michigan, predominantly between 1918 and 1924. The story begins with the friendship of George Booth and Emil Lorch.

Born in Detroit in 1870, Lorch had studied at MIT and Paris, before graduating Master of Arts at Harvard in 1903. In 1906, he arrived at the University of Michigan to establish the School of Architecture, which remained a unit of the School of Engineering until 1931. The correspondence between Booth and Lorch covers a manifold of topics over many years.

 

On January 11, 1918, George Booth gave an address to the students of the departments of Journalism and Architecture at the university, entitled The Spirit of Journalism and Architecture which focused on the development of the Detroit News business and the new News building, which had been recently completed.

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Program for an address, The Spirit of Journalism and Architecture, delivered by George Booth at the University of Michigan, January 11, 1918. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

Later that year, in October, George’s son, Henry Scripps Booth began his studies in architecture at the university. It was there that he met J. Robert F. Swanson, with whom he traveled Europe for ten months beginning in June 1922, and later established the architectural practice Swanson and Booth between 1924 and 1926. Henry took with him letters of endorsement to help facilitate access to architectural treasures on their journey, including one from Professor Lorch:

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Letter of introduction for Henry Booth from Emil Lorch, July 17, 1922. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Eliel Saarinen arrived at the University of Michigan as a Visiting Professor at the invitation of Emil Lorch the next year, staying from September 1923 through 1925. To extend a warm welcome, Henry wrote, costumed, and performed in a pageant in honor of Saarinen. Many of Henry’s classmates performed in the pageant, including Ralph Calder and J. Robert F. Swanson, who also designed the program. The event took place on December 8, 1923, in the Michigan Union ballroom. Many of the members of the Michigan Society of Architects and the Michigan branch of the American Institute of Architects were present. During the dinner, George G. Booth made the principal address of welcome to Eliel.

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Program for A Pageant of Arts and Crafts, a Reception for Eliel Saarinen, program design by J. Robert F. Swanson, December 1923. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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Interior of the program. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Henry and Robert graduated from the University of Michigan in 1924. Graduating with them was Ralph Calder, who was also one of the first two students to win the George G. Booth Traveling Fellowship, with which he traveled to England, France, and Italy. The fellowship continues to this day. Calder was among the original staff of the Cranbrook Architectural Office, working on Cranbrook School and Thornlea House. He later went on to design many buildings for colleges and universities in Michigan, including Michigan State University, Western Michigan University, Wayne State University, Hope College, and Hillsdale College.

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Letter concerning the Booth Traveling Fellowship from the first recipient Ralph Calder to George G. Booth, June 12, 1924. Notice the Michigan logo on the letterhead. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

In another Cranbrook connection, Ralph Rapson submitted a Fellowship entry in 1938, and, while he didn’t win, his submission impressed Eliel Saarinen so much that Rapson was given a scholarship to the Art Academy.

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Ralph Rapson’s submission to the George G. Booth Traveling Fellowship, AD.26.01.03. Ralph Rapson Architectural Drawing Collection, Cranbrook Archives. Gift of Rip Rapson.

There is much more in our collections about the University of Michigan; this post has selected items covering only the early years. In preparing for the Osher tour, I realized that, while the contents of processed archival collections remain the same, what we find in them depends on the question being asked. The collections of George G. Booth, Henry S. Booth, the Cranbrook Foundation, Swanson Associates, Inc. are among the most highly used and yet there is always something new to learn, something wonderful to discover.

— Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

Ralph Rapson: New Archival Collection

Cranbrook Archives is excited to announce the opening of the Ralph Rapson Collection (1935-1954) for research. The collection focuses on the early years of Rapson’s work, including his time as a student at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Rapson’s later work is retained at the Northwest Architectural Archives at the University of Minnesota, where he was the Dean of the School of Architecture from 1954-1984.

Rapson was born in Alma, Michigan in 1914. He earned Architecture degrees at the University of Michigan (1938) and at Cranbrook Academy of Art (1940). Upon completing his studies at CAA, Rapson set up his studio and was invited to help Eliel Saarinen with a planning project, which was to provide an analysis of the site for a new State Capitol complex in Lansing, Michigan. Following this experience, Rapson decided to focus more on architecture than planning. Between 1938 and 1942, Rapson contributed designs and drawings, and built models, for various projects and competitions for Eliel Saarinen and his associates.

While at Cranbrook, Rapson collaborated on several competition drawings with Eero Saarinen, Frederick James, David Runnells, Walter Hickey, Harry Weese and others. Rapson established an early reputation for his experimental concept houses like the 1939 “Cave House” and “Fabric House,” (both designed at CAA with fellow student David Runnells) and the 1945 “Greenbelt House” or Case Study House #4, one of the experiments in American residential architecture sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine.

Case Study House #4 for Arts & Architecture magazine, Jun 1944.

In the early 1940s, Rapson moved to Chicago where he taught under the Hungarian Bauhaus artist, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Rapson served as Head of the Architectural Curriculum at the Institute of Design (New Bauhaus) from 1942-1946. He left this position late in 1946, when MIT Dean of Architecture, William Wurster, invited him to relocate to Massachusetts where he taught architecture alongside Finnish architect, Alvar Aaalto.

In 1951, Rapson was hired by the U.S. State Department to design a series of American embassies in Western Europe with architect John Van der Meulen. Rapson worked on several embassy projects, as well as residential projects, in the mid-1950s. In the spring of 1954, Rapson and his family moved to Minnesota where Rapson served as the Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota from 1954-1984. He continued to work in private practice in Minneapolis until his death in 2008 at the age of 93.

The Ralph Rapson Collection includes project files, research, correspondence, architectural drawings, and photographic material from many of Rapson’s embassy projects, as well as design competition materials and residential projects. In addition to the physical collection, a digital site (including drawings, photographs, and ephemera) is now accessible from our web site. The Archives staff will continue to add to this site, as more material is digitized.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

Sources:
Hession, Jane King, Rapson, Rip, and Wright, Bruce. Ralph Rapson Sixty Years of Modern Design. Afton, MN: Afton Historical Society Press, 1999.

Heyer, Paul, ed. Architects on Architecture. New York: Walker and Co. 1965.

Harry and Nerissa Hoey’s Weekend Retreat

While cataloging some of the Ralph Rapson architectural drawings in our collection, archivist Gina Tecos and I discovered designs for “Longshadows,” a weekend retreat for Cranbrook School English teacher (and later Headmaster) Harry Hoey and his wife, Nerissa. Hoey came to Cranbrook in 1928, where he taught English until 1944 when he became Assistant Headmaster (1944-1950) and then Headmaster (1950-1964) of Cranbrook School. While the Hoeys lived on campus, first on Faculty Way, and later in the Headmaster’s House, they commissioned Rapson, along with fellow Cranbrook student Walter Hickey, to design a weekend vacation home in Metamora, Lapeer County.

Elevation by Ralph Rapson, 1939. The Ralph Rapson Collection, 1935-1954, Cranbrook Archives.

Coincidentally, I have been corresponding with the Hoeys’s granddaughter, Susan, regarding the disposition of her grandfather’s papers to Cranbrook Archives. In the course of this correspondence, I asked Susan about the home. While Rapson called the home “Longshadows,” the family called it “Hoyden.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “hoyden” means “a girl or woman of saucy, boisterous, or carefree behavior” and the word is sometimes used to mean just “carefree.” As Susan stated, “Somehow, though I have no way to prove it, I am guessing this word was in my grandmother’s [Nerissa] vocabulary. Anyway, it seems to fit the bill for a weekend/summer place.”

Susan’s mother has fond memories of the weekend house – as a five-year old girl when she walked up the hill to the house behind her mother, the forty acre property looked endless. She remembers falling in the wild strawberry patch and staining her dress, and playing with the girl across the street whose father tended the property for the Hoeys.

“Hoyden,” 1940. The Ralph Rapson Collection, 1935-1954, Cranbrook Archives.

The summer the house was completed (1940), the Hoeys began hosting numerous Cranbrook guests who wanted to see the midcentury modern design. Guests included Dorothy and Zoltan Sepeshy of the Academy of Art, Henry and Carolyn Booth, and of course numerous Cranbrook faculty.

Page from the Hoyden Guest Book, 1940. Courtesy Harry and Nerissa Hoey Family.

In a letter to fellow Cranbrook student Ben Baldwin, Rapson described the house as clad in red wood, left natural, with a flat roof. The house had three bedrooms, two fireplaces, and even a basement for storage and a play room. The house still stands today, though it has had some minor additions and has been painted. It is one of Rapson’s only Michigan designs. Hopefully, we will soon have additional photographs of the house, and perhaps even more stories about the relationship between Hoey and Rapson.

NOTE: Harry and Nerissa Hoey were well-loved at Cranbrook. He also served on the vestry of Christ Church Cranbrook. Not only was Harry an effective administrator, but he was one who led the school with kindness and compassion. On the birthday of each boy in the school, Hoey would greet them with them a “happy birthday,” and shake their hand into which he pressed a shiny penny! On his 85th birthday, Hoey’s former students surprised him by mailing birthday cards – each one with pennies – he received over 500.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

To Sit or Not to Sit

Chair design at Cranbrook has always had its own special niche and fascination among artists and patrons alike. George Booth altered chair designs for his own use at Cranbrook House. Eliel Saarinen designed unique chairs for Cranbrook School and Saarinen House. Ralph Rapson conceived of his chair design for what became known as the Rapson Rocker while a student here. Most of us are familiar with the famous chair designers, but what about projects by less famous designers?

During the war years, Academy of Art students were encouraged to experiment with modern design and new and unusual materials. In 1944, Academy students Gloria Bucerzan and Jean Roberts designed and constructed a chair born of war shortages, by eliminating the use of springs and creating webbing using “non-critical” materials.

Gloria (left) and Jean with woodworking instructor Svend Steen, 1944. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

Unknown student setting up work for Student Show, 1958. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

Unknown student setting up work for Student Show, 1958. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

Art Room, Early Childhood Center at Brookside School, 1997. Chairs designed by Dan Hoffman, Cranbrook Architecture Office. Photograph copyright Christina Capetillo.

Art Room, Early Childhood Center at Brookside School, 1997. Chairs designed by Dan Hoffman, Cranbrook Architecture Office. Photograph copyright Christina Capetillo.

For more on chair design in general, check out the 2012 Year of No-Chair-Design and the Guide to Great Chair Design which features links to chair blogs, the history of chair design, museums, galleries, and books that all feature what else? Chairs!

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

Photo Friday: Happy Birthday Ralph Rapson!

New Moon by Ralph Rapson

Plan for Rapson’s New Moon Homes, Alma, Michigan, 1945. (Project not realized) Cranbrook Archives

In honor of Ralph Rapson’s 100th birthday, (September 13th) today’s Photo Friday features images from the Ralph Rapson Collection (1935-1954). Rapson studied architecture under Eliel Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1938-1940.  He worked in the Saarinen office until 1941 when he moved to Chicago and taught at the New Bauhaus with Lazlo Moholy-Nagy.  In 1954, he relocated to Minneapolis where he established the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture.  One of the country’s leading modernist architects, Rapson created hundreds of sketches and is perhaps best known for his whimsical illustrations of people and transportation.

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Telegram announcing Ralph Rapson’s first prize win for the “Lopez House” in the House and Garden Architectural Design Contest, 1945. Cranbrook Archives

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist, and Gina Tecos, Archivist

Photo Friday: Cranbrook’s Super Bowl

Ralph Rapson (left, holdign the football), plays football with fellow Cranbrook Academy of Art students. September, 1939. Richard P. Raseman/Cranbrook Archives

Ralph Rapson (right, holding the football), plays football with fellow Cranbrook Academy of Art students. September, 1939. Richard P. Raseman/Cranbrook Archives.

Okay, so “super bowl” might be overstating it. Still, this photo of Cranbrook Academy of Art students enjoying an afternoon game on campus should get you into an appropriately Cranbrook-y mood for the upcoming NFL Super Bowl. So far we’ve identified Ralph Rapson, noted mid-century architect and long-time head of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture, in the white shirt holding the football. If anyone identifies the other players, though, please let us know in the comments!

Surely Shirley: an Early Knoll Textile

Architect Ralph Rapson may be a household word, especially among aficionados of mid-century modern architecture.  But few likely know of the creative talents of his first wife, Shirley Fletcher.  Just out of high school in 1941, Shirley enrolled in the Intermediate School at Cranbrook Academy of Art.  Like many other students of the day, she spent time in various departments, but found her niche in the weaving department under Marianne Strengell.  While here, she developed a series of block-printed textile designs.  Though she did not continue past her first year (she left to marry Ralph!), Shirley continued to design textiles after she left Cranbrook.

In 1944, Hans Knoll and Ralph Rapson (who was designing furniture at the time for Knoll) discussed the formation of a textile division within Knoll.  Their idea was to introduce contemporary textiles that would complement the modern furniture being produced by the company.  The following year, Rapson brought  Shirley’s designs to the attention of Hans Knoll and her textile “Isles” became one of the earliest printed fabrics at Knoll.  Marianne Strengell may also have contributed to Knoll’s decision to feature “Isles” which was published as part of an assemblage of Academy of Art student “textile studies” in the July 1945 issue of Arts and Architecture.

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“Isles” by Shirley Fletcher Rapson in Arts and Architecture, July 1945.

In October, Hans Knoll wrote Rapson that even though they were “very anxious to do something with Shirley’s fabrics,” due to the shortage of materials during the war, they had to wait until adequate supplies of cloth could be acquired.  The pattern was slightly altered (notice the solid in-fill blocks) when Florence Schust Knoll used “Isles” for drapery in the Rockefeller family offices at Rockefeller Center in 1946.

"Furniture by H.G. Knoll & Associates," Arts & Architecture, September 1947, p. 24. Cranbrook Academy of Art Library.

“Furniture by H.G. Knoll & Associates,” Arts & Architecture, September 1947, p. 24. Cranbrook Academy of Art Library.

The Knoll Textile Division debuted in February 1947 in a new Knoll showroom in New York.  Shirley Rapson textiles were part of the collection (a slightly different version of “Isles” was offered in four different color ways), along with designs by Cranbrook’s Marianne Strengell and Antoinette “Toni” Webster Prestini.

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Shirley Rapson’s”Isles” at the Rockefeller Center family office building, 1946.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

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