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

The Fashions of Ruth Adler Schnee

Sometimes it seems there are infinite possible discoveries within a single archives collection. Such is the case with the Edward and Ruth Adler Schnee Papers. Just over a year ago I wrote about the Schnees’ long-running Detroit retail business, Adler/Schnee, but I knew then that story was only the tip of the iceberg.  

And so I was happy to find myself returning recently to one of my favorite collections in the Archives. Replacing materials that had been on loan to the Cranbrook Art Museum for their exhibit, Ruth Adler Schnee: Modern Designs for Living, I was once again struck by her achievements as a high school student at Cass Technical High School in Detroit from 1940-1942. In particular, her skill at fashion design. Maybe it was the months of hearing about sweatpants and Zoom shirts, but it was so refreshing to spend a few moments remembering what real fashion means. 

Ruth Adler Schnee illustration, circa 1941. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Before Ruth Adler Schnee made a name for herself in interior design, including her iconic textile designs, she was interested in becoming a fashion designer. Attending Cass Tech afforded Ruth the opportunity to nurture her natural artistic talents, which are clearly evident in drawings from her primary school days. And, she had already shown an affinity for fashion design—out of necessity, Ruth had already been designing her own clothes since she was a 13-year-old Jewish girl in Nazi Germany (her family emigrated in 1939).

Amongst other documents in her collection, the story of Ruth’s high school years and her passion for fashion are perhaps best captured in three notebooks. One of my favorite boxes in the collection holds nothing but pages from a notebook entitled Dress Design VI. Labeled “hours 1-4″ it is clearly a class project, and one for which Ruth received high marks. Divided into four parts (Machine Attachments, Illustrative Material, Drafting Problems, and Analysis of Dresses), the book includes drawings, pattern pieces (not to scale), paper mockups of mainly women’s sportswear designs, samples of sewing technique (actual fabric pinned to the page), textile identification pages (with real fabric samples), and an essay on silk. 

Sleeve Form page, in “Notes on the Draping of Garments,” Ruth Adler Schnee, circa 1942. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.
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Adler/Schnee: A Detroit Institution

Today is Black Friday, but did you know tomorrow is Small Business Saturday? Started nine years ago to encourage patronage of locally owned and operated shops, this Saturday after Thanksgiving event isn’t the first attempt to attract shoppers to help sustain a neighborhood economy. In Detroit in the 1960s and 70s, few did it with more aplomb and civic mindedness than Edward and Ruth Adler Schnee.

While assisting Cranbrook Art Museum staff with preparation for their upcoming exhibit Ruth Adler Schnee – Modern Designs for Living, I had the opportunity to learn more about Ruth and Edward’s Detroit retail business. Started in 1948 as a fabric design and silk screening business on 12th Street, it was their flagship store (and final location of four) that especially caught my interest. It was this store that uniquely illustrates Edward’s business acumen, Ruth’s design talent, and the couple’s dedication to the city of Detroit.

 

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Flyer for Harmonie Park store opening, 1964. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

When Adler/Schnee moved its operation of sixteen years from Northwest Detroit to Harmonie Park in 1964, its owners had more than just profits in mind. In form letters found in their collection, Ed Schnee writes to announce the official opening of their new location:

Since your interest and concern in the future of ‘Downtown Detroit’ is well known and ably evidenced, you may be interested to know that … we have recently moved. Mrs. Schnee and I have watched the growth of the central city with great interest for the past several years and now feel that we can make a contribution to this growth and participate actively in the new manifestation of vitality in Downtown and confidently link our future to this area. It is our earnest desire to so conduct our specialty shop that it will be a stimulating force in the Central Business District and in particular, Harmonie Park, which we feel has the potentiality of a charming little Parisian Square.

That December, Adler/Schnee had already banded with local merchants in events designed to create interest in the neighborhood and its businesses. As the November 11, 1964 Downtown Monitor stated: “It begins to look as though the wise merchants of Harmonie Park are going to create a stir among less aware business men [of] the downtown area. Watch for their latest combined effort, “Holiday Lark on Harmonie Park” – complete with a rolling chestnut roaster, popcorn wagon, gay holiday decorations and maybe even a choral concert by the Club Harmonie itself.”

Adler/Schnee’s advertisement  for the event demonstrates their enthusiasm, “Adler/Schnee FUN FAIR: Fabulous Fripperies, Frivolous Fantasies, Functional Furnishings from far-flung lands. For family – friends – home – office – etc.” A version of ‘Holiday Lark’ was still going strong in 1976, as evidenced by a Detroit Free Press headline: “A Languorous Experience – Harmonie Park in Tune with the Season” and this flyer:

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Christmas Walk event flyer with logo designed by Ruth Adler Schnee. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

These holiday events were just one of many Harmonie Park happenings, and until the business was sold in 1977, the Schnee’s ‘modern general store’ was an important part of Detroit’s economic and cultural history. A mainstay in an enclave of art-related commerce, also anchored by the Detroit Artists’ Market, Ruth and Edward’s retail store became a destination. The many clippings, correspondence, and advertisements in their collection are testament to a business philosophy that encompassed their immediate surroundings, with such efforts as the Harmonie Park Improvement Plan, and the purchase of their building in 1971 to preserve its 1901 architecture and utilize its seven floors to create a design center. Throughout a period that would span both civil and economic upheaval, Adler/Schnee was a bright spot (literally and figuratively) in the city’s landscape.

Read more about the Schnee’s retail business or learn more about the remarkable designer, Ruth Adler Schnee, in the Edward and Ruth Adler Schnee Papers, or in the upcoming Schnee exhibition at Cranbrook Art Museum, December 14th through March 15, 2020.

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist

A Fond Farewell

It’s been a little over five years since I accepted a position as archivist at Cranbrook Archives. I had toured the Archives some years before, when I first became photo archivist in the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library. Though familiar with Cranbrook from growing up in the area, I thought, boy, this would be a cool place to work.

My wishful thinking turned into reality when, after retiring from Detroit Public Library and working as a volunteer in Cranbrook Archives, a position opened up. Lucky me! And my first assignment was to process the papers of Edward and Ruth Adler Schnee. I had shopped in their iconic store in Harmonie Park and was delighted to meet Ruth and hear all about her fascinating life, which gave me a framework for processing her papers.

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Ruth Adler Schnee in a fun moment.

Meeting Ruth was just the beginning of a deep plunge into subjects of which I was only marginally aware: the George Gough Booth family who founded Cranbrook; the Saarinens who designed its campus, many of its buildings and furnishings; artists such as Harry Bertoia, Marianne Strengell, Katherine McEwen, Charles & Ray Eames, Maija Grotell, Harry Weese. My head was spinning trying to keep up!

Gradually I became familiar with the history of Cranbrook as documented by the rich material in the Cranbrook Archives. The manuscript collection (institutional and individual), the photograph collection, the architectural drawings, and the myriad other informational sources, not to mention my coworkers, other Cranbrook staff, and Archives’ volunteers, all helped fill in the blanks. Most of all, head archivist Leslie S. Edwards, guided me through the intricacies of building names and campus personalities, filling me in on strange anomalies such as Chanticleer Cottage, or some of the unheralded people like the Vettraino family or John Buckberrough who, in small but important ways, helped make Cranbrook what it is today.

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A favorite view when eating outside in the summer!

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m moving on to other adventures; today is my last day. I learned so much here, thanks to everyone I worked with. And it turns out I was right. Cranbrook is a cool place to work!

– Cheri Gay, Archivist

 

Highlighting Access: The Edward and Ruth Adler Schnee Papers

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Recently the staff of the Cranbrook Archives announced the online addition of The Edward and Ruth Adler Schnee Papers which was  donated to the Archives in 2010.  While the website is not a biography of Ruth or Eddie’s life, it is a tribute to the work they created as evidenced by the materials in the collection. 

Archives Assistant Justine Tobiasz designed the web pages “drawing from Schnee’s designs and sketches.” She was inspired by, and wanted to pay tribute to, Schnee’s use of color  when creating the site about the collection.  Moving forward I hope that we can find ways to create sites for other collections. I think it’s a good way for us to use the incredible materials we have to convey a ‘whole picture’ view of our mind-blowing collections.” 

Working within the constraints of our web portal was very challenging – it did not allow free reign, and Justine had to find ways to display the content exactly how the staff wanted it to be.  All of the Archives staff worked collaboratively to create the content, digitize the images and post them up on CONTENTdm (our digital asset management system), and find external links to populate the design created by Justine.

Check out this addition and let us know what you think!

Stefanie Dlugosz, Collections Fellow, Center for Collections and Research & Justine Tobiasz, Archives Assistant

Dear Diary: Women in Their Own Words

“When women tell their life stories in their own words, a distinct enthusiasm, engagement and affirmation emerges . . . these are the stories in which women are the central actors, even if their stories are camouflaged by modesty and disclaimers.” So writes Judy Nolte Lensink in Perspectives on Women’s Archives. One of the most common ways in which women tell their life stories is through their personal diaries. The stories can range from day-to-day events, personal reflections, or comments about the world at large. Nearly every archive has diaries in its collection, and ours is no exception. Below are a few examples of the range of journals found in the Cranbrook Archives.

Harriet Messinger Scripps, circa 1872. Cranbrook Archives.

Harriet Messinger Scripps, circa 1872. Cranbrook Archives.

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Dispatch from the Archives: All Things Modernism

Mid-century Modernism has taken over my life!  I eat, sleep, and even dream Modernism these days.  In my role as Head Archivist, I wear many hats – the most recent being to assist the Michigan Modern curatorial team by locating all the cool “stuff” in our Archives related to the upcoming exhibition, which will be opening at the Cranbrook Art Museum on June 14, 2013.  This includes photographs, of course, but the most fun for me is finding correspondence, articles, and ephemera that when put together create a mosaic of a time or place. Continue reading

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