The Grand Old Man of the Overmantel

On a visit to Cranbrook House, Johannes Kirchmayer’s overmantel is one of the first things to catch your attention. Tours and blog posts have examined this chef d’œuvre and its iconography, and admirers tracing the quotation popping out from the carved eglantine find it a typical George Booth choice: art, nature, his love for both. The inscription reads: 

“Nature I loved and next to nature art”

Cranbrook is the Booths’ creation, brimming with art and nature and George Booth quotes, but who wrote this line, and how did it end up in such a prominent spot? 

Johannes Kirchmayer’s overmantel at Cranbrook House, 1918. The Walter Savage Landor quote is called out in gold leaf at the top of the overmantel. Photograph by PD Rearick, CAA ’10. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

It comes from the pen of Walter Savage Landor.

Born into minor aristocratic wealth in Warwick, England, in 1775, Landor was a wild child, quite possibly because he was sent away to school at 4 ½ years old and was a wonderment to his parents who didn’t know what to do with a child who wrote Latin as well as he wrote English and showed remarkable talent for not obeying rules of any kind.

Walter Savage Landor in profile, from Walter Savage Landor: A Biography by John Forster, 1869. Courtesy Heritage Auctions.

Landor enjoyed such violent fights over political opinion that his parents banned him from the dinner table when guests were present. No school could hang onto him. Even Trinity College, Oxford had enough of his rebelliousness, his anti-government stance, his French Revolution republican garb. Landor fought back by writing nasty aphoristic poems about his critics in Latin and English, a practice he continued throughout his life. He was particularly vicious in Latin, partly because in England libel laws did not extend to texts in Latin. He was very clever and iconoclastic, favoring social reform and liberal nationalism. He felt himself superior to others and hated competition just in case it might prove him wrong. Hence his epigram, if not epitaph, written on his 74th birthday in 1849:

FINIS

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife:

Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art:

I warmed both hands before the fire of life;

It sinks; and I am ready to depart.

He may have been ready to depart, but it would be another fifteen years before he got around to it.

Much earlier, in 1805, Landor inherited a huge amount of money from his father and determined to set up an estate in Wales, restore an abandoned priory on the property, build a large mansion, and reform the peasantry. Impetuous as ever, he flew off to Spain in 1808 to fight in the Peninsular War against Napoleon’s generals, raising his own regiment. Unfortunately, Landor couldn’t stop himself from quarreling with hosts, commanding officers, and his own troops whereupon he fled back to Wales to find building materials for his hoped-for mansion had trickled away much as had his regiment.

Ruins of Llanthony Priory. Photograph copyright Gordon Hatton, reused by CC BY-SA 2.0.

Here we enter into the realm of coincidence. Landor, an Englishman, building in Wales, found upon his return from Spain that the locals had run off with a lot of his bricks. In an 1809 letter to the local bishop, Landor cursed the Welsh in his inimitable manner insisting that they would demolish the tomb of famed poet Taliesin if they could get away with it. For those readers who are architecture buffs, the name Taliesin can only conjure up one image, not that of the 5th or 6th century Welsh bard, but that of Welsh-connected Frank Lloyd Wright who thus named his east and west architectural compounds, citing the translation as “shining brow.”

But, back to Landor. Once restored to the throne, the king of Spain sent Landor a flock of sheep in recognition for his services. When the sheep arrived at the English docks, they were assumed to be a gift for the king (George III), and try as he might, Landor could not get them back, and one couldn’t sue the king. He had to wait until George IV died before publishing his opinion, one of his most famous attacks:

George the First was always reckoned

Vile, but viler George the Second.

And what mortal ever heard

A good word of George the Third,

But when from earth the Fourth descended

God be praised the Georges ended.

Alas, even though Landor was able to persuade a lovely young woman, 16 years his junior, to marry him in 1811, all was not well. Quarrelsome as always and with no business sense, Landor fled again from Wales to Fiesole outside Florence in Italy where he fared slightly better. In spite of money troubles and a wife who loved to taunt him about his age, this was the period of his great creativity, writing the totally invented Imaginary Conversations between two famous historical people. Poets such as Byron and Robert Southey loved his work, Byron even doing Landor the honor of stealing the Greek name chosen for a young Landor love to apply to the principal lady in his Child Harold. Readers struggled through these long obscure works (or didn’t) and praised a beautifully succinct passage or two, and those are the excerpts along with his crusty aphorisms that made him famous.

Walter Savage Landor’s two volume Pericles and Aspasia at Saarinen House, a gift from George G. Booth to Eliel Saarinen. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

And here is the second coincidence. The inscription in Cranbrook House inspired this blog on Landor, who deserved some recognition. Yet it was while idling in Saarinen House waiting for a COVID-safe tour for Cranbrook students that I found myself looking at the beauty spots of the house. My eye fell on the table in the book room. Upon it lay a couple of tastefully placed little books from the Saarinen collection. I peered at the spine and saw in gold capitals the name LANDOR. They were volumes one and two of his Conversation Pericles and Aspasia, his best-known conversation, first published 1836. The flyleaf revealed the occasion for a gift to Saarinen upon his 60th birthday in 1933, wishing him a happy life, signed G. G. Booth.

Inscribed flyleaf of Pericles and Aspasia from Booth to Saarinen on the latter’s 60th birthday, August 20, 1933. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Pericles was the great Athenian general of the 5th century BCE Peloponnesian wars, and Aspasia his female companion. Their conversation by Landor is a series of letters between the lovers and their immediate companions with walk-on roles for Aeschylus, Pindar, Socrates, and Alcibiades.

First page of Landor’s Pericles and Aspasia. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The language is high-flown and not all that accessible; no wonder Landor is hardly known today.

He continued to quarrel with everyone, finally getting thrown out of his own house in 1835 at age 60 by wife, daughter and one son, and fled Italy after scurrilous Latin verses excited the authorities. Back in England, as irascible as ever, Landor continued to write conversations and poems and found himself the grand old man of letters as his fame grew. Carlyle, Tennyson, Browning, Trollope, and Dickens (Landor appears in Bleak House as Lawrence Boythorn) were admiring dinner companions when Landor wasn’t in too bad a temper.

Villa La Torraccia, or Villa Landor, in Fiesole, Italy. Photograph by Sailko, reused by CC BY 3.0.

His last six years were spent back in Italy. He died, escaping as usual, in a hotel in Florence in 1864. The villa was later bought by explorer Willard Fiske and renamed Villa Landor. The villa, altered over the years, is now the Fiesole School of Music, echoing no doubt to the rages and laughter of its most prominent owner. Llanthony Priory continued to decay until protected by the Welsh government cultural group, Cadw.

Even though Landor’s life can hardly have met his approval, it is not surprising, perhaps, that George Booth found a quote from the grand old man of the previous century to adorn his own masterpiece, though one might find the use of the word “strife” ambiguous. Just as well Booth chose only the line that suited his purpose: “Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art.” The grand old man has come to rest.

–Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter

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!

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.

IMG_7359

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.

Cranbrook Weaving Studio Loja Saarinen April 1936 Neg 3354

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.

IMG_7745

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.

IMG_7749

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.

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.

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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

Greta Skogster, a Mystery Woman No Longer

On tours of Saarinen House, visitors in the dining room are sandwiched between Greta Skogster’s hanging and leaded glass doors. They look one way to see a courtyard with leafed-out trees beyond; they look the other way to see a wall-sized hanging with birds and a tree and foliage.

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Dining Room of Saarinen House, Copyright Balthazar Korab/Cranbrook Art Museum.

Greta Skogster (1900-1994) herself was a one-woman phenomenon, running her own textile business in Finland. She was born in the small southwest town of Hämeenlinna in 1900, and as far as I can gather studied textiles at the Helsinki Central School of Arts and Crafts. At the time, in the 1920s, students from educated backgrounds were not actually trained to operate loom. They became designers and managers and engaged others to manufacture their designs. 

Greta Skogster

Greta Skogster-Lehtinen at work. Image © Greta and William Lehtinen Foundation

Skogster founded her own company in 1929named it Textile Officeand started producing hand-made designs by the yard and carpets for commercial use. In 1930 her work appeared alongside that of architectAlvar and Aino Aalto in the Small Apartment Exhibition in Helsinki, and from there her company grew apace.

Enter William Lehtinen (1895-1975) who went from studying forestry in Helsinki to earning his Masters of Forestry at Yale in 1926. He served as a trade attaché for Finland’s wood processing industries before returning home in 1930 to join the firm of Enso-Gutzeit, Finland’s largest pulp and paper company. So talented was forester Lehtinen that he rescued the company from post-war ruin and outmoded Russian machinery and became its CEO, transforming Finnish paper production along the way. The company still exists. 

By 1937 Skogster and Lehtinen were married and had moved her studio to Enso in eastern Finland, where her Textile Office became one of the largest private textile companies in the country with power looms and 23 employees. If you had been in Finland at that time you would have seen her work on Finnish trains, on the seats of factory offices, in all the best restaurants, in the headquarters of Enso-Gutzeit and in the upholstery of Eliel Saarinen’s Helsinki Central Railway Station. Her textiles even come to the USA at the 1947 Finnish House in New York’s Murray Hill where the Finnish American Trading Company had set up a showroom to promote trade.

Main Restaurant Hall 1947

Interior of The Finland House with hangings by Greta Skogster-Lehtinen at 39-41 East 50th Street, New York, New York, 1947. Image ©paavotynell.org

Skogster-Lehtinen and husband William went on to lead a good life, devoting their time, money and effort into collecting art and promoting the arts and crafts. By 1964 they intended to establish a museum designed by old friend Alvar Aalto, but an inability to break through Helsinki’s historic area building restrictions meant the museum was never built. Undaunted, the couple established The Greta and William Lehtinen Foundation offering fellowships for artists, artisans, musicians and architects, which, in true Lehtinen fashion, still exists.

Greta Skogster and William Lehtinen and family

Greta Skogster-Lehtinen and William Lehtinen with family. Image © Greta and William Lehtinen Foundation

How the Saarinens came to choose a hanging from Greta Skogster for the dining room in their Cranbrook, Michigan house is not clear, nor do we yet know what the relationship was between the two families, though one must assume they knew each other. According to the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research object record the hanging was acquired between 1935 and 1939. There exists a 1980 letter from Cranbrook to Skogster-Lehtinen, now living in Tampere after the death of her husband, enquiring about the hanging but no reply.

But what a piece, cleaned, restored and still reminding visitors of the serenity of a forested world, where large wood grouse flit amongst the leaves!

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Skogster’s tapestry hanging in the Dining Room of Saarinen House, Copyright Balthazar Korab/Cranbrook Art Museum.

This is not a tapestry in the true sense of the word, where the weft is continuous. This hanging employs many different techniques, including supplemental wefts and rectangular patches left with bare warp so that the fir paneling can show through. Echoing the luxury of the gold leaf in the dome over the table, there is gold thread and silk amongst the linen, cotton and rayon. It does recall other Skogster-Lehtinen pieces, many of which are quite large.

Needless to say, there is more to discover in the long life of this prolific designer, and the Saarinen connection puzzle remains to be solved.

Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Sources:

Greta ja William Lehtisen Säätiö (Greta and William Lehtinen Foundation), 2007. http://www.gretajawilliamlehtinen.fi

Scandinavian Design: Alternative Histories, edited by Kjetil Fallan (Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 2012).

Göran Schildt, Alvar Aalto, A Life’s Work: Architecture, Design and Art (Helsinki, Finland: Otava Publishing Company, 1994).

Works by Greta Skogster,  FJ Hakimian. http://fjhakimian.com/greta-skogster 

Photo (Album) Friday

Over the past decade, digital photo albums have become commonplace. Although I enjoy seeing photos in digital albums, there is something magical about peering into the pages of a book constructed by someone decades ago. Here in the Archives we have many scrapbooks – from oversized books with newspaper clippings to school scrapbooks with photographs and ephemera related to sporting events, dances, and awards ceremonies.

Scrapbooks are a fundamental part of many of our manuscript collections – documenting the work and life of artists, educators, and scientists. The four scrapbooks in the Saarinen Family Papers contain newspaper clippings of Eliel Saarinen’s work, as well as photographs of family and friends in the U.S. and Europe.

I find that photographs and scrapbooks document life in a way that is unique to written correspondence. A letter provides detail to the reader or researcher, but a captioned photo provides visual representation and the details that were important to the creator. The Archives recently accessioned the Smith House Records, which includes 20 albums. The albums include artwork that the homeowners valued, as well as photographs of people enjoying their home. These images show what a fun couple the Smiths were – and how much they loved entertaining guests in their Wright home.

Smith Family album

A page from one of the Smith family albums, Dec 1970.

Henry Scripps Booth, youngest son of Cranbrook founders George and Ellen Booth, elevated the scrapbook to a new level with his series of 14 albums, titled “Pleasures of Life.” These albums celebrate travel, as well as family life here at Cranbrook from 1911-1940. The carefully constructed pages in the “Pleasures of Life” series include captions for nearly all the photos (penned by Henry), including one of a house party at Cranbrook House in 1915.

Pleasures of Life, Vol II

“House Party, Cranbrook House,” Pleasures of Life, Vol 2, 1915.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

NB: This weekend, 103 years after Henry captioned his photo of “House Party, Cranbrook House,” the Center for Collections and Research is hosting a gala fundraiser A HOUSE PARTY AT CRANBROOK. It will celebrate the three historic houses under the Center’s care, and honor the legacies of the families who built and lived in them. Hopefully someone takes photos for an album to be appreciated in another 100 years!

From Drawing to Driftwood: The Artwork of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell

During the Archive’s Reading Room relocation at Cranbrook Art Museum, we have been digitizing negatives for preservation and access. This has enabled a new collection for CONTENTdm which highlights the artwork of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell (1911-1977). There are thirty images so far, with more being added soon. Five of Mitchell’s paintings can also be viewed during tours through Saarinen House: Presidents/Residents, 1946-1994.

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Wally Mitchell in his studio, early 1940s. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The collection features images of the rich diversity of Mitchell’s artwork, from his early drawings and still life paintings to his later geometric abstract works and painting-constructions. Mitchell’s later works include many driftwood sculptures and Plexiglas paintings.

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Driftwood in Three Sections, 1965. Estate of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

In 1946, two of his paintings were included in the European Exhibition of the Guggenheim-funded Museum of Non-Objective Painting. These two pieces, with two other paintings added in 1948, are now in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Between 1950 and 1962, Mitchell’s work was frequently exhibited at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York. He was also commissioned to design murals, such as one installed at the University of Kentucky in 1962, based on his painting Turnabout Number One from 1952.

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University of Kentucky Mural, installed in 1962 based on a painting ‘Turnabout Number One’ from 1952. Estate of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Mitchell’s archival collection will be available for research again when the Archives Reading Room reopens in July. Mitchell’s collection contains professional papers relating to his studentship and work as an instructor and administrator at Cranbrook. It also includes interviews and correspondence related to Joan Bence’s 1983 publication, The Art of Wallace Mitchell. There are also audio-visual materials including negatives, transparencies, slides and photographs.

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Villa-Neuve-Les-Avignons, 1938. Estate of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Mitchell was born in Detroit in 1911. After receiving his BA from Northwestern University in Chicago, Ill. in 1934, he studied with Zoltan Sepeshy for a year (1934-1935). He then toured Europe before returning to Cranbrook in 1936 as a painting instructor. His career at Cranbrook spanned 1936-1977, during which time he taught Arts and Crafts at Cranbrook School (1944-1947) while he was painting instructor (1936-1956), he was Registrar for the Academy of Art (1944-1956), Director of the Cranbrook Art Museum (1956-1970), and President of the Cranbrook Academy of Art (1970-1977). A retrospective exhibition of his work planned for his retirement at the end of the 1976/1977 academic year became a memorial exhibition following his death in January 1977.

-Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

Sources:

Wallace McMahon Mitchell Papers (1990-21)

Chad Alligood, What to Paint and Why: Modern Painters at Cranbrook, 1936-1974 (Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Art Museum, 2013)

Joan Beehler Bence, The Art of Wallace Mitchell – Cranbrook’s Op Art Master Colorist (Unpublished, 1983, 1996)

Wallace MacMahon Mitchell, 1911-1977: a memorial exhibition of paintings and painting-constructions, 1936-1976 (Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Academy of Art, 1977)

Saarinen/Slade House

When incoming Academy President Roy Slade arrived at Cranbrook in July 1977, the President’s House (known, off and on, as Saarinen House) was in need of a refresher. Three other families had lived in and changed the aesthetic of the house following Eliel Saarinen’s death in 1950, and the house was a far cry from Saarinen’s design intent. Slade worked with designers Jean Faulkner and Carl Magnusson (then Director of Graphics and Showroom Design at Knoll) to rework the house into something befitting the new President of the Academy.

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Saarinen House, February 8, 1978. Norman McGrath, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The original Saarinen-designed furniture had been spread throughout the campus and Museum, and in the redesign much of it was returned for use in the house. But instead of restoring rooms to their 1930s appearance (that would happen a decade or so later), the house was kept as a blend of old and new. “Gibraltar Ash” off-white wool wall-to-wall carpeting by Jack Lenor Larsen stretched between the foyer, living room, dining room, and library, making the main room of the house feel like one continuous open space. Furnishings and art pieces by Cranbrook (and Cranbrook-adjacent) artists and designers from many decades–not just the 1930s–were blended together into a comfortable, deliberately eclectic look. The 1977 interiors of the house were featured in local papers and even included, with text by Paul Goldberger, in Living Well: The New York Times Book of Home Design and Decoration (1981).

It’s interesting in these photos by Jack Kausch how well the space works, but how alien Saarinen’s furniture seems to be! Particularly in the dining room–the holly wood table and brass fixture are decontextualized by the foreign whiteness of the walls, ceiling, and floor. The next restoration, completed in 1994, brought back Saarinen’s rich color scheme and variety of materials–including the gilded ceiling.

If you’d like to learn more about the later lives of Saarinen House, Roy Slade’s tenure as President of the Academy, and other fascinating Cranbrook Academy of Art stories, come out to visit my exhibition, Saarinen House: Presidents/Residents, 1946-1994, opening later this month.

The exhibition features archival material and works by each former resident: painter Zoltan Sepeshy, who directed the Academy from 1946 to 1966 and moved into the house in late 1951 following the death of Eliel Saarinen; architect Glen Paulsen, who led the Academy from 1966 to 1970 and expanded Cranbrook’s campus with late-Modern additions; Wallace Mitchell, a Detroit native whose career at Cranbrook developed from student to painting instructor, then director of the Art Museum and finally president; and painter and educator Roy Slade, who led the Academy and its Museum from 1977 to 1994. Slade initiated the restoration of Saarinen House in the late 1970s and encouraged and supported Greg Wittkopp (then a curator at the Art Museum) in the transformation of this early modern, Art Deco design treasure into a public house museum in 1994.

The free Opening Reception will take place Sunday, April 29, 2018, from 1pm-5pm (in conjunction with Open Studios) and the exhibition will be included on all tours of Saarinen House through November. Learn more on our website.

– Kevin Adkisson, Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

 

 

A Delightful Trip in a White Swedish Ship

Between 1925 and 1939, the Saarinen family made annual trips to Europe, always stopping for a time in Finland. They travelled by sea, usually departing from New York and arriving in Southampton, England or Gothenburg, Sweden. When they sailed directly to Scandinavia, they were abaord the MS Gripsholm.

MS Gripsholm 1951 mailed

The MS Gripsholm in New York City, c. 1951. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

The Gripsholm was built in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, in 1924 for the Svenska Amerika Linien/Swedish American Line (SAL). The SAL was founded in 1914 as a direct Swedish-North American cargo and passenger shipping line, and the Gripsholm was the company’s first luxury liner. She was also the first diesel-engine transatlantic passenger liner, which is why she is the MS (or Motor Ship) Gripsholm. After 1929, all the SAL fleet was painted white, giving rise to the moniker “A delightful trip in a white Swedish ship.”

Aboard the MS Gripsholm, first class passengers enjoyed all the traditional features of luxury transatlantic liners (libraries, writing rooms, gyms, a pool, garden rooms, smoking parlors, bars, etc.), along with distinctly Nordic options, like folk dancing, Swedish foods, and a fully Swedish crew.

Along with the port of Gothenburg’s closer proximity to Helsinki, it was perhaps these northern-European comforts that led the Saarinens, who were Swedish-speaking Finns, to repeatedly choose the Gripsholm for their summer journeys. Aboard the Gripsholm in 1929, this photo was snapped on deck showing Eliel, his son-in-law J. Robert F. Swanson, months-old Bob Swanson, and Eliel’s daughter Pipsan Saarinen Swanson. The family captioned the photo “Last Dash Before the Crash.”

Eliel Bob Bobby Pipsan on the Gripsholm 1929

Eliel, Bob, Bobby, and Pipsan aboard the MS Gripsholm, 1929. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

In 1934, Eliel, Loja, Pipsan, Bob, and their now five-year-old son Bobby were again aboard the Gripsholm. On the SAL stationery, Loja wrote a letter back to George and Ellen Booth at Cranbrook. She writes, “I wanted tell you again how happy Eliel and I have been at Cranbrook and how thankful we are to you because you want us there.” She continues:

“So far we are well off although neither Pipsan nor I knew what we took over us in taking Bobbi along. He is like a firework. He is nowhere and everywhere. He hasn’t climbed up the smoke stack yet neither has he ridden on a whale’s back, but he has done other things enough to worry us.”Letter from Loja Saarinen to George Booth_GGB Papers 19-4

On this same trip, a photograph of Pipsan and little firework Bobby was sent back stateside and ran in the local papers here in Oakland County. Pipsan is shown in a fashionable dress and hat, quite possibly of her own design, as at the time she was head of the Academy of Art’s short lived Fashion Department. Pipsan, like her mother, made many of her own clothes throughout her life.IMG_3206

In the Cranbrook Cultural Properties collection, we have the Saarinen’s steamer trunks and suitcases that they used aboard the Gripsholm and other ships. One of the suitcases has its stickers from the MS Gripsholm, still prominently called out in the Swedish pale blue and yellow.

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The Saarinen’s steamer trunks and suitcases. On view now in “Saarinen Home: Living and Working with Cranbrook’s First Family of Design”

During World War II, when the Saarinen’s remained in the States aiding the U.S. war effort and organizing the Finnish Relief Fund, the Gripsholm was charted by the U.S. as a repatriation ship. It carried German and Japanese citizens to exchange points for U.S. and Canadian citizens. Gripsholm (and her neutral Swedish crew) made these exchanges at neutral ports, including Stockholm, Lisbon, Portuguese Goa, and Lourenço Marques. Over 12,000 Americans who had been in enemy territory at the outbreak of war or were prisoners of war returned home aboard the Gripsholm in this diplomatic capacity.

In 1954, SAL sold the Gripsholm to a German company. She was rechristened the MS Berlin and entered into service as a Canadian immigration ship, sailing from points in Europe to Pier 21 in Halifax (the Ellis Island of Canada). The ship was retired and scrapped in 1966, but an image of the Gripsholm (in her Berlin livery) lives on in the Canadian passport!

Copies of the Saarinen’s letters sent from the Gripsholm, photographs of the family about the ship, and the trunks and suitcases used by the family are all currently on view in “Saarinen Home: Living and Working with Cranbrook’s First Family of Design” in Saaarinen House, open for tours Friday and Saturdays at 1pm and Sundays at 1 & 3pm through the end of July. Tonight is our last Finnish Friday, where there is an open house at Saarinen House and games and cake in its courtyard, also, the Cranbrook Art Museum will be open; there are Finnish-related treasures out in the Archives Reading Room; and a cash bar on the Peristyle. Come on by for our last Finnish Friday!

Kevin Adkisson, Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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