Happy Birthday Eliel and Eero Saarinen!

CRANBROOK SIGHTING: SAARINEN HOUSE, CRANBROOK ACADEMY OF ART CAMPUS
Dining Room, completed circa 1930; restored 1992 – 1994
Interior and furniture design by Eliel Saarinen
Placemat designs by Eero Saarinen
Textile designs by Loja Saarinen and Greta Skogster

Eliel and Eero Saarinen, 1941. Photo by Betty Truxell, courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

August 20th is a big occasion here at Cranbrook–the day both our campus architect Eliel Saarinen (Finnish, 1873 – 1950) and his architect son Eero (Finnish-American, 1910 – 1961) entered this world! In honor of two great men from one of the design community’s most accomplished families (read blog posts about matriarch Loja Saarinen here and Eero’s big sister Pipsan here), today on the blog we’ll visit the Saarinen House dining room, where father-and-son birthdays were most certainly celebrated on many an August 20th throughout the 1930s.

Saarinen House Dining Room, designed 1928; restored 1994. Photo by Balthazar Korab, (c) Cranbrook Art Museum.

Eliel Saarinen designed Saarinen House as his personal family residence on Cranbrook’s Art Academy campus, and it was conceived as a total work of art: from the architectural footprint down to the silverware, everything harmonized perfectly as an artistic whole. If you look at the photograph above (taking into account a slightly skewed perspective due to the camera lens), you can see how he’s created a circular table to sit precisely at the heart of the square rug beneath it, both of which were centered under a gilded, domed ceiling with a brass lamp suspended below. You could draw a straight line from the middle of that dome down to the floor and each side of the room would be perfectly symmetrical–an ideal environment for lively conversation during a birthday fête!

Eero Saarinen, Placemat, block-printed linen, circa 1920, CAM 1988.55. Photo by Balthazar Korab, (c) Cranbrook Art Museum.

When the house was restored to its original splendor in the early 1990s (it was renovated many times by subsequent tenants after Eliel died in 1950), Pipsan Saarinen’s son Ronald donated six placemats designed by Eero to Cranbrook Art Museum. They were made around 1920–when Eero would have been just ten years old–and with figures of kings, toiling laborers, and slowly aging vagabonds punctuated by a Finnish flag, I’m inclined to speculate that he was depicting Finland’s struggle for independence from the Russian Empire (and the Swedes before that), which it had only gained in 1917. And if perhaps these placemats were created after Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tuthankhamun’s tomb in 1922, the fad for all things Egyptian–including hieroglyphic forms–may have had an influence on young Eero as well.

Saarinen House dining room, with Gefle dinnerware, Orrefors glassware, and Eero Saarinen placemats. Wall Hanging: Landscape with Tree and Birds designed and woven by Greta Skogster between 1935 and 1939. Photo by Balthazar Korab, (c) Cranbrook Art Museum.

Can’t you just imagine the family gathered at the dining room table, under the glow of that golden ceiling, with Eero’s placemats supporting fine occasional dinnerware as he and Eliel blow out the candles on their birthday cake? Especially if it was this one?

And for those of you that don’t know, Cranbrook Art Museum holds tours of Saarinen House every week, Thursday through Sunday from May to October. Click here to view our tour schedules and rates, and learn more about the home and it’s history!

Posted by Shelley Selim
2013-2015 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow
Cranbrook Art Museum

Architecture in Helsinki: Places Like This

CRANBROOK SIGHTING #9
Sighter: Shelley Selim
Sighted: Eliel Saarinen, Helsinki Central Railway Station
Location: Helsinki, Finland
Date: July 4, 2012

There was a two week block of last summer when at any given moment I could be found clapping, beaming, and prancing with merriment; arms open to our joyous earth’s embrace. No, I hadn’t finally completed my master’s degree (that would come later—with commensurate celebrating in its own right), but rather had landed on Nordic soil, where I completed the remainder of my graduate coursework studying Scandinavian design amidst the incredible apples and countrysides of Sweden and Finland.

How befitting that on our American day of independence, I disembarked in Finland, a country that was also shaped by the struggle for its own autonomy (a struggle which persisted for centuries longer than that of the Tories and the Patriots, I might add). That morning I launched my tour-laden itinerary with a walk to the hub of public transit: the Helsinki Central Railway Station. Conceived by Cranbrook mahatma Eliel Saarinen in 1904, it underwent myriad design revisions before reaching its completed form in 1919. While technological modernization has necessitated considerable renovations to the building’s interior over the years, the external structure remains largely in its original, magnificent state.

Please excuse my blatant Hockney expropriation here. Armed with only an iPhone and a cheap point-and-shoot camera, in my travels I’m often forced to “assemblage” my fractured photographs in a sad attempt to capture the visage of any large building situated on a narrow street (read: most of metropolitan Europe).

Like much of Saarinen’s oeuvre, the Helsinki Central Railway Station is widely celebrated as an architectural masterpiece. Personally, it most appeals to me both as a signifier of the growth of the twentieth-century urban landscape as well as Eliel’s own transition toward a more rationalist approach to design. His original elevation aligned closely with the turn-of-the-century National Romantic style he championed in Finland, most notably the National Museum of Finland (1902-1912) and the Finnish Pavilion at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, both efforts of the Gesellius, Lindgren, and Saarinen architectural firm.

But in the early 1910s, at this point fully abreast of the appeals for modern architecture radiating from Germany, Saarinen eschewed the spired tower and carved granite bears of his initial design, replacing them with Olbrich-esque vaults, sweeping vertical lines, and an arresting quad of proto-deco Emil Wikström “Stone Men” sculptures. With arms extended, presenting lantern globes to railway visitors, the brawny figures can be seen as symbols of a newly empowered and independent Finland, or perhaps a nod to the increasing accessibility of once distant lands at the dawn of the 1920s vogue for travel.

Left: Window detail from the Helsinki Central Railway Station. Right: Saarinen House (completed 1930), photo courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The stepped masonry and geometric patterning in the leaded windows would also become Saarinen trademarks, visible on many of the buildings throughout the Cranbrook campus, including the architect’s own home.

Posted by Shelley Selim
2013-14 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow

A Once-Modern Marvel

CRANBROOK SIGHTING #7
Sighter: Leslie S. Edwards
Sighted: MacDonald Building, J. Robert F. Swanson, Architect, and Pipsan Saarinen Swanson Interiors
Location
: Harbor Springs, Michigan
Date: April 2, 2013

Taking a cue from Chad’s road trip, I decided to seek out Cranbrook-related architecture during my recent spring break trip “up north” to our family’s summer home in Goodhart.  Since my family has summered up north for over 40 years, I already knew that many Cranbrook artists and architects vacationed there as well. In fact, many built their own homes and cottages just down the road from ours. This time I was in search of the MacDonald building in Harbor Springs – a design that I recently discovered was a Swanson and Associates project.  The Swansons had a long association with Cranbrook – J. Robert F. (“Bob”) was a classmate of Harry Booth’s at University of Michigan’s School of Architecture, and he acted as interpreter for Swedish-speaking Eliel Saarinen, a visiting professor in 1923. When Harry and Bob returned to Bloomfield Hills, they established an architecture firm called Swanson and Booth, and designed the first Academy of Art building on our campus in 1925. Bob’s wife and business partner, Pipsan, was none other than the daughter of Eliel and Loja Saarinen and sister to Eero Saarinen!

While Bob worked on many projects with the Saarinens, including the Smithsonian Gallery of Art Competition (1939), Center Line Defense Housing (1941-1942) and the first scheme for General Motors Technical Center (1945), he also had private commissions for numerous residential properties, churches, schools, and businesses across the state.  In 1941, Harbor Springs summer resident E. F. MacDonald commissioned the Swansons to design and furnish a modern new building at the corner of State and Main streets downtown.  Termed the “finest improvement to be made in the city in recent years,” the first floor sported all-glass store fronts while the second floor housed four efficiency apartments.

The entire interior of the building was fitted with modern furnishings carefully chosen by Pipsan, in two color schemes – green and blue.  The interior trim was white pine stained to match the birch doors, and birch furniture was chosen – chairs and tables from Artek-Pascoe including Alvar Aalto’s 402 chair, as well as side chairs, desks and dressers from Johnson Furniture Company of Grand Rapids.

So, on a crisp, winter day, my mother, daughter and I set off for Harbor Springs to see this once-modern marvel.  Imagine my surprise when we arrived in town and the building hardly resembled the architectural rendering, except for the main entrance doors and the second floor windows.  My guess is that the building was TOO modern for historic Main Street; I can imagine the uproar from residents demanding a more historic look to such a prominent building.  Being the ever-curious archivist, I could not post this story without finding out when the building was altered to its present state.

 

A Road Trip by Design, Part 2

CRANBROOK SIGHTING #6
Sighter: Chad Alligood
Sighted: Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church, 1940-42; Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church, 1964; Harry Weese’s Cummins Engine Company Tech Center, 1968
Location: Columbus, IN
Date:  February 22, 2013

Part one of my road trip from Michigan to Kentucky brought me to the doorstep of Eero Saarinen’s Miller House in Columbus, IN. Here, then, I submit for your consideration part two: the rapid-fire highlights of my whirlwind, self-cobbled tour of Cranbrook in Columbus.

3:02 PM, Friday afternoon: I need to be in Louisville, KY—about 75 miles away—by 5 PM. Short on time but long on curiosity, I decide to hit as many of the Cranbrook-related local gems of modern architecture as possible before I hit I-65 South.

3:04 PM: I wander out of the Columbus Area Visitor’s Center, map in hand, attempting to plot an architecturally significant route while walking. As I ponder which cool building is closest, I look up from my map to be confronted with the answer:

Crisp lines, modern geometry and repetition, minimal ornament: the soaring tower of Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church breaks my nerd-alert map concentration. It’s difficult even now to imagine how such a monumental reduction of form emerges so early in the century: Eliel begins work on this project in 1940 (at the same time as he develops the design for Cranbrook Art Museum, with which the church shares numerous stylistic attributes). Composed of three rectangular wings surrounding a sunken garden, First Christian Church comprises an essay in clarity of thought and unity of overall form. Taking cues from the earlier models of his Finnish countrymen Alvar Aalto and Erik Bryggmann, Eliel—in concert with his son Eero—imbued the rational, linear form with the tactile material warmth of buff stone panels and tan brick. Bonus vintage shot of the church under construction on March 19, 1941, courtesy of Cranbrook Archives:

3:19 PM: I try to enter several locked doors of the church. I fail. I curse.

3:21 PM: With no time to linger, I hop into Celeste, my beloved ’91 Camry, bound for yet another Saarinen church—but this one is Eero’s. As I drive up the winding path, North Christian Church looks as if it could lift off at any moment. In his architectural vocabulary of simplified forms, Eero sought a language that would “clearly and logically express the form and character of the church.” Hexagonal in plan with a 192-foot spire, the building cuts a knifelike silhouette through the high cloudbank of a February storm:

Given the chilly drizzle and the fact that it’s early Friday afternoon, I have the place to myself. I steal a moment of quiet under the curved awning, reveling in Eero’s visionary forms and sensitive materials.

3:30 PM: I try to enter several locked doors of the church. I fail. I curse.

3:36 PM: With only time for one final drive-by, I plot my next move on the way to the I-65. I settle on the quirky, proto-Brutalist Cummins Engine Company Tech Center designed by Cranbrook alum Harry Weese in 1968. I’m always drawn to the concrete construction and repetitive form of American architecture of the late 1960s and 1970s—it’s often so withholding, so dutiful in its drilled-down muscularity. Weese enlivens the façade with idiosyncratic pre-cast concrete sun shades over each of the glass exterior windows. I find a certain awkward charm in this strange detail, so I snap a photo through the fence:

3:45 PM: Kentucky beckons. With Weese’s blocky concrete in my rearview mirror, I hit the highway headed south—with Cranbrook Sighting #7 no doubt just around the corner.

 

Posted by Chad Alligood
2012-13 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow

A Road Trip by Design, Part 1

CRANBROOK SIGHTING #5
Sighter: Chad Alligood
Sighted: Eero Saarinen’s Miller House, 1953-57
Location: Columbus, IN
Date:  February 22, 2013

I love a good road trip. Chintzy roadside attractions, late-night caffeine stops, full-blast radio singing—I’m quite at home behind the wheel at 65 MPH. Road trips satisfy my compulsion to wander while feeding my admiration of classic American kitsch. My recent talk at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft provided the perfect excuse for a meandering journey from Michigan to Kentucky in my trusty ’91 Toyota Camry. At the behest of our preparator extraordinaire and resident design nerd Mark Baker, I scheduled a stop in Columbus, Indiana on the way down. Why Columbus, you might ask? The answers are so awesome and numerous that they require two blog posts.

The first, and perhaps awesomest, is Eero Saarinen’s Miller House. Eero completed a relatively small number of residential commissions in his lifetime; Miller House certainly counts among the most remarkable of these. Check out these views:

Exterior view in spring. Photo: Indianapolis Museum of Art

View towards the dining room and open circular fireplace designed by Balthazar Korab. Photo: Indy Star.

Industrialist J. Irwin Miller, perhaps one of the greatest American architectural patrons of the 20th century, commissioned the home from Saarinen in 1953. Miller’s belief in the power of good architecture to set the public mood inspired him to offer to pay all the architect’s fees for public buildings in Columbus. As a result, the 45,000 residents of this town enjoy world-class facilities built by veritable giants in post-war architecture including I.M. Pei, Robert Venturi, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, and Gunnar Birkerts among many others. But it was Eero whom Miller chose to design his personal residence.

Often considered classically Modernist in its open plan, reduction of ornament, and use of steel and glass, Miller House in fact reminded me of another famous residence back on Cranbrook’s campus in Bloomfield Hills: Eliel Saarinen’s 1930 art deco masterpiece Saarinen House. Compare the dining rooms, for instance:

Left, Saarinen House dining room. Photo: Cranbrook Art Museum. Right, Miller House dining room. Photo: Leslie Williamson via "Dwell Magazine"

In its circular format, emphasis on spatial relationship in horizontal and vertical planes, and attention to unification between decorative and structural elements, Eero’s dining room directly recalls that of his father. Of course, Miller House’s overall palette and interior décor—conceived by modern master Alexander Girard—radically differs from the warm tones favored by Eliel and his wife Loja, who designed the textiles for the home.

Stay tuned for part two of my road trip…where did it take me next?

I thought I was on vacation.

CRANBROOK SIGHTING #3
Sighter: Chad Alligood
Sighted: Daniel Libeskind’s World Trade Center site, 2003-
Location: New York City
Date:  January 3, 2013

Over the recent holiday, I spent a glorious week in New York City, where I had lived for three years before accepting my position at Cranbrook. During my stay, I caught up with good friends and former colleagues, revisited old stomping grounds, and reconnected with important burritos of my past (El Centro in Hell’s Kitchen). Of course, as a museum professional and art historian, I also reveled in the sheer breadth of art experiences available to denizens of Gotham. At Ann Hamilton’s installation at the Park Armory, I swung on a giant swing in the company of pigeons and robed monklike actors. At the divine Ferdinand Hodler show at Neue Galerie, I faced the artist’s unflinching, obsessive portraits of his dying lover and muse. And at the Rosemarie Trockel retrospective at the New Museum, I stood slack-jawed in a white-tiled room with a faux palm tree sprouting from the ceiling while motorized birds chirped and whirred, mocking me from a nearby cage.

Heady stuff. So heady, in fact, that I needed a moment of fresh air, and luckily, the New Museum’s Sky Room on the seventh floor offers stunning views of lower Manhattan from a narrow terrace on the south and east sides of the building:

I snapped this picture, undoubtedly like many of the other art tourists around me, with the intent of manipulating it later in Instagram, hopefully inspiring of deluge of “likes.” But as I reviewed the photograph from the comfort of my friend’s couch, I became curious about the Freedom Tower, the building under construction at the center of the photo. I fired up Wikipedia, and lo and behold: hundreds of miles and a holiday away from Cranbrook’s campus, the institution managed to elbow its way into the very center of my touristy snapshot.

Daniel Libeskind, the famed architect who won the competition to design the master plan to rebuild the World Trade Center site, served as the Artist-in-Residence in the Architecture department at Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1978-1985. (Other architects designed the individual buildings within the plan; David Childs of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill designed the Tower itself, though Libeskind chose its height of 1,776 feet.) Libeskind’s tenure at Cranbrook, which preceded the completion of his first building, might be understood as foundational to the development of his design ideas. While he was here, the architect worked closely with Katherine and Michael McCoy, the Artists-in-Residence in the Design department who pioneered the so-called “semantic” approach to design. Elements of this approach, which relies on metaphorical links as a method to solve design problems, extend throughout the architect’s most famous commissions—including the one at the heart of my photo.

Posted by Chad Alligood
2012-13 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow