Saarinen Heaven at the Dam Site Inn

Cranbrook Sighting # 12
Sighter: Shelley Selim
Sighted: Saarinen Tulip Furniture Galore!
Location: The Dam Site Inn, Pellston, Michigan
Date: June 28, 2014

At the end of June my beau and I embarked on a Michigan road trip, driving up north to Mackinac and down the western coast of the state. The Island, Tunnel of Trees, Sleeping Bear Dunes, and plenty of breweries made the list, and when Cranbrook Art Museum director Gregory Wittkopp mentioned to me a restaurant and cocktail bar in Pellston filled with Eero Saarinen furniture, I knew we had to take a special detour.

Cocktail Bar at the Dam Site Inn, Pellston, Michigan

Behold, the Dam Site Inn! A staple on the Maple River since 1953, it seems little has changed about the decor since it opened, and how wonderfully so! It is quite a feeling to sip a Manhattan in this Saarinen tulip garden, and the wood paneling and whimsical brass light fixtures supplement the nostalgic ambiance. Aside from the furniture, my favorite decorative features of the bar were the textile wall panels, visible in the above photo and shown in detail below.

Wall covering at the Dam Site Inn

Biomorphic and boomerang patterns in glistening, silky gold–did a Ruth Adler Schnee textile get caught in a disco inferno? Incredible. A must-see if you ever find yourself in Pellston!

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

Pipsan: The Lesser-Known (But No Less Impressive!) Saarinen Sibling

CRANBROOK SIGHTING: INSIDE THE VAULT
Sol-Air Canvas Chaise Lounge, c. 1950
Pipsan Saarinen Swanson and J. Robert F. Swanson for Swanson and Associates
Iron, rope, and canvas
34 x 23 x 24 in. (86.4 x 58.4 x 61 cm)
Transfered from the Cranbrook Academy of Art

If it were up to me, every month would be Women’s History Month, but alas for the foreseeable future it is *officially* delegated to March in the United States, and today is our last chance to celebrate! How auspicious that March 31 also happens to be the birthday of Pipsan (born Eva Lisa) Saarinen Swanson, designer of furniture, interiors, fashion, and textiles, and younger sister of one of the most recognizable names in modern architecture, Eero Saarinen. Pipsan’s father Eliel was of course the architect of the Cranbrook Campus and President of the Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1932-1946, but before being lured to Bloomfield Hills by Cranbrook founder George Gough Booth, he was a visiting professor of architecture at the University of Michigan. One of his star students was Grand Rapids native J. Robert F. Swanson, who upon graduation founded the Swanson and Booth architectural firm at Cranbrook with his University of Michigan classmate Henry Scripps Booth, George’s son. It was here that Swanson was introduced to Pipsan, and immediately Cupid wielded his mighty arrow–they were married in 1926. After Swanson broke away to establish his own firm, Swanson and Associates, Pipsan was enlisted as an interior designer for the company, and the husband and wife team would continue their working and romantic partnership for the rest of their lives.

Pipsan Saarinen Swanson and J. Robert F. Swanson, undated. Photograph courtesy Cranbrook Archives, J. Robert F. Swanson and Pipsan Saarinen Swanson Papers.

Cranbrook Art Museum holds in its collection a wonderful array of objects designed by the Swansons, as well as many costume, glass, and textile designs executed solely by Pipsan. Shoshana Resnikoff, Collections Fellow for the Center for Collections and Research (and frequent guest blogger on Cranbrook Sightings) has written a beautiful account of one such costume design on our sister blog, Cranbrook Kitchen Sink.

Sol-Air Canvas Chaise Lounge, c. 1950. Swanson and Associates. Photo (c) Cranbrook Art Museum.

In addition to their architectural and interior designs, Swanson and Associates often designed furniture and textiles for regional manufacturers. In 1949, the firm was hired by Cincinatti furniture company Ficks Reed to develop a line of casual pieces for the home that could transition from indoor to outdoor use. The Swansons ultimately created a suite of twelve chairs, tables, and benches, as well as a chaise lounge and a daybed, for a line they titled “Sol-Air”–likely a play on the word “solar,” as other titles considered were “Sunair” and “Solunair.”

Promotional photograph for the Sol-Air furniture series. Photograph courtesy Cranbrook Archives, J. Robert F. Swanson and Pipsan Saarinen Swanson Papers.

Sol-Air advertisement, June 1950. Photograph courtesy Cranbrook Archives, J. Robert F. Swanson and Pipsan Saarinen Swanson Papers.

The furniture series was a hit with the design community, ultimately being selected for the 1950 inaugural (and now notorious) “Good Design” exhibition at the Chicago Merchandise Mart, co-sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This October 1950 press release from the MoMA outlines the reception of the exhibited works based on polls from different categories of the public, and Pipsan’s Sol-Air Canvas Chaise Lounge came in second place among buyers–quite a propitious sign for the Ficks Reed wholesalers!

Sol-Air furniture featured in interior design editorial, photographed by Herbert Matter for House and Garden, July 1950. Photograph courtesy Cranbrook Archives, J. Robert F. Swanson and Pipsan Saarinen Swanson Papers.

The weatherproof, bright persimmon chaise lounge radiated casual, youthful relaxation, and throughout the suite’s five years in production was consistently one of its best sellers. With spring finally (FINALLY) upon us, I’ll take reclining in one of these nautically-inspired stunners over curling up in a womb chair any day. Well done, Pipsan!

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

A Paul Evans Moment

Cranbrook Sightings #4
Sighter: Shoshana Resnikoff
Sighted: Paul Evans furniture
Location: New York City
Date: January 26, 2013

I love Cranbrook’s impressive history of 20th century art and design, but sometimes a girl needs to revisit her roots in the 18th century.  It was with that in mind that I went out to New York’s Americana Week at the end of January.  For fans of 18th and 19th century American decorative arts, Americana Week is like Woodstock.  Auction viewings followed by thrilling sales, museum exhibitions devoted to “brown furniture” or master craftspeople, and of course, the Winter Antiques Show at the Park Avenue Armory, where dealers, collectors, and academics gather to see the historical treasures that have resurfaced in the past few years.

This year was my second time at the Winter Antiques Show and I was looking forward to connecting with old friends, both human and furniture (I’m looking at you, 18th century japanned high chests).   I figured I’d be leaving Cranbrook behind for the weekend, but what I stumbled upon instead was a Paul Evans Moment.

A Cranbrook Academy of Art student in 1952, Paul Evans crossed boundaries between modern design and historic craftsmanship when he went to work as a craftsman at the living history museum Old Sturbridge Village.  Evans created enormous, heavily-decorated furniture pieces that showcased his metalsmithing skills while blurring the lines between functional and sculptural in industrial design.

In fall of 2013 the James A. Michener Art Museum will be staging a retrospective of Evans’ work, after which Cranbrook will play host to the exhibition.  As the museum gets into the swing of exhibition planning for the coming year, Paul Evans is the talk of the office.  So while I’d totally expect a Paul Evans encounter at Cranbrook, running into him surrounded by Queen Anne chairs and 18th century samplers was a surprise.

After I got over my initial shock, however, it suddenly made sense to see Paul Evans at the Armory.  As we begin to take a longer historical look at the twentieth century, there is something meaningful about contextualizing Evans within the history of American craftspeople.   The Winter Antiques Show is all about examining and celebrating the objects made by talented artisans over the course of three centuries, and Evans’ work situates him right smack dab in the middle of that.  His tools may have been welding equipment rather than awls and hand saws, but Paul Evans is yet another story in this long tradition of people producing “stuff” that blurs distinctions between beauty and functionality and of creating art that can be used in the most immediate of ways.