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 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?