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

Cars, the Cranbrook Way

Cranbrook Sighting # 10
Sighter: Shoshana Resnikoff
Sighted: Cranbrook Art Museum and Library
Location: the Internet
Date: January 16, 2014

There are few things that history buffs love more than archives, and there is almost no archive that can rival—digitally at least—the Internet Archive for sheer volume and accessibility. Looking for a late 19th-century trade catalogue for a New York lantern company? They probably have that.  Interested in Princeton University’s 1886 Scientific Expedition? Well, read all about it. What about former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to Morocco in 1957? Enjoy!

Every once in a while, though, a researcher comes upon a treasure that feels strangely personal. That is exactly what happened when I was bumming around on the Internet Archive and stumbled upon this compilation of 1948 Oldsmobile “Minute Movies.” This blog is all about Cranbrook sightings off-campus; places where Cranbrook-related artists and makers have put their mark on the world. This sighting, though, is of historic Cranbrook in a digital world. Starting at the 0:53 second mark, the film Ahead Automatically features a suspiciously familiar backdrop: the Cranbrook Art Museum and Library peristyle. Carl Milles’s Orpheus Fountain is front and center as the attractive young actors ooh and ah over their friend’s “Futuramic” Oldsmobile.

In the middle of the twentieth century, Cranbrook’s bucolic campus was the ideal setting for automobile advertisements. Geographically close to the office parks and factories of the Big Three automakers, it looked worlds apart from the urban and industrialized landscape of the Detroit metro area.  For an automaker selling a lifestyle as well as a car, there were few places that said “lifestyle” quite as well as Cranbrook. Dotted with Eliel Saarinen’s architecture and Milles’s sculpture, Cranbrook’s campus became synonymous with a certain perspective on the world: youthful, engaged with art and culture, and forward-looking—all ideal qualities for the owner of a “Futuramic” Oldsmobile.

Eagle eyed viewers might notice that the house that appears in the first segment of the video is also familiar. We’re pretty sure that is the Affleck House, a Frank Lloyd Wright gem of a home built in Bloomfield Hills and operated as a historic house museum by Lawrence Technological University.

The story of Cranbrook and car goes deeper than simply advertisements. In March Cranbrook Art Museum and the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research will partner with the Bloomfield Hills Township Library to present a talk on Cranbrook’s automotive connections. Sponsored in conjunction with the current exhibition A Driving Force: Cranbrook and the Car, this lecture will tell the story of Cranbrook Academy of Art graduates who worked in the automobile industry at the midcentury. For more information, visit the Bloomfield Hills Township Library.

Posted by Shoshana Resnikoff
2012-2014 Collections Fellow
Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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