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 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.