In the collection of the Cranbrook Archives, we have a number of objects related to Kingswood School for Girls. These include uniforms, pennants, and one curious kangaroo tagged “Leapin’ Lena.”
In the Alumni Relations Office for many years, the kangaroo was never the official mascot for Kingswood School Cranbrook (KSC). It was likely part of a popular craze in the 1950s and 1960s, when Collegiate Manufacturing Company, which started out manufacturing school pennants, was promoting stuffed animals as school “mascots” or “personality pets.”
Advertisement for Collegiate Manufacturing Company’s “Personality Pets.” Source: Kagavi.com
Because she’s in mint condition with her tag still on, perhaps our Lena was a sample from one of the many salesmen Collegiate Manufacturing employed?
Most likely just an alliterative name — think “Mickey Mouse” or “Lois Lane” — the name “Leapin’ Lena” could also come from a number of sources. “Leapin’ Lena” has been used as a nickname for a car; a fictional B-52 bomber in the 1944 movie The Purple Heart; a kangaroo in a Rex the Wonder Dog comic in 1952; and a 1954 Cold War hero pigeon.
I like to think our Leapin’ Lena name came from Rex the Wonder Dog, where the character was part of a story line called “The Saga of Leapin’ Lena.” Lena was a kangaroo from an old vaudeville act, that also happened to foil crime.
A page from Rex the Wonder Dog, Volume 1, #5, “The Saga of Leapin’ Lena.” Source: vlcomic.com
I really don’t know how this model marsupial got to the Alumni Relations Office, who then gave it to Archives; nor am I familiar with other Kingswood kangaroo mascots (only Kitty Kingswood). Do you know more about our Leapin’ Lena or other Kingswood kangaroos?
Cranbrook’s founders George and Ellen Booth loved to travel, collecting memories and mementos wherever they went. With Europe at war in 1939, they headed south—way south!
The Booths explored Mexico from the ancient Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza to bustling Mexico City. Along for the journey was their nurse and traveling companion, Nellie Beveridge. We’re lucky Nellie was there—her camera documented the journey. Unlike other trips the family made, where we can reconstruct detailed itineraries through letters, postcards, and even menus in Cranbrook Archives, there’s not a lot of documentation about this trip other than Nellie’s slide images:
Two years later, in the Spring of 1941, George, Ellen, Nellie Beveridge, and Nellie’s camera set sail from New York City aboard the Grace Line South American Cruise. The six-week journey started in Barranquilla, Colombia; moved through the 44-miles of the Panama Canal; and down the South American coast, stopping in Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and across land to Buenos Aires.
Looking closely at the photographs, we see highlights of the trip included a ride on one of the many funiculars of Valparaiso, Chile, visits to more ancient sites, museums, and markets, and a journey on “the Chair,” a hand-powered lift in the port of Mollendo, Peru.
Inspired by the Booth’s adventures, for this year’s Holiday Splendor event at Cranbrook House we’ve brought together a selection of slide images and items from the 1939 and 1941 trips, along with objects from Latin and South America held at Cranbrook Institute of Science and folk art decorations from Mexico and Peru.
Mr. Booth’s Original Office decorated for Holiday Splendor, 2019. Photo by Daniel Smith, CAA ’21.
On both trips, Mr. Booth likely collected souvenirs, one of which, a Peruvian decorated gourd, is on display. On his return to Michigan, it would seem Booth was inspired to collect more Pre-Columbian art from dealers in New York and San Francisco for his burgeoning Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum, which opened in its current building in 1942.
Working with Anthropology Coordinator/Museum Educator Cameron Wood at Cranbrook Institute of Science, Leslie Mio and I were able to study a number of fascinating pieces that Booth collected for the Art Museum and Institute, and see other works of art, domestic objects, and pieces of ancient and modern life from the countries the Booths traveled through. (In the 1980s, the Art Museum transferred many of its ancient pottery and anthropological items to the Institute of Science).
Nazca double-spout-and-bridge vessel with mask decoration; Pre-Columbian double-chambered jar from Panama; and carved and painted wooden toys of people and llamas from Peru, 1940s. Photo by Daniel Smith, CAA ’21.
One of my favorite pieces we selected from the Institute is a double-spout-and-bridge vessel with mask decoration from the 2nd—4th century by the Nazca people, who lived in what is now Peru. The Nazca culture (100BC-800CE) is characterized by its beautiful polychrome pottery, painted with at least 15 distinct colors. Their vessels were constructed by the coil method and then decorated with a multicolored slip before the vessels were fired. This allowed for bright and permanent colors, and the images served as a way of recording stories for a people without a written language. The sheen of the vessel was enhanced by burnishing after it was fired. This type of vessel was used for ritual purposes, as they are most often found in graves.
The Peruvian decorated gourd (front center-left) collected by Mr. Booth is on display with ancient and 20th-century objects generously on loan from Cranbrook Institute of Science. Photo by Daniel Smith, CAA ’21.
George Booth would have seen pieces like the double-spout-and-bridge vessel on his travels through Peru’s museums, galleries, and archaeological digs. However, this piece was purchased from an American dealer after he returned home. Another, much larger piece, is in the Nazca style but dates to the 1940s and was also purchased by Booth for the museum. It is interesting to see how the ancient, Pre-Columbian pieces and the modern Peruvian works share similar styles, forms, and motifs.
The mantle in the office, featuring Mexican hojalata (tin artwork) candelabra Christmas trees and Peruvian retablo. Photo by Daniel Smith, CAA ’21.
After Spanish invasion and colonization, indigenous cultures and design became mixed with Catholicism. Today, the most prominent decor at Christmastime in South America is the nativity. Retablos, a reverent diorama-altar typical of the Ayacucho region of Peru, combines Catholic imagery with indigenous style and stories, and have been made throughout South America since colonial times. Our retablo was purchased through UNICEF Market, helping to support artisans and charity work in Peru.
The mantle in the office, featuring Mexican hojalata (tin artwork) and a handmade woven bicyclist. Tin art has been popular in Mexico since the 1500s. Photo by Daniel Smith, CAA ’21.
The ornaments on the tree and along the mantel include hand-carved gourds and clay nativities from Peru, along with painted ceramic candle holders, tin animals, and hand-woven bicyclists from Mexico. These are all types of small souvenirs the Booths would have seen on their travels. In fact, there is a stall selling very similar gourd ornaments in one of the images Nellie took!
Four Peruvian pottery figures of musicians from the 1940s and models of Mexican castillo(castle) firework frames. Fireworks have been popular for patron-saint festivals and holidays in Mexico since the mid-19th century. Photo by Daniel Smith, CAA ’21.
Leslie and I are grateful to Cranbrook Institute of Science for loaning objects from the areas of the Booths’ trips; to Deborah Rice in Cranbrook Archives for scanning all the great images (you can see more here); and to Michael Sinelli, Gerhardt Knodel, and Kenneth Gross for sharing pieces of Mexican and Peruvian folk art from their own collections to help make our room a festive, holiday scene!
–Kevin Adkisson, Curatorial Associate
PS: There is one letter from George Booth to his son, Henry, where he writes about Mexico from Los Angeles: “Having passed out of the desert Mexican influence I find I am still greatly impressed with all I saw…I don’t like the bugs of Yucatan…the spots stay with you some time…, however a real traveler never lets such little things bother them–and with it all it in no way distracts from my good opinion of the Country–its history and the people of to-day.”
Today is Black Friday, but did you know tomorrow is Small Business Saturday? Started nine years ago to encourage patronage of locally owned and operated shops, this Saturday after Thanksgiving event isn’t the first attempt to attract shoppers to help sustain a neighborhood economy. In Detroit in the 1960s and 70s, few did it with more aplomb and civic mindedness than Edward and Ruth Adler Schnee.
While assisting Cranbrook Art Museum staff with preparation for their upcoming exhibit Ruth Adler Schnee – Modern Designs for Living, I had the opportunity to learn more about Ruth and Edward’s Detroit retail business. Started in 1948 as a fabric design and silk screening business on 12th Street, it was their flagship store (and final location of four) that especially caught my interest. It was this store that uniquely illustrates Edward’s business acumen, Ruth’s design talent, and the couple’s dedication to the city of Detroit.
Flyer for Harmonie Park store opening, 1964. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.
When Adler/Schnee moved its operation of sixteen years from Northwest Detroit to Harmonie Park in 1964, its owners had more than just profits in mind. In form letters found in their collection, Ed Schnee writes to announce the official opening of their new location:
Since your interest and concern in the future of ‘Downtown Detroit’ is well known and ably evidenced, you may be interested to know that … we have recently moved. Mrs. Schnee and I have watched the growth of the central city with great interest for the past several years and now feel that we can make a contribution to this growth and participate actively in the new manifestation of vitality in Downtown and confidently link our future to this area. It is our earnest desire to so conduct our specialty shop that it will be a stimulating force in the Central Business District and in particular, Harmonie Park, which we feel has the potentiality of a charming little Parisian Square.
That December, Adler/Schnee had already banded with local merchants in events designed to create interest in the neighborhood and its businesses. As the November 11, 1964 Downtown Monitor stated: “It begins to look as though the wise merchants of Harmonie Park are going to create a stir among less aware business men [of] the downtown area. Watch for their latest combined effort, “Holiday Lark on Harmonie Park” – complete with a rolling chestnut roaster, popcorn wagon, gay holiday decorations and maybe even a choral concert by the Club Harmonie itself.”
Front page of flyer for Harmonie Park shopping event. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.
Back page of flyer for Harmonie Park shopping event. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.
Adler/Schnee’s advertisement for the event demonstrates their enthusiasm, “Adler/Schnee FUN FAIR: Fabulous Fripperies, Frivolous Fantasies, Functional Furnishings from far-flung lands. For family – friends – home – office – etc.” A version of ‘Holiday Lark’ was still going strong in 1976, as evidenced by a Detroit Free Press headline: “A Languorous Experience – Harmonie Park in Tune with the Season” and this flyer:
Christmas Walk event flyer with logo designed by Ruth Adler Schnee. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.
These holiday events were just one of many Harmonie Park happenings, and until the business was sold in 1977, the Schnee’s ‘modern general store’ was an important part of Detroit’s economic and cultural history. A mainstay in an enclave of art-related commerce, also anchored by the Detroit Artists’ Market, Ruth and Edward’s retail store became a destination. The many clippings, correspondence, and advertisements in their collection are testament to a business philosophy that encompassed their immediate surroundings, with such efforts as the Harmonie Park Improvement Plan, and the purchaseof their building in 1971 to preserve its 1901 architecture and utilize its seven floors to create a design center. Throughout a period that would span both civil and economic upheaval, Adler/Schnee was a bright spot (literally and figuratively) in the city’s landscape.
Late in the spring, I was a part of the Eastern Michigan University Historic Preservation Field School hosted at Cranbrook (read about the amazing weekhere). That week I discovered what a magical place Cranbrook is, and was inspired to ask Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research Associate Registrar, Leslie Mio, about doing my graduate final project here. The Center agreed to have me, so after three years of working hard on my Masters, I’m finishing up here at Cranbrook. I have worked closely with Leslie two days a week since August, mainly focusing on the Smith House and “other duties as assigned.”
The Smith House is a beautiful Usonian Frank Lloyd Wright house (1950) that was owned by Melvyn Smith and his wife Sara. Cranbrook acquired the house by donation in 2017. The main project I have been working on is numbering objects and updating The Museum System (TMS, Cranbrook’s digital database of objects) as we go along. This has been a monumental job: not only did Cranbrook acquire the house in 2017, but also everything that was in it – over 1,800 objects!
Numbering objects isn’t for everyone, it is a slow and repetitive task. But, it gives me a chance to look over the object, confirm that the location is recorded correctly in TMS, make any additional notes about its appearance, and even appreciate the object itself.
My final report for my degree won’t just be about numbering, but about collection management. This is considered the development, storage, preservation, and organization of collections and cultural heritage. I am consulting resources likeMRM5: Museum Registration Methodsby Rebecca Buck, andThings Great and Small by John E. Simmons, and applying information gleaned to what Leslie and I are doing in Smith House.
Other duties I have had since August: helping prepare a disaster kitfor Smith House, so objects and people remain safe in the event of a disaster (especially since it’s off the main campus); meeting with conservators who are helping to restore furniture in the house; helping prepare for the Center’s fundraiser “A House Party at Cranbrook”; rolling textiles for better storage; and helping move and process new donations.
I say, “other duties as assigned” because one thing I’ve learned in my semester at Cranbrook: the work of a registrar is never boring. We may have our main plan mapped out, but sometimes you must go with the flow.
– Kate Nummer, Eastern Michigan University Historic Preservation Program 2019
In October, the University of Michigan Osher Lifelong Learning group visited Cranbrook for a lecture, luncheon, and tours of our historic houses, the Art Museum, and Cranbrook Archives. In gathering materials related to the university, I found that my growing archival display began to tell a wonderful story of the early relationship between the Booth family and the University of Michigan, predominantly between 1918 and 1924. The story begins with the friendship of George Booth and Emil Lorch.
Born in Detroit in 1870, Lorch had studied at MIT and Paris, before graduating Master of Arts at Harvard in 1903. In 1906, he arrived at the University of Michigan to establish the School of Architecture, which remained a unit of the School of Engineering until 1931. The correspondence between Booth and Lorch covers a manifold of topics over many years.
On January 11, 1918, George Booth gave an address to the students of the departments of Journalism and Architecture at the university, entitled The Spirit of Journalism and Architecture which focused on the development of the Detroit News business and the new News building, which had been recently completed.
Program for an address, The Spirit of Journalism and Architecture, delivered by George Booth at the University of Michigan, January 11, 1918. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.
Later that year, in October, George’s son, Henry Scripps Booth began his studies in architecture at the university. It was there that he met J. Robert F. Swanson, with whom he traveled Europe for ten months beginning in June 1922, and later established the architectural practice Swanson and Booth between 1924 and 1926. Henry took with him letters of endorsement to help facilitate access to architectural treasures on their journey, including one from Professor Lorch:
Letter of introduction for Henry Booth from Emil Lorch, July 17, 1922. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
Eliel Saarinen arrived at the University of Michigan as a Visiting Professor at the invitation of Emil Lorch the next year, staying from September 1923 through 1925. To extend a warm welcome, Henry wrote, costumed, and performed in a pageant in honor of Saarinen. Many of Henry’s classmates performed in the pageant, including Ralph Calder and J. Robert F. Swanson, who also designed the program. The event took place on December 8, 1923, in the Michigan Union ballroom. Many of the members of the Michigan Society of Architects and the Michigan branch of the American Institute of Architects were present. During the dinner, George G. Booth made the principal address of welcome to Eliel.
Program for A Pageant of Arts and Crafts, a Reception for Eliel Saarinen, program design by J. Robert F. Swanson, December 1923. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
Interior of the program. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
Henry and Robert graduated from the University of Michigan in 1924. Graduating with them was Ralph Calder, who was also one of the first two students to win the George G. Booth Traveling Fellowship, with which he traveled to England, France, and Italy. The fellowship continues to this day. Calder was among the original staff of the Cranbrook Architectural Office, working on Cranbrook School and Thornlea House. He later went on to design many buildings for colleges and universities in Michigan, including Michigan State University, Western Michigan University, Wayne State University, Hope College, and Hillsdale College.
Letter concerning the Booth Traveling Fellowship from the first recipient Ralph Calder to George G. Booth, June 12, 1924. Notice the Michigan logo on the letterhead. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
In another Cranbrook connection, Ralph Rapson submitted a Fellowship entry in 1938, and, while he didn’t win, his submission impressed Eliel Saarinen so much that Rapson was given a scholarship to the Art Academy.
Ralph Rapson’s submission to the George G. Booth Traveling Fellowship, AD.26.01.03. Ralph Rapson Architectural Drawing Collection, Cranbrook Archives. Gift of Rip Rapson.
There is much more in our collections about the University of Michigan; this post has selected items covering only the early years. In preparing for the Osher tour, I realized that, while the contents of processed archival collections remain the same, what we find in them depends on the question being asked. The collections of George G. Booth, Henry S. Booth, the Cranbrook Foundation, Swanson Associates, Inc. are among the most highly used and yet there is always something new to learn, something wonderful to discover.
This week, we’re proud to announce that the Center is launching its first online exhibition! With the tireless efforts of the Center’s Administrative Assistant and resident website guru, Alissa Seelmann-Rutkofske, we have adapted my 2018 exhibition Saarinen House: Presidents/Residents, 1946-1994 for the web.
Installation view of Saarinen House: Presidents/Residents, 1946-1994. You can learn much more about the content of the show in the new online exhibition, or learn about the display system here. July 2018, Meng Li, photographer.
The show, which was on display in Saarinen House from April to November 2018, focuses on the first five Presidents of Cranbrook Academy of Art. These were the only five leaders to live in Saarinen House (built to be the President’s residence) and the only five who held the title “President” (we now have Directorsof the Academy and a Presidentof Cranbrook Educational Community).
In the online exhibition, you will learn about President Eliel Saarinen and the four subsequent presidents: Zoltan Sepeshy, Glen Paulsen, Wallace Mitchell, and Roy Slade. Each man’s page features a short biography, history of their artistic practice, and an account of the Academy under their leadership. Their tenure is documented through photographs from Cranbrook Archives, showing the presidents and their era of the Academy (including publications, Museum exhibitions, protests, parties, and other examples of student life and strife).
You’ll also find an Exhibition Checklistof the paintings and drawings from each president that were included in the show; click on the title of each work to see a larger image. Also online are photographs of the Exhibition Installation and information about the design and construction of our custom-made displays.
Exhibitions are a lot of research and work, and once they’re deinstalled it can feel like all the effort was for naught. Using the show’s text and images, documentary photography from P.D. Rearick, and with the encouragement of the Center’s Director, Greg Wittkopp, I am happy that Presidents/Residents and the efforts that went into its physical production will live on in digital form. Please go take a click around, and let me know what you think.
“My work here is done!” The curator in a moment of repose during the installation of Presidents/Residents. Seen sitting in a Platner chair that belonged to Roy Slade, and is currently back in use at the Academy administration offices, but was used in Saarinen House from 1977 to around 1990 and again during the exhibition. April 2018, Ashley Bigham, photographer.
Have you noticed? Cranbrook campus is awash in color!
The drive in every morning, a walk outside, or a quick glance out the window, and it’s hard to miss.
But like every year, just as the foliage begins turning brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges, it is soon falling to the ground. Squirrels scurry past, busy adding to their winter store. The Triton Pools are emptied. A trash can marked “Salt” mysteriously appears along the walk by the Academy Studios. The air is crisp; the days shorter. Fall is undeniably here. And Winter – just around the corner.
While musing on this rite of seasonal change, I happened to come across an article written in the Cranbrook Institute of ScienceNews Letter [sic], November 1949 (Vol. 19, No. 3), apropos to my current mood. It was titled: “The Hibernation of Plants,” by Stanley A. Cain. It begins:
“Had you been a wealthy Roman you would have owned what you called an hibernaculum, or winter residence, somewhere on the sunny warmer shores of the Mediterranean … but the theme of these few pages is the hibernation of plants … plants do not migrate with the changing seasons, induced by shortening days and the onset of cold or drought, but are mostly rooted to the earth and must stand and take it.”
Most of us Michiganders must stand and take it, as well. But, as humans, we weather the colder temperatures by finding comfort in a warm fire, a snug scarf, or a hot mug of our favorite beverage. Plants – well, plants have other coping mechanisms.
In his article, Cain elaborates on the structural and functional changes plants undergo in “preparing for the difficult times ahead.” Central to the scientific discussion, Cain includes the importance of buds, seeds, and root structures for deciduous perennials.
Stanley Cain was a botanist on staff at Cranbrook Institute of Science (CIS) from 1946-1950, who became well-known as a conservationist. In fact, he was awarded the CIS Mary Soper Pope Award in 1969 for distinguished accomplishment in plant science.
His article on plant hibernation is typical of CIS newsletters from 1931-1968, which included feature articles illuminating research conducted by its scientific staff. CIS had an ambitious program of research and publication since its inception, and botany was long a main focus. According to the first annual report, the Division of Botany was one of eight original scientific divisions. In 1949, over 30 staff publications are listed in the annual report, a quarter of those on vegetation. The News Letter [sic] was published for Institute members, and summarized developments and events on a monthly basis, September through May, from 1931 to the mid-1980s. In 1993 it became Science Scope and continues to be published under that name on a quarterly basis today.
While the article itself is intriguing and particularly interesting to botany enthusiasts, it is the accompanying drawings that captivate me.
Reminiscent of the recent popularity of vintage botanical specimen school charts or nature illustrations, like those of Julia Rothman, these drawings point to the function of illustration in the research process. Here, before me, was a classic example of ‘art meeting science’. A topic (drawing as an analytic tool), in fact, addressed in the 2013/2014 Cranbrook Art Museum exhibit, which included Stanley Cain’s own drawings.
But these drawings were not Cain’s! Cain often used Academy of Art students for illustrators, as indicated by another 1949 article, “Plants and Vegetation as Exhaustible Resources,” which feature drawings by Matt Kahn. In the case of the hibernation article, however, the illustrations are attributed to Jim Carmel, Cranbrook Institute of Science Preparator, circa 1944-1973 (prior to WWII he had been Assistant Preparator). Better known for his work with the Institute’s exhibits, Carmel was educated as an artist and designer. In the 1949 annual report he is listed as Artist and Preparator under the division of Arts of Exhibition and Illustration.
Carmel’s papers were graciously donated by his son in 2016, but unfortunately do not cover his years at Cranbrook. CIS Office of the Director Records only include Carmel’s exhibit design work. The newsletter remains the only known record of these early drawings, striking as they are, in their black & white simplicity.
Exploring the natural world around us in both a scholarly and creative fashion is the very essence of Cranbrook. The next time you’re on campus, instead of thinking, “oh, there’s a pretty tree!”, consider the myriad ways in which Cranbrook’s flora has inspired scientific study and artistic endeavor. This may just spark your enthusiasm for learning more about nature, and deepen your appreciation of our landscape in all its Fall glory as it prepares to hibernate for the Winter.
We typically write blogs about what projects we are working on – a research question, an exciting piece of furniture – but I wanted to let you in on something a little more pedestrian:
One of the regular projects I work on is numbering and labeling the Cultural Properties. Each object gets a unique number to identify and differentiate it from other cultural properties.
Me at work, numbering silverware. Photo by Desai Wang, CKU ’19
The numbering system is done in two different ways here at Cranbrook. All collections have a prefix set of letters that lets us know what collection it is in. For example, there is a Brookside School Collection with the prefix “BS,” as well as collections for each of the three historic houses we oversee. Next, there is either a number to match an inventory of the collection or the year the object was created or acquired.
The Brookside Lobby Fixture designed by Henry Scripps Booth and created by Leonard Electric is numbered BS 1929.1. It was created in 1929 for use in the school. I haven’t been able to put the number on it yet! Photo by Daniel Smith, CAA ’21
The Frog and Lily Pad Vase by Adelaide Alsop Robineau in the Founders Collection is numbered “CEC 16.” It was the 16th item cataloged in a 1975 inventory of the house. Photo by R. H. Hensleigh
Once we have numbers assigned to the object, we need to physically apply them to the object. Putting a number directly on an object is the most secure way. There are a number of techniques used to apply labels to the objects.
We currently use a method of spreading on a thin layer of special clear adhesive (B-72) to the object, putting down a number written or printed on acid-free paper, and then covering that paper with another coat of the clear adhesive. Printing the numbers on a printer allows you to control the size of the numbers (typically 7-point font) and also ensures they are legible.
A number applied to an object. This is from the Smith House collection, which the CEC acquired in 2017.
B-72, one of the tools of the trade.
There are all sorts of exceptions to the above rule: You can’t number plastics this way – the solvent in the B-72 would melt the plastic. To number them, we tie on a tag made of Tyvek using Teflon tape (also known as plumber’s tape).
Cotton twill “tape” used to number textiles.
And what about textiles? For that, we write the number on cotton twill “tape” with archival ink and sew the tags onto the objects.
Chapter 5E of Museum Registration Methods– what is referred to as the “Registrar’s Bible” — is all about marking objects, best practices, and recommended materials. When in doubt, I start there.
A recent reference request took me into the collection of the architect and interior designerBenjamin Baldwin. While the bulk of his collection contains the drafts and revisions of his autobiography, An Autobiography in Design, his collection holds an abundance of historical treasures in the form of letters, drawings, and photographs. Finishing his autobiography shortly before his death in 1993, Baldwin dedicated it to, “many who have touched my life with the magic of friendship and love.”
Such magic is timeless and ineffable; yet, a glimpse of it is captured in the trove of letters written by his friends, his fellow Cranbrook Academy of Art alumni. Baldwin won a scholarship to attend the Academy while at Princeton, where he had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Architecture in 1935, and MFA in Architecture in 1938 following a year studying painting with Hans Hoffman.
Benjamin Baldwin as a Navy ensign in Morocco in 1942. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
Page of a letter from Ralph Rapson to Harry Weese, written despite Rapson being “not in a writing mode,” April 9, 1939. Perhaps unexpectedly, Baldwin’s collection has many letters connected to Weese but not Baldwin, likely because the collection was donated by Baldwin’s niece/Weese’s daughter, Shirley Weese Young. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
Section of letter from Lily Swann Saarinen to Harry Weese discussing the importance of letters and friendship, July 17, 1939. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
Drawing of an animal by Lily Swann Saarinen from the Baldwin collection, no date. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
The handwriting and the composition of these letters open a window into their world, their ideas and projects, and their hopes and concerns for each other. Certainly, this correspondence provides richer detail, and perhaps the inside view, to information found in other collections, like Rapson’s early projects in Chicago and his design for Longshadows (the Hoey summer house). It also documents events that I have previously only seen in secondary sources, such as Wally Mitchell’s car accident over the Christmas of 1942, which is poignantly described by Marianne Strengell. It is also quite striking that the gift of art is not a “thing set apart” but pervades their everyday life.
Postcard from Harry Weese to Ralph Rapson, c. 1942. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
Letter from Marianne Strengell to Harry Weese, October 1939. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
Section of a letter from Wally Mitchell to Harry Weese, with Mitchell apologizing for his letterhead, c. 1940. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
During his year at Cranbrook, Baldwin and Weese built a much celebrated and sought-afterfolding loom. In the Fall of 1939, Baldwin returned to Cranbrook to work with Eliel and Eero Saarinen and J. Robert F. Swanson on the model for theSmithsonian Art Gallery competition. The submission won, but the design was never built.
In 1940, when the Smithsonian work was finished, Baldwin joined Harry Weese in Chicago, where they opened a private practice (1940-1941). The same year, they also won a competition called ‘Organic Design,’ which focused on contemporary furniture. Following Navy service during World War II, Baldwin initially worked with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in New York before setting up an independent workshop, also in New York.
Although a registered architect, Baldwin’s career predominantly focused on interior design, including designs for furniture, textiles, chinaware, and gardens, which he loved the best. His aim was one of simplicity: flowing space and comfort to reflect the serenity that he found in nature. Baldwin’s designs for textiles and chinaware, filled with color and symmetry, are a truly wonderful part of this collection.
Ben Baldwin’s award-winning Ritz chair, 1979. Cranbrook Art Museum, Gift of Ben Baldwin.
An invitation for the opening of the Ben Baldwin Collection for Larsen Furniture, completed for fellow Cranbrook alum Jack Lenor Larsen, 1978. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
A design for textiles by Benjamin Baldwin, c. 1970. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
Ben Baldwin’s Flower Garden Series, c. 1970. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
A design for chinaware by Benjamin Baldwin, c. 1970. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.
From 1973, Baldwin split his time between East Hampton, New York, and Sarasota, Florida. He died in Sarasota on April 4, 1993. He had just completed his autobiography and his niece, Shirley Weese Young, made great efforts to finalize its publication. It was published in 1995.
When I’m talking with visitors to Cranbrook about our many famous alumni, there is perhaps only one graduate whose legacy and name recognition so divides responses between “Who is that?” and “Oh-my-gosh, really?!”
If the visitor was born before 1982, they likely have never heard of her. If they’re born after 1982, they almost certainly know her—even if they don’t know she’s a real person: Lisa Frank.
Lisa Deborah Frank graduated from Kingswood in 1972. For kids in the 80s and 90s, her iconic neon designs decorated our backpacks, Trapper Keepers, pencils, folders, and stickers. Anything that you might possibly need for the daily rigors of preteen life, Lisa Frank could provide. Rainbow kittens and neon unicorns adorned practically everything, and you’d be forgiven if you chalked these creations up to the work of some anonymous office supply conglomerate with a cadre of slightly nutty illustrators.
But no. Lisa Frank is very much a real person and artist, and she has led her company, Lisa Frank, Inc., as a successful commercial art studio since 1979. Her Day-Glo depictions of flora and fauna were sensational, ubiquitous, and often imitated but never equaled. Despite her success at brightening elementary schools across the globe, as an artist and businesswoman she has been a reclusive figure. So who exactly is Lisa Frank?
In 2015, Cranbrook Kingswood alumna Carly Marks interviewed Lisa Frank at her Tucson, Arizona headquarters for the art magazine Foundations, one of the only in-depth interviews Frank has ever sat for. Frank had this to say about her time at Kingswood (1966 to 1972):
“They had real people teaching, accomplished artists. We sat in the original Saarinen chairs. I don’t think we realized what we were surrounded by. I can tell you I wouldn’t be who I am without that experience.”
There was also art at home: Lisa Frank’s father served on the board of the Detroit Institute of Arts and had an impressive collection in their Palmer Woods (Detroit) house, including works by Jasper Johns, Josef Albers, Richard Anuszkiewicz, and Jean Arp. One of Frank’s proudest moments was when her father hung one of her Kingswood-era paintings in the house—not because it was his daughter’s painting, but because he liked the work itself.
At Kingswood, Lisa Frank served on the Woodwinds yearbook staff as the advertising coordinator, among other activities. She also took advantage of the art opportunities, telling Foundations, “I had a senior show of the paintings I made…They were up on the wall, I sold out, and received a ton of commissions. Lee Iacocca, former president of Chrysler, bought a painting.”
Frank’s work at Cranbrook was abstract, using acrylic on Masonite or canvas, and sometimes incorporating paper on the canvas for additional texture. Although the work was nonrepresentational, the bright colors that would become her brand’s signature are present in these early paintings.
Her success in the Kingswood senior show led to early independence: “I lived on those earnings forever. When I was in high school [my dad] was paying for all my materials. When I got the commissions he said, ‘You’re paying for all the supplies.’ Then when I told him I was going to the University of Arizona he said, ‘That’s fine and I love you all the same but I’m not going to support you.’”
In college, Frank supported herself by selling Native American art and jewelry. She noticed what sold and what didn’t, and she encouraged the artisans she represented to make certain pieces for commercial sale. Her knack for knowing what designs would sell extended into her own art.
As she recalls, “At first I didn’t want to do unicorns. The artist in me said no. Then I thought, wait a minute, this is commercial art. Let’s do what’s going to sell.”
She started a line of jewelry made up of plastic fruits assembled with hot glue guns. She sold this line, called Sticky Fingers, at gift shows, and its success led to the establishment of her eponymous business. She entered into the pin/button market, painting licensed figures like Felix the Cat or Betty Boop, along with her own colorful animals with big eyes. These buttons were mass produced in Asia and imported to the U.S. Her breakout moment came in 1982, when teen mall staple Spencer’s Gifts ordered a million dollars’ worth of colorful Lisa Frank-designed stickers. She was only 28 years old.
Her success skyrocketed, and her technicolor art expanded onto the menagerie of product I remember from my own elementary school bookstore in the late 1990s. Since the very beginning of the company, Frank has served as the art director and sole source of product approval. Even with so many thousands of products, she and her team spend hours making each piece of new art. One thing Lisa Frank does not want? Repetition.
To her, using the same imagery over and over is not only bad business, its insulting to the customer. As she notes, “believe it or not, the consumers with less money have a keener eye than the ones with more. Consumers with less money only have so much to spend. For this reason they are critical and want to buy the best of the best. I’ve always appealed to the masses because, I felt so lucky to grow up in a beautiful world, and believe just because someone has less money, why should they not be offered the best of the best, as well?”
As for her unique, technicolor style? “I think the reason I made what I made is because I’m unconventional,” she explained. “I am who I am. You read stuff about me; people think it was all influenced by drugs. You couldn’t do what I did if I was on drugs. . . I was running my business. You can’t be just a creative; you have to be a businesswoman, too. You have to have the motivation to get there.”
Even at the helm of a multi-national, billion dollar company, Lisa Frank is still focused on her art: “I feel like I’m fortunate enough to live my passion…There’s a big commitment to making beautiful quality work.” She continues, “I mean, yes, it’s a business but it’s more important that the art is beautiful.”
To my knowledge, the inspiring and motivational Lisa Frank hasn’t spoken at the Schools or done any type of event here at her alma mater. She did not even have a file in the Archives until I started looking for her (we’ve started one now!) Part of what explains her absence on campus might be her distaste for fame. As she told Foundations, “…I do what I do because I love what I do. I never did it for fame, fortune, or publicity…People tell me that not knowing me or seeing me lends to their imagination. They make up who they want me to be.”
—Kevin Adkisson, Curatorial Associate
N.B.: I think we need to collect something of Lisa Frank’s for the Archives!