Carl Milles Gems from the Cutting Room Floor

Cameras started rolling Monday for the Center’s new film celebrating Swedish American sculptor Carl Milles, premiering May 22nd at A Global House Party at Cranbrook and Millesgården. Centering on materials in the Archives, the day’s shoot featured handwritten correspondence, photographs, sketches, scrapbooks, and oral history recordings that help illuminate the story of the man behind the many iconic sculptures dotting Cranbrook’s campus.

The film production crew captures closeups of materials featured in the film.

In preparation for the day, I mined several collections in the Archives that document Milles’ twenty years as artist-in-residence at Cranbrook and his work in America during that time. In the process, I made a few delightful discoveries. While most of these treasures were expertly captured by the film production crew (Elkhorn Entertainment), there were a few that just could not be accommodated in Associate Curator Kevin Adkisson’s masterful, but already dense script.

One of these items is a notebook from the Nancy Leitch Papers. A student of Milles’ in the early 1940s, Leitch, like many of Milles’ students, became friends with both him and his wife Olga while at Cranbrook. The brief diary-like entries in Leitch’s pocket-sized book date from 1945, and are an intimate glimpse of daily activities, remembrances, and artist philosophies recounted from shared experiences and conversations with Carl and Olga. A loose paper tucked inside and titled “Carl” is a bonus, containing hasty notes recording his birthday, recommendations of where to visit in Italy (Café Greco in Rome, the cathedral in Orvieto), and words of wisdom, such as, “It is better to be an artist even though you are poor.”

Part of an entry made by Nancy Leitch in her notebook. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.
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Spring is Here, and so are our Tours!

Here at Cranbrook, the flowers are blooming, the pollen is swirling, and the fountains are flowing. That can only mean one thing: Tour Season is here!

With our reimagined, in-person 2021 Tour Season, we invite you to book your tour of Saarinen House or the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Smith House today. Tours through these two distinguished landmarks will resume tomorrow, May 1, 2021, and continue through Thanksgiving.

Sara Smith and friends enjoy a dance in the Smith House dining room, circa 1970. Courtesy Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

Tours are now being offered of Smith House every weekend, taking place each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 1:00 pm and Saturday at 11:00 am. Saarinen House tours take place each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 3:00pm.

Of course, we’re taking lots of steps to ensure guest and staff safety, including shrinking tours to just six guests, requiring masks, and redesigning the route to ensure physical distancing between households. (You can read more about our safety policies on the tour website.)

Flying Teacups, 2021, Neva Gruver, CAA Metalsmithing 2021. Photography by Eric Perry, courtesy Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. 

In addition to more tours and smaller group sizes, there’s also new art to see on your visit! As you may recall, in the spring, seventy-five Cranbrook Academy of Art students and artists-in-residence participated in the Center’s fourth intervention of new, site-specific work in our historic houses. The theme, Speculative Histories, encouraged the artists to produce objects and interventions that embrace, enlighten, uncover, or imagine histories for the Cranbrook, Saarinen, and Smith houses.

Atelier Primavera (Stressed), 2021, Cooper Siegel, CAA Ceramics 2022. Photography by Eric Perry, courtesy Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. 

We are excited to continue to feature artwork from ten Cranbrook Academy of Art students and one artist-in-residence during the 2021 Tour Season. (To see all the art displayed during Speculative Histories, you can always visit the virtual exhibition on the Center’s website)

Peony Bush, Claire Thibodeau, Ceramics 2022. Photography by Eric Perry, courtesy Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. 

Kevin and I have been busy cleaning the houses and getting everything set for a new tour season. We can’t wait for you to join the Center in experiencing these magical homes!

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Photo Friday: A Working Honeymoon?!

From left: Lars Eriksson, Florence Knoll, Hans Knoll, Tom Bjorklund, and Elias Svedberg, 1946. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

This photo was taken sometime in August or September 1946 during Florence and Hans Knolls’ honeymoon to Sweden. The newlyweds, who met in New York where Florence was an architect and Hans ran his eponymous furniture company, traveled throughout Sweden on a “working honeymoon.”

The Knolls were there to make arrangements and agreements with Nordiska Kompaniet (NK, or The Nordic Company), a large Stockholm-based department store, and other companies to import Swedish furniture and textiles into the United States.

Florence “Shu” Knoll, née Schust, (1917-2019) is, of course, one of Cranbrook’s most distinguished alumna (Kingswood School Cranbrook 1934, Cranbrook Academy of Art student 1934-1937, 1939), and Hans Knoll (1914-1955) was the son of a German furniture maker associated with the Bauhaus. While we couldn’t find much information on the Swedes the Knolls are pictured with here, Elias Svedberg (1913-1987), on the far right, was an architect and designer with a long career at NK, starting in the mid-1940s. His midcentury modern Swedish furniture certainly would have appealed to the fashionable and modern Knolls!

This week at the Center, we’ve had Knoll (the company) on our mind since Monday’s important announcement of the merger of Knoll, Inc. and Herman Miller, Inc. into one company; we’ve also had Sweden on our mind as we gear up for our grand Swedish-themed fundraiser coming up on May 22, 2021:  A Global House Party at Cranbrook and Millesgården. Of course, there’s a photo in Cranbrook Archives for every occasion!

Leslie Mio, Associate Registrar, and Kevin Adkisson, Associate Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

PS: Don’t forget to purchase your tickets to House Party today so you don’t miss out on our special Carl Milles film premiere!

Observing Landscapes: Topography and Photogrammetry

One of my favorite items in the collections of Cranbrook Archives is George Booth’s hand drawn map of Cranbrook, which he created over a 24-year period between 1904 and 1928. It is the earliest topographical record of Cranbrook and visually documents his ideas and plans for developing the landscape. In 1951, George’s son, Henry, created annotations to accompany the map, which are useful both in deciphering the map and identifying locations. Henry’s notes on what was envisioned and what was implemented during those early years, are a good starting point from which to venture into the manuscript collections for verification.

Cranbrook Map drawn by George G. Booth between 1904 and 1928.
Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

As Cranbrook’s landscape evolved from a family estate into a center for art and education, the means of recording and viewing the topography was assisted by developments in aerial photography, known as photogrammetry. Talbert Abrams, a native of Michigan, is regarded as a key contributor to this field of photography, as he founded the Abrams Aerial Survey Corporation in 1923. The earliest aerial photograph of Cranbrook I could locate is from circa 1918.

Aerial photograph of Cranbrook estate and environs, circa 1918.
Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

In the Cranbrook Photograph Collection there are many aerial photographs taken by Abrams, as well as other photography firms, ranging from the 1920s through the 1990s. Since the purposes of aerial surveys are manifold, correspondence provides some insight into why they were commissioned and how they were specifically used, for example, as publicity and advertising. In 1932 Cranbrook’s public relations manager, Lee A. White, engaged Cranbrook School Headmaster William Stevens to select an image for the coming year’s brochure, and aerial views appear in all the early Cranbrook brochures. Aerial surveys have also been used to assess and understand the landscape prior to making a change to it. This was the case in 1961, when a topographic map and aerial photography were requested for the Off-Street Parking Study.

Letter from Keith A. Smith to Arthur B. Wittliff, November 1961.
Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

Correspondence between Arthur Wittliff, Secretary for the Cranbrook Foundation Board of Trustees, and Abrams Aerial Survey Corporation, provides intriguing details about the scale of the photography and the material base of the prints. The images below are from a December 6, 1961 set of 12 double weight velvet prints of aerials covering 1 square mile at a scale of 1 inch per 600 feet.

Aerial photograph ASP-5 taken by Abrams Aerial Survey Corporation on 6 December 1961.
Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

ASP-5 (above) shows the intersection of Cranbrook Road and Lone Pine Road, and includes Kingswood School and Lake, the Institute of Science, Cranbrook House, Brookside School, Christ Church Cranbrook, and the Academy of Art and Academy Way. ASP-10 (below) shows another view of Cranbrook and its environs, encompassing the Institute of Science, Academy of Art, and Cranbrook School.

Aerial photograph ASP-10 taken by Abrams Aerial Survey Corporation on 6 December 1961.
Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

When looking across the topographical history of Cranbrook from George’s map through aerial photographs, it is always fascinating to discern the changing landscape alongside the features that are unchanging. And, for me, the great inspiration of George’s map is that, although each individual project necessitated getting into the weeds and meticulous details, his ideas were always guided by situating them within a bigger picture.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Cranbrook Gets the Royal Treatment

Not once, but twice, Cranbrook has pulled out the figurative red carpet and with appropriate fanfare welcomed Swedish royalty to its campus. Anyone who knows and loves Cranbrook might not be all that surprised by this revelation. After all, Cranbrook is a very special place—the home of dozens of sculptures by Sweden’s celebrated sculptor Carl Milles, who lived and worked at Cranbrook for twenty years, as well as many tapestries woven by Loja Saarinen’s renowned Swedish weavers. But the larger Detroit community has also boasted a significant Swedish cultural presence.

While most Michiganders might be familiar with the role that Swedish immigrants played in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula mining and lumber industries, Swedes also played major roles in Detroit’s development, from the auto industry to the fine and performing arts. Not least of all were the contributions made by Milles, including his sculpture The Hand of God, which has stood in front of the city’s Frank Murphy Hall of Justice since 1970. The founding in 1963 of the Detroit Swedish Council by Charles J. Koebel (who, decades earlier, had commissioned Eliel Saarinen to design his family home in Grosse Pointe Farms), saw a concerted effort to promote Swedish culture in the area. It was likely the unique combination of Cranbrook’s artistic works and Detroit’s vibrant Swedish community that attracted visits from Sweden’s royal family on two separate occasions.

Program for the day’s activities. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

So it was that on October 26, 1972, Princess Christina of Sweden set foot on Cranbrook grounds as part of her two-week tour of the States. And sixteen years later, her brother and his wife, King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia, followed suit on April 18, 1988. Both visits focused largely on Carl Milles’ Cranbrook legacy, directly involved the Academy of Art and Art Museum, and were the result of collaborations between Cranbrook and the Detroit Swedish Council. Yet each visit had its own unique activities and sense of purpose.

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Behind-the-Scenes of ‘Speculative Histories’

On a cold January evening, I crossed paths with Iris Eichenberg, Metalsmithing Artist-in-Residence, along Academy Way. Through our masks, we talked about how we might be able to do what has become an annual winter tradition: the special Academy of Art student show in Cranbrook House.

Three years ago, in February 2018, Iris and I worked together to place art from students and alumni of the Metalsmithing Department around the first floor of Cranbrook House. We did similar shows the next two years, inviting other departments as we went along. None of us could’ve guessed that the opening night of last year’s show would be one of the last large, maskless, worry-free gatherings for a while!

Standing Veil  by Sylvain Malfroy-Camine, Painting 2021, on display in the Cranbrook House Sunset Porch as part of Speculative Histories, March 2021. Eric Perry, photographer. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Knowing the 2021 student show in Cranbrook House would have to be totally different and without any public visitors, Iris and I wondered if we should do it at all. I talked with some of the other Artists-in-Residence (AIRs) and decided: if we don’t do the show this year, it’s just one more thing the current students won’t have a chance to experience due to the pandemic. There would be a show!

Without in-person visitors to the exhibition, one of our perennial logistical problems was solved. A wintertime event in Saarinen House or the Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House brings ice and salt and general weather-related nastiness—it’s why we close the houses for tours November to May. But if there aren’t any physical guests, why not expand the show to include all three of Cranbrook’s historic houses? If we expand to include more physical space, why not invite every department to participate?

Untitled/Studio Objects by Ian McDonald, Ceramics Artist-in-Residence, and Vase by Maija Grotell, Ceramics Artist-in-Residence 1938-1966, on display in Smith House as part of Speculative Histories, March 2021. Eric Perry, photographer. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

In a meeting at Saarinen House with Martha Mysko (Painting AIR), Gretchen Wilkins (Architecture AIR and Interim Dean), Rebecca Ripple (Sculpture AIR), and Iris, we settled on a theme for the exhibition: Speculative Histories. We asked the students to think about the many stories within each of the three houses and to speculate about what other stories might be told through their art. Whether real or imagined, well known or totally obscure, nostalgic or futuristic, we hoped this theme would inspire the artists to engage directly with the context of Cranbrook’s house museums.

In a year spent in relative solitude within their studios and attending virtual critiques and lectures, I hoped giving the students space to be creative within the historic houses would be a welcome change of pace.

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De Profundis: Olga Milles’ Drawings of the Soul

Olga Milles lived in the very depths. In her art, almost exclusively devoted to portrait painting, she sought to draw out the character from the depths of her models and to find the soul behind the façade. Using a variety of techniques including charcoal, crayon, pastel, watercolor, tempera, and oil in her work, Olga was considered an artistic prodigy and developed her talent from a young age, yet her art is largely unknown. In 1988, twenty-one years after her death, Cranbrook Art Museum hosted an exhibition in collaboration with Millesgården, Olga Milles Emerges, to exhibit examples of her art from both museums’ collections.

In the foreword to the exhibition catalog, Staffan Carlén, former Director of Millesgården, describes her as having an intuitive talent that produced factual character studies of extreme precision, with an “overwhelmingly melancholic” tone. In reading Inger Wahlöö’s account of Olga’s life, based on correspondence at Millesgården, Carlen’s interpretation of Olga’s artwork can almost be read as a profile of Olga herself:

“Sparseness of shadowed areas and stretched areas disrobe the faces and make them appear in a serious, introverted nakedness. Her efforts are primarily directed towards interpreting the character of the soul. This she did with great coloristic refinement, and with tenderness in the form. In her drawings, there is consistently a sensitive enlargement of the mouth, sometimes in interaction with the dreaming mood of the eyes, sometimes as a tension-filled contrast of unconscious sensuality.”

Staffan Carlen, Olga Milles Emerges
Print of Drawing of Carl Milles by Olga Milles, 1917. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Born Olga Granner in 1874 in Leibniz, Austria, she had two brothers and two sisters. She had a deep loyalty to her family, whom she visited for several months every year, except during World War II. Having been born and raised in the Catholic church, she initially aspired to become an art teacher in a convent. However, in early adulthood, Olga questioned what it meant to be disobedient to the church and broke away, while cultivating an increasingly ascetic life.

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History Detective: Light Fixture Edition

Did you ever watch the show History Detectives on PBS? I loved the show; it is all about uncovering the story of an object.

As Associate Registrar for the Center, I am working with our Director Gregory Wittkopp and our Associate Curator Kevin Adkisson on an ambitious project. We are reviewing all fourteen of our cultural properties collections (over 9,000 objects), reviewing the data already on file and adding as much additional information about each object as we can. How do we do this, when the people who created, collected, or purchased the objects are no longer here? It requires being something of a history detective!

The collection we are currently working on is the Cultural Properties Collection at Thornlea. Thornlea was the home of George and Ellen Booth’s youngest son, Henry Scripps Booth, and his wife, Carolyn Farr Booth, from 1926 to 1988. It is filled with antiques, artwork, furnishings, and personal objects. In Cranbrook Archives, there are multiple helpful records about the home’s collections: insurance inventories, an index card file of objects created and maintained by Henry, and receipts for items purchased.

Light fixture over front door at Thornlea.

The one object I wanted to feature today is the unique light fixture over the front door to Thornlea. This custom and distinctive iron and glass fixture is important to the architectural character of the house, but I knew next to nothing about it. It appeared in early images of the house, so I knew it had been a part of the house from the earliest years, perhaps since the house was built.

Henry Scripps Booth peaks out the front door of Thornlea, circa 1935. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

To learn more about the fixture, I first looked at the insurance inventories and Henry’s index card file. Nothing there.

Next, I looked at the receipts under “Electrical” in the Henry Scripps and Carolyn Farr Booth Papers in Archives. Eureka!

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Swedish Sculptors-in-Arms: Soderlind and Milles

The Nona Bymark Soderlind archival collection consists solely of one scrapbook, yet its contents provide an intriguing glimpse of the woman to which it is dedicated. In doing so, it also illuminates a brief but prolific period in the history of the Academy of Art and reveals a personal side to one of Cranbrook’s most celebrated Artists-in-Residence, the sculptor Carl Milles.

Nona Bymark Soderlind, circa February 1936. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Born Eleanora Maria Bymark on July 16, 1900 in a small Swedish immigrant community just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Nona attended the Minneapolis School of Art (1920-1922) on a full scholarship, where she studied sculpture under Charles S. Wells. She later attended the University of Minnesota where she studied under the painter Samuel Chatwood Burton. In 1927 Nona returned for a semester at the School of Art, around the time she had her first child with husband Dr. Ragnar Soderlind. The Soderlinds had three young boys (two, eight, and nine years of age) when in 1936 Nona boarded a train to Detroit to study under Carl Milles.

Nona Bymark Soderlind works on a sculpture in Carl Milles Studio, 1936. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

A February 13th letter from Richard Raseman, Academy of Art Executive Secretary, confirms Soderlind’s visit to campus and includes details of associated tuition and living costs required for the minimum period of study with Milles. Cross-referenced with items in her Academy student file, it is evident she had been invited by Milles to study for a month and arrived on the 18th. Perhaps it was Milles’ 1936 commission for Vision of Peace, in St. Paul, Minnesota that had first brought them in touch with each other?

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Photo Friday: Weaving an Artist’s Tale

Loja Saarinen showing Eliel a cartoon of their hanging, The Sermon on the Mount, April 1941. Photograph by Betty Truxell. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. 

In this iconic Cranbrook image, we see our two heroes, Eliel and Loja Saarinen, posed before a cartoon (or drawing on paper) of their Sermon on the Mount weaving. This image was taken in the studio of Saarinen House on Cranbrook’s Academy Way. I’ve always liked the commanding pose of Loja as she confidently points out a detail within the cartoon to her husband. Her beautifully curled hair, dress with piped detailing, likely of her own design and making, and practical dark lace-ups show a woman with an eye for detail and style who’s also ready to work. Eliel, nattily dressed, looks admiringly on. Both stand in anticipation of this paper drawing’s impending conversion by the weavers of Studio Loja Saarinen into a monumental hanging of wool and linen.

Almost eighty years after this staged photograph was taken by photojournalist Betty Truxell, Loja and Eliel Saarinen and their studio are again in the news. On February 10, 2021, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added Saarinen House, along with three other sites, to its prestigious Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios (HAHS) program. Forty-eight sites form this national coalition of independent museums, including the homes and studios of Georgia O’Keefe, Winslow Homer, Frederic Church, Donald Judd, Daniel Chester French, Edward Hopper, Thomas Cole, and other canonical American artists. We are thrilled to be a part of this august group.

While Saarinen House is often identified with architect Eliel Saarinen, our site’s recent acceptance into the HAHS network celebrates the life and career of weaver, designer, and entrepreneur Loja Saarinen. This makes sense, both because the Historic Artists‘ Homes and Studios program is focused on artists (not architects), and because Loja Saarinen is a force of design talent all her own. It’s high time she gets her national spotlight!

I’ve always enjoyed comparing the photograph above to a study for one of Eliel and Loja’s great collaborations, the Festival of the May Queen Tapestry, hanging at Kingswood. In this weaving sample, we see another woman with the same grace, strength, style, and dark lace-ups as Loja Saarinen:

Studio Loja Saarinen Showroom, September 13, 1933. Photograph attributed to Richard Askew. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. 

It’s in this picture that we see the beauty and variety of products from Loja’s commercial weaving enterprise: rugs, upholstery, drapes, tapestry hangings, pillows and poofs. And although the ‘pillow’ at right is actually the Saarinen House bathmat, styled as a pillow for this photoshoot, we get a sense of the design and quality of work for which Studio Loja Saarinen was known. It is a well-deserved honor that her home and studio now join the sites of other great American creatives in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s HAHS program.

While you can see a complete directory of Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios sites on the program’s website or in their guidebook (Saarinen House will be in the second edition, eventually!), you’re also invited to hear about the program from its founding director, Valerie Balint, in a special talk coming up next month. Sign up now for the Center’s next event, Genius Loci: A Tour of America’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios on Sunday, March 14th, 2021, at 3:00pm ET. You won’t want to miss Valerie’s presentation of the program, overview of its member sites, and discussion about why (Loja) Saarinen House is the perfect addition to this special group.

Kevin Adkisson, Associate Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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