Dispatch from the Archives: All Things Modernism

Mid-century Modernism has taken over my life!  I eat, sleep, and even dream Modernism these days.  In my role as Head Archivist, I wear many hats – the most recent being to assist the Michigan Modern curatorial team by locating all the cool “stuff” in our Archives related to the upcoming exhibition, which will be opening at the Cranbrook Art Museum on June 14, 2013.  This includes photographs, of course, but the most fun for me is finding correspondence, articles, and ephemera that when put together create a mosaic of a time or place.

For instance, here is a wonderful news clipping about a Cranbrook alum, textile designer Ruth Adler Schnee, and architect Gunnar Birkerts (he worked for Eero Saarinen & Associates) who were named “Young Designers of 1954.”  I found this in the Edward and Ruth Adler Schnee Papers located in our Archives.

"2 Detroit Artists Acclaimed 'Young Designers of 1954.'" News clipping, 1954.  Edward and Ruth Adler Schnee Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

“2 Detroit Artists Acclaimed ‘Young Designers of 1954.'” News clipping, 1954. Edward and Ruth Adler Schnee Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

One might never associate photographer Joe Munroe with Modernism, but exploring his work leads to all sorts of even more interesting discoveries.  Munroe was a Cranbrook staff photographer from 1941 to 1943 and was here at the epicenter of Modernism alongside the likes of Charles Eames, Ralph Rapson, Eero Saarinen, and Harry Bertoia.  In fact, right when Charlie Eames was shooting his experimental films, Joe Munroe was creating his own experimental jazz film with Academy of Art students.

Academy of Art student Virginia Mills (who married painter Wally Mitchell and generally went by the name “Jill Mitchell”) was one of those students.  At Cranbrook, Jill Created studio work in design, drawing, and painting, and won national awards for some of her woven and printed textile designs.  Jill became friends with both Charlie Eames and Eero Saarinen, and later worked for both of them (Eero Saarinen & Associates from 1951-1965; Eames Office in 1951, 1953, and the 1970s), primarily in interior and graphic design.

In an interview in 1982, Jill spoke of the fledgling design department Cranbrook: “… one of the things we did was to learn how to run the table saw and the band saw and so on… design concepts were not ordinarily taught… everything was simply tailored to the individual.”

Virginia Mills working a saw, 1941.  Cranbrook Archives.

Virginia Mills working a band saw, 1941. Historic Photograph Collection, Cranbrook Archives.

One final slice of Modernism history (for today, at least!) that I found in our Archives was this image of the 20th Century Limited – an express passenger train designed by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss in 1938 for the New York Central Railroad.  What possible connection could this image have with Cranbrook?  As it happens, this is part of a collection of menus in the Henry Scripps and Carolyn Farr Booth Papers.  Henry was George and Ellen Booth’s son and a longtime advocate for the Cranbrook community.  The Booths traveled fairly often and Henry, interested in both art and in documenting history, was wise enough to realize that one day someone would be thrilled to find this material.  And lucky for me, I was that someone!

Menu, 20th Century Limited, New York Central Railroad, 1938. Henry Scripps and Carolyn Farr Booth Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

Menu, 20th Century Limited, New York Central Railroad, 1938. Henry Scripps and Carolyn Farr Booth Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

By Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

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