The scene feels like the opening shot in a movie: a man browses a flea market, aimlessly brushing his hands over knickknacks while he waits for something to catch his attention. A pair of chairs jump out at him, their warm brown wood and right angles crying out for his attention. He investigates them, noting their early 20th century construction and the curious metal design inset at the crest of the chairs. They look familiar, he thinks, and the camera zooms out as he purchases them and takes them home.
Cinematic potential aside, there is nothing more exciting than discovering a treasure in a flea market jumble. For one man, the hunt for a discovery led him from a swap meet in Southern California to the offices of the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research in suburban Detroit. William Mathews first encountered the treasure in question at the Cerrito College Swap Meet. While perusing the stalls, he spotted two dark wood chairs. Struck by their Arts & Crafts inspired appearance, he wondered if they might be connected to the Gamble House. An icon of the California Arts & Crafts Movement, Gamble House was built in 1909 by architects and brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene under the auspices of their firm Greene and Greene. Set into the rolling landscape of Pasadena—slightly inland from the California coast—the Gamble House combines Arts & Crafts elements with a subdued Japanese aesthetic and what has become known as a uniquely Californian sense of space and movement.
In a letter to Roberta Frey Gilboe, Head Registrar for both Cranbrook Art Museum and Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, Mathews explained that as a former docent at Gamble House, he was familiar with the style and feel of the furniture that had been designed for the space. He saw similarities between the Gamble family crest—a rose and a crane—and the metal crane medallion inset into the crest of the two chairs. Wondering if there might be a connection, Mathews purchased the chairs and went on to live with them quite happily for a number of years. It took him a bit of time to recognize the Cranbrook connection, but once he did he knew it was time for them to move on. “We have really enjoyed them in our den,” Mathews wrote, “but we realize they must go home.”
The chairs arrived at Cranbrook in November, and unpacking them was a delight – despite knowing exactly what was in the box, we all still experienced a thrill as staff disassembled the packaging. Uncrating the chairs, I couldn’t help but imagine the journey they took—first from Michigan out to California, and now back home to Cranbrook. While we don’t yet know how these chairs turned up 2000 miles from home (figuring that out is our next challenge), we are thrilled to see them again. Out of use in the Cranbrook Dining Hall for decades, the chairs retain their original finish. Beyond the romantic qualities of their long-distance journey, then, they also represent a unique opportunity to study Saarinen’s chairs in an as-close-to-original state as we can get. So welcome home, chairs – we’ve missed you.
– Shoshana Resnikoff, Collections Fellow