In 1931, attendees at the Beaux-Arts Ball in New York came dressed to impress. An annual party thrown by the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects, the ball featured a different theme each year. 1931’s theme of “Fete Moderne — a Fantasie [sic] in Flame and Silver” was inspired by the New York skyline and the iconic skyscrapers that had recently come to define it. Fully committing to the theme, many guests came dressed as famous New York buildings. In this photo William Van Alen holds center court as the Chrysler Building (of which he was the architect) while other personified buildings crowd around him.
To the best of my knowledge, Cranbrook never held an architecture-themed costume ball (though I’d love to be wrong, so please tell me if I am). If Cranbrook ever had hosted such a party, however, I know exactly how one attendee would have dressed. Pipsan Saarinen Swanson (born Eva Lisa), daughter of Eliel and Loja Saarinen, designed this dress between 1933 and 1935. Made of silk and leather with gold paint accents, the dress’ simple tank design and tiered skirt reflects Pipsan’s engagement with modern style and the flapper trend of the 1920s and early 30s. At the same time, however, anyone who has spent much time traversing campus can probably recognize another inspiration for this dress: Kingswood School, designed in 1931 by Pipsan’s father Eliel.
Pipsan’s dress replicates many of Kingswood’s most identifiable design motifs. The tiered skirt mirrors the school’s columns, while the telescoping leather and gold painted appliqués that extend from the bodice down past the dropped waist recall the same telescoping pattern that appears all over Kingswood, from the designs inlaid into the pavement around the school to the remarkable chimneys that identify Kingswood even in silhouette.
Even the dress’ color is an ode to Kingswood—a pale green, it reflects not only the green copper roof of the building but also the verdant shades that populate the school’s interior, from the Green Lobby to the upholstery of the senior girls’ auditorium chairs (no longer in use at Kingswood but newly designed by Pipsan’s brother Eero Saarinen in the 1930s, when the dress was created).
Pipsan’s dress takes on even more significance when viewed in tandem with the Festival of the May Queen tapestry. Designed by Eliel and wife Loja and woven on campus by the Swedish weavers of Studio Loja Saarinen, the tapestry was made to be the focal point of the Kingswood School dining hall and has hung in that room since it was completed in 1931. Displayed for years above a cooking station, a combination of light exposure, dust, and food particles has faded the textile tremendously (Cooking stations were removed from below the tapestry decades ago and the textile has been conserved many times, stabilizing its condition and allowing it to remain hung in the hall for the students’ enjoyment). In its original colors, however, the tapestry featured young women in green tiered dresses attending to the May Queen. A sample weaving for the tapestry exists in the collection of the Cranbrook Art Museum, and its preserved colors show us the similarities between Pipsan’s dress and those of the May Queen’s attendants. A reflection of Kingswood, then, Pipsan’s dress is also a three-dimensional realization of her parent’s vision for this work of art.
Pipsan moved with her parents to Cranbrook in the 1920s but quickly married and began an independent life as an artist and designer. Though she never achieved the same level of international fame as her father Eliel or brother Eero, her contributions are significant, both to American design in general and to Cranbrook in particular. This dress holds a special place in my heart because I see it not just as a record of fashion styles past but as a message from daughter to father, a conversation about art, design, and community that extended deep across the boundaries of medium and craft.
– Shoshana Resnikoff, Collections Fellow