Collections Highlight: Benjamin Baldwin

A recent reference request took me into the collection of the architect and interior designer Benjamin 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.

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Benjamin Baldwin as a Navy ensign in Morocco in 1942. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Baldwin arrived at Cranbrook in 1938, the same year as Ralph Rapson and Charles Eames, and he formed a lifelong friendship with Harry Weese, who married Baldwin’s sister Kitty. The collection includes many letters to Harry Weese from Baldwin and others, notably Ralph Rapson, who signs himself “Le Rapson,” Wally Mitchell, Marianne Strengell, Eero Saarinen, Aline Saarinen, and Lily Swann Saarinen.

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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.

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Section of letter from Lily Swann Saarinen to Harry Weese discussing the importance of letters and friendship, July 17, 1939. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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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.

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Postcard from Harry Weese to Ralph Rapson, c. 1942. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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Letter from Marianne Strengell to Harry Weese, October 1939. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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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-after folding 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 the Smithsonian 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.

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Ben Baldwin’s award-winning Ritz chair, 1979. Cranbrook Art Museum, Gift of Ben Baldwin.

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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.

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A design for textiles by Benjamin Baldwin, c. 1970. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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Ben Baldwin’s Flower Garden Series, c. 1970. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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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.

– Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

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