Look up! Studio Loja Saarinen Ceiling Murals

The Center for Collections and Research’s newest intervention in Saarinen House opens on Sunday, April 28: Studio Loja Saarinen: The Art and Architecture of Weaving, 1928-1942.

In researching the exhibition, Collections Fellow Kevin Adkisson has discovered many remnants of the Studio in the Archives, Art Museum Collections, and on the campus of the Cranbrook Academy of Art. One part of the Studio remains that you’re likely not familiar with: the weaving allegories by Katherine Sibley McEwen (1875-1957), one of the founders of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts and a friend of George G. Booth. Her eight allegories and border elements were painted directly onto the ceiling of the former Studio Loja Saarinen Weaving Room — now the studio of Elliott Earls, Artist-in-Residence and head of the 2D Design Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art.

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Studio Loja Saarinen Weaving Room, 1930. Bouquets by Anne Frykolm (left), Cranbrook Rug No. 1 by Maja Andersson Wirde (floor), furniture by Eliel Saarinen (center), weaving allegories by Katherine McEwen (ceiling). Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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Ceiling murals designed and executed by Katherine McEwen in what was once Studio Loja Saarinen. Each is an allegory of weaving. Photo by PD Rearick.

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Winding thread on the bobbin – detail of ceiling murals by Katherine McEwen in what was once Studio Loja Saarinen. Photo by PD Rearick.

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Collecting the thread – detail of ceiling murals by Katherine McEwen in what was once Studio Loja Saarinen. Photo by PD Rearick.

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Harvesting cotton and flax (linen) – detail of ceiling murals by Katherine McEwen in what was once Studio Loja Saarinen. Photo by PD Rearick.

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Harvesting silkworms and shearing wool – detail of ceiling murals by Katherine McEwen in what was once Studio Loja Saarinen. Photo by PD Rearick.

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Detail of the decorative borders by Katherine McEwen along the ceiling of what was once Studio Loja Saarinen. Photo by PD Rearick.

McEwen executed other works at Cranbrook, including the magnificent frescoes at Christ Church and a witty history of education series in the lower level of the Cranbrook School for Boys Dining Hall.

This Sunday, April 28, 2019 from 1-5pm visitors will have the very rare opportunity to see the Studio Loja Saarinen murals as part of the Academy’s Open(Studio) event–just follow the signs to the 2D Department. At the same time the Center’s special Studio Loja Saarinen show will be opening in Saarinen House, incorporating six historic Studio Loja Saarinen rugs and tapestries new to the house, dozens of archival and new color photographs, and a handful of small personal accessories from Loja Saarinen. And, the loom is up and running and Cranbrook Kingswood students will be giving hands-on demonstrations.

If you can’t make it to the opening, the Studio Loja Saarinen exhibition may be viewed on both public and private tours of Saarinen House during the 2019 Tour Season, Friday, May 10, 2019 through Sunday, December 1, 2019.

– Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar

Loja Saarinen: Lady of Fashion

If this were an article for Harper’s Bazaar it would be an imagined interview between a reporter and Loja Saarinen, but since my status is beneath lowly, I won’t presume. Loja Saarinen is a fascinating person in many respects: she was professionally a sculptor, photographer, textile designer, maker of architectural models, landscape designer, teacher, weaver, entrepreneur, designer in general, without mentioning the unquantifiable but no less important aspects of her life. Married to architect Eliel Saarinen and mother of two extraordinarily gifted children, she must have been party to some incredible family discussions on style, architecture, design of practically everything, including fashion.

Daughter Pipsan Saarinen Swanson briefly led a fashion course at Cranbrook Academy Art, and she and her mother made many of their own clothes.  Even though the ready-made clothing industry was growing, women in the 1930s and beyond who had sewing skills but not necessarily the money for special garments would make their own. Commercial patterns abounded: Vogue, Butterick, Simplicity, McCall, among others not all of which survive today.

Here is a Vogue pattern from the times:

Vogue Dress for Lynettes blog

Courtesy of Etsy.com

Remember this look.

Considering Loja Saarinen’s formal training in sculpture in Paris and her own textile designs, not to mention her model-building skills and creativity, one must assume she was ideally set up for making her own special clothes. They would be unique. What could be better?  And then there was the wonder of downtown Detroit’s J. L. Hudson’s vast floor of fabrics.

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Fabric Department at J. L. Hudson Company Department Store, 1920s. H.W. Brooks, Commercial Photographer. Courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society.

Of course, the essence of fashion is being appropriately dressed. Working from the informal to the more formal attire, one may examine a few photographs of Loja Saarinen as samples of her impeccable taste and ingenuity.

Here is Loja on a relaxed afternoon standing with husband Eliel Saarinen in the 1930s:

Eliel and Loja Saarinen at Cranbrook copy neg CEC493 copyright Cranbrook Archives

Eliel and Loja Saarinen. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

This looks like a take on a peasant dress with its loose sleeves and wide flat fell seams and flared, lightly gathered skirt. What says hand-made to me is the embroidered belt.  While it is possible Loja bought the dress and altered it to fit sleeve length and hem, I think this would have been easy enough to whip up. It is casual, comfortable and different enough to mark her as a person with an eye for good design who is not going to be dressed like anyone else.

Here is a dress in tasteful black which looks a lot like the above Vogue pattern:

Loja Saarinen in Saarinen House Dining Room c 1940 copy neg CEC490 Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Loja Saarinen in her dining room, c. 1940. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The sleeves are a bit longer. Note the Chemex coffeemaker as accessory.

Next is a design so Loja-esque, given the proliferation of triangles all over the campus in every medium you can think of, including in her own contributions, this fabric and the garment have to be Loja Saarinen designs.

I am not sure what the pale fabric is, obviously soft and drapey, but the design could be embroidered or appliqued ribbon. (Family boost: she’s sitting in one of the Eero-designed auditorium chairs.)

Loja Saarinen c 1934 Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Loja Saarinen, c. 1934. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

This is one of the best examples of Loja’s sense of style, though probably not her own work. She is warm, stylish and utterly without fuss. Attention PETA, this is before the days of reasonable-looking faux fur. The coat is a thick wool with light-colored top-stitching down the sleeves and front bodice panels.

Eliel and Loja Saarinen at the rear of Saarinen House copy neg CEC491 Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Eliel and Loja Saarinen. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

Dress-up clothes, we have them: a lovely photograph of a younger L. S. Swirls of fabric and triangle earrings.

Portrait of Loja Saarinen by Max Habrecht 1932 copyright Cranbrook Archives

Portrait of Loja Saarinen, 1932. Max Habrecht, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

This looks like a dress with swaths of color in the bodice such as you might see in her rug design. This could be silk satin, or what was called “art silk.” It looks bias-cut, which would make for a good fit, but which is unforgiving for the seamstress. You can’t see her hair very well, but it appears fashionably cropped.

In the following Crandemonium photograph Loja’s attire looks like a variation on a theme.  I suspect this is a top she made for the occasion, worn over a separate skirt.  Eliel Saarinen’s jacket has matching color stripes. The Saarinen column hats make the outfit for both party-goers. Loja’s dress has a train as befits the queen of Crandemonium. The orb of office for King Eliel is a grapefruit.

Loja and Eliel Saarinen at Crandemonium Ball Feb 1934 Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Loja and Eliel Saarinen at the Crandemonium Ball, Feb. 1934. Richard G. Askew, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

At last a color photograph. This may be the same top with a matching skirt, and quite a few years later, but now we see the Saarinen choice of color (Family boost: another Eero chair.)

Loja Saarinen in Vaughn Road home c 1962 Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Loja Saarinen in her Vaughn Road home, c. 1962. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Loja Saarinen was not a self-promoter. Her work speaks for itself. Her hand is in so many aspects of design all over the Cranbrook campus. This is just a glimpse at a few (fashion) design choices Mrs. Saarinen made about herself. She told Virginia Christ-Janer in a 1964 interview, “With our family [art is] a disease.” More than that, the Saarinens were all so capable, why would they not keep designing? Just like Karl Lagerfeld, to design is to breathe.

For a last word on anything to do with fashion, from all-time humorist Mark Twain: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

–Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter

Creativity and Experimentation: A Snapshot of the CKU Dance Department

A new collection that documents two decades of the Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School Dance Department is now open for research. The materials were donated to the Archives by the former Director of the Dance Department, Jessica Sinclair, and photographer Fred Olds.

Sinclair started teaching modern dance as part of Kingswood School’s physical education program in 1963. During her tenure, the program flourished, and Dance became its own department. Students performed throughout the year at the Performing Arts Winter Festival, the annual Evening of Dance concerts, and at events such as the Guy Fawkes Ball at Cranbrook Academy of Art (CAA).

Alexandra Ohanian in studio, ca 2000. Copyright Fred Olds/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

In 1982, Sinclair invited Fred Olds to photograph her dancers in collaboration with a fiber installation by Gerhardt Knodel, who was Head of the Fiber Department at CAA at that time. This event led to a twenty-year collaboration between Olds and Sinclair. Olds photographed students in performance, in the studio, and at local and international events.

Dancers perform at the David Whitney Building in Detroit, 1985. Copyright Fred Olds/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Between 1982 and 2002, the Dance department performed in Chicago, Toronto, and at the David Whitney Building in Detroit, where Sinclair choreographed “Dance in 4 Spaces,” with a grant awarded by the Michigan Council for the Arts. In 1989, Olds traveled with Sinclair and her dancers to the former Soviet Union to perform at the Children’s Palace in Moscow, the Choreographic Institute in Tblisi, and at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory State Theatre in St. Petersburg. Olds remembers that the peak of applause at this concert came for a dancer in a 16-foot-tall dress designed by artist, Nick Cave (CAA ’89).

Susan Loveland in a costume designed by Nick Cave, 1989. Copyright Fred Olds/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Throughout the years, Sinclair collaborated with a diverse group of fiber artists, sculptors, and architects to infuse creativity and experimentation into her work. The archival collection reflects this process in photographs, ephemera, and video.

– Gina Tecos, Archivist

Edna Vogel: Cranbrook’s Other Wright Weaver

Researching in the Archives before a big tour, I came across an interesting person whom I earmarked to come back and examine further. I already knew Loja Saarinen wove textiles for Frank Lloyd Wright, but Edna Vogel’s story of weaving for Wright intrigued me; it turned out there was a bit more to learn about Edna Vogel.

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Edna Vogel in her weaving studio, July 1942. Joe Munroe, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Edna Vogel (1901-1953) grew up in St. Louis and studied at a teacher’s college and then Washington University in St. Louis. She wasn’t in love with teaching elementary school, but she did like making costumes, so in the early 1930s she went to New York to study dress design. Not finding the cloth she wanted in stores led her to discover an interest in weaving, and weaving led her to Cranbrook for summer courses in 1939.

Vogel studied at Cranbrook Academy of Art for four summers and two regular academic years, earning her MFA in May 1943. Like so many Academy students, Vogel bounced between disciplines, studying weaving with Marianne Strengell, ceramics with Maija Grotell, and working in the metals shop. She spent most of her time in the ceramics studio, with Grotell commenting in 1941 that Vogel had a “very fine understanding for color and form” and that “her technical research and discoveries are exceedingly valuable.”

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Ceramics and place-mat by Edna Vogel, made as a student at Cranbrook. Detail of a photograph, June 12, 1941. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

In the early 1940s, Vogel moved into the carriage house of Bloomfield Hills socialite Kate Thompson Bromley, who kept detailed diaries that include information on Vogel’s work and travels. 

Vogel worked in the carriage house with two assistants between three looms (small, medium, and very large), she began weaving placemats, pillows, fabrics, and rugs. The largest rug Vogel wove was for architect Albert Kahn, in a Swedish style, and she wove others for Kahn’s family. She also wove the rugs for Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1941 Gregor Affleck House in Bloomfield Hills. Wright instructed Affleck to use long, strip-like rugs for his living room in order to leave much of the concrete floor exposed. Affleck, who may have met Vogel through Grotell or Bromley, commissioned rugs from her sometime in the early 1940s.

Thrilled with receiving the commission, Edna Vogel set off in her car towards Wisconsin and Wright’s estate, Taliesin. Approaching Taliesin, she became nervous that the famous Wright would not want to see her without an appointment. She ended up knocking on the wrong door of the house, introduced herself to an apprentice, and, to her surprise, being taken into a meeting with Wright. He seemed charmed—with both her and her ideas for the Affleck House rugs. He was so impressed by Vogel that he invited her to come and work at Taliesin as both weaver and ceramicist.

She stayed for a long weekend, but as remembered in Mrs. Bromley’s diaries, Vogel’s chief complaint with Wright’s work centered on his interest in providing functional architecture but not always functional furnishings. Wright did not, Bromley wrote, “aim to make a house and furniture one unit as at Cranbrook,” and so Vogel decided to return to Michigan and remain at the Academy. She completed the rugs for the Affleck House, and at a visit to the house later, Wright’s wife Olgivanna commented that the rugs were the “finest she had ever seen.”

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Edna Vogel’s rugs for the Gregor Affleck House, c. 1941-45. Courtesy of Lawrence Technological University.

At the end of the 1940s, after exhibiting ceramics internationally and producing textiles for homes, Vogel moved to New York. She wanted a place to find new inspiration and focus on her weaving. In South Salem, about thirty-miles north of New York City, she bought a former school house with a first-floor residence and an open studio large enough for her 12-foot loom on the second floor. She produced rugs of various sizes that were noted for their painterly, subtle uses of color, and she maintained an extensive collection of yarns from around the world. Tragically, Vogel died of smoke inhalation in 1953 when a chimney fire spread to her yarn storage.

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Rug by Edna Vogel, displayed at Cranbrook. Photograph, July 30, 1942. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

We have just a few images of Edna Vogel’s works in our archives and I found only a handful more in periodicals in the Art Academy Library. If you know more about her, or where her work lives on, let us know in the comments or at center@cranbrook.edu.

– Kevin Adkisson, Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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