The A-maize-ing Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright, architect of the Smith House, called it his “little gem.” Many of his apprentices considered it one of the best examples of Wright’s Usonian style. So it should come as no surprise that he liked to stop by and see the Smiths when he was in Detroit.

On a visit in 1953, a luncheon was organized by Mary Palmer, Elizabeth Affleck, and Sara Smith. The Smith House was to be the site of the event. Sara Smith recalled the event in her biography, Building a Dream: The Sara Smith Story by Kathryn Watterson.

“‘Mary called me and Elizabeth Affleck and we decided to have a luncheon at my house,’ Sara says. ‘I had just been to the store and I had bought a whole lot of corn on the cob and much more fish than I could possibly use in a week.'”

The luncheon also consisted of lamb and some salads, but it was Sara’s corn that was a hit. “‘[Wright] said that one of his favorite foods was corn on the cob, and he helped himself and came over here to the built-in lounge.'”

Frank Lloyd Wright lunches on corn-on-the-cob at Smith House.

Frank Lloyd Wright lunches on corn on the cob at Smith House in 1953. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives, Smith Family Papers.

The funny thing was, of all the people at the house for the luncheon, no one was sitting with Wright. “‘Frank Lloyd Wright was sitting toward the end of the lounge alone and no one came near him. No one was talking to him. Then he said, ‘Isn’t anyone going to sit with me?””

“‘So some people moved in. But they didn’t stay. They would go over and say a word or two and walk away. People just don’t seem to want to go up to a genius or a great person. I don’t know whether it’s fear of something else.'”

Sara Smith in her kitchen, August 19, 1976. Photo by Joyce Seid.

Sara Smith in her kitchen, August 19, 1976. Photo by Joyce Seid. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives, Smith Family Papers.

“‘At the time, I was in the kitchen taking care of the dishes and the thought came to me, ‘Sara, you’re doing a Mary-Martha.’ In the bible story, Martha was the one who was always staying in the kitchen mumbling and grumbling because Mary didn’t help her. Well, there I was in the kitchen pulling a Mary-Martha, and the thought came, ‘What are you doing in the kitchen? Get in there and talk to that man.’ So I did.””

Sara and Wright discussed a number of things, including shadows and how Wright used them to best position a house to take advantage of the sun’s energy. “‘It was very interesting,’ she says, ‘and I was so grateful that I had gone over to sit with him. While we were talking, I asked him, ‘Mr. Wright, what do you consider to be your greatest design you ever made?’ His replay was ‘Why, the next one.'”

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar

Note: Public tours of Smith House are offered from May through November. For information about private and group tours, please contact the Center at 248.645.3307 or visit us online.

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

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Landscapes

While George Booth may have had carved “Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art” above the fireplace in his library, I’m not sure anyone adored nature as much as the inimitable Frank Lloyd Wright. Known for his organic architecture, his buildings are sited to be viewed as one with nature. Wright went so far as to say “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.

In the Fall of 1941, Richard Raseman (the Academy of Art’s Executive Secretary from 1932 to 1943) traveled to Wright’s winter home and studio, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona. In beautiful photographs he captured the balance Wright achieved between the desert landscape and architecture. In Raseman’s many photographs, foregrounds of cacti and sand with backdrops of mountains and sky form a nest for the rambling estate. Water also plays a part in these compositions, as it often did in Wright’s work.

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View of Taliesin West, Fall 1941. Richard P. Raseman, Photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

No Wright project is as associated with water as the Kaufmann House, “Fallingwater“, of 1936 in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. Last week, I had the honor to meet with the head Horticulturalist from Fallingwater, Ann Talarek. She was in town on the invitation of our friends at Lawrence Technological University, to speak to architecture students there and assist in ideas for the historic landscape of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Affleck House, owned by LTU. (A mere mile north of Cranbrook’s Woodward Avenue entrance, the Affleck House was completed in 1941 and Affleck’s son, Gregor Affleck, studied Painting, Design and Modeling at Cranbrook from 1944-45.)

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View of Affleck House, c. 1945. Harvy Croze, Cranbrook Staff Photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

More than most historic house museums, for a Wright project the intimate association between site and structure means that maintaining the landscape is just as important as maintaining the building. When working on the landscape, you have to study both historic images and what you can see on the ground today. Ann let us know that one of the most important things you can do with a Wright landscape is to edit: “Keep the view sheds Wright would have been working with, editing out trees that may be pretty but block important views. It may be counter intuitive, but add by reducing.”

Today, the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research serves as the educational steward of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1950 Smith House, just a mile west of our campus. Ann also visited the Smith House, where she was impressed (as most visitors are) by the majestic canopy of oak trees surrounding the house and the dappled light they produce. Whereas the Affleck House has lost some of its view sheds, the Smith House still retains its open views toward the pond dredged by Melvyn Maxwell Smith. She also noted how architectural the landscape was: its perfectly placed pond, trees, and the arc of shrubs along the western end of the house.

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Smith House, c. 1952. Courtesy of Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith Family Albums.

What’s impressive about the Smith House is the stuff inside: the fine and decorative art collection of things acquired and displayed by Mr. and Mrs. Smith, much of it from Cranbrook Academy alumni. After meeting with Ann and then looking through family photo albums of the house’s landscape, I realized that the grounds too were a project of the Smiths: he was constantly adding, cutting back, and reshaping the landscape. It’s most famous iteration may be an impromptu plan developed by the landscape architecture celebrity Thomas Church (for that story, sign up for a Smith House Tour!), yet like any site, the landscape has changed over the years.

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Smith House, c. 1975, with landscape attributed to Thomas Church. Courtesy of Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith Family Albums.

Ann talked at the Affleck House about how they might eliminate certain invasive species (as she has done at Fallingwater) or how trees might be cut back. At Smith House, she helpfully noted some trees nearing the end of life, but suggested the historic photographs be studied to figure out what the Smith’s wanted. “Unlike Fallingwater or the Affleck House, the Smith House is ultimately suburban. What we now call invasive species would have been considered fashionable in the 1950s and 60s, and in a place as personal as the Smith House, you have to consider what Mr. Smith would have done as much as what Wright would have planned.” It’s an interesting idea. I think the most important goal is to make the architectural, landscape, and personal stories of the Smith House dynamic, relevant, and beautiful for visitors. That, and, as Ann said, “Don’t let anyone plant anything that’s going to overrun Bloomfield Hills.”

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

Frank Lloyd Wright & Cranbrook

With the strong lineage of Modern masters here at Cranbrook, it is no surprise that Frank Lloyd Wright has some relationship to the campus and its history. As a renowned architect, Wright had many projects all over Michigan from Kalamazoo, Okemos, Benton Harbor, Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Bloomfield Hills. Many of these homes came out of his “Usonian Architecture.”

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Photograph by James Haefner ©

The term Usonian means “of the United States,” and was used by Wright to emphasize his architecture as uniquely American, specifically the American Midwest.  The Usonian style was Wright’s solution to the rise of suburbia where people moved outside of cities. This was his solution to what he deemed “the small house problem,” a direct response to post war needs and the growing necessity of affordable and comfortable homes.

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Photograph by James Haefner ©

Partnering with The Towbes Foundation, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research will be providing tours of one of Wright’s Usonian homes in Bloomfield Hills, the Melvin Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith House. Known as “My Haven” by the owners, Wright called the house, “my little gem.” Designed in 1946 and completed in 1950 the home is a great example in Wright’s oeuvre of a Usonian home.

Another of Wrights’ Usonian homes within Bloomfield Hills can also be connected to Cranbrook.   Commissioned by Gregor S. Affleck, a chemical engineer who invented an automotive fast-drying paint, the Affleck House was completed in 1941. Affleck’s son, Gregor Porter Affleck, attended Cranbrook Academy of Art and studied Architecture with Eliel Saarinen from 1944-1945. In 1978, the Affleck children donated the house to Lawrence Technological University.

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Courtesy Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Foundation Records.

Saarinen and Wright were colleagues who supported each other in the field of Architecture, at least as much as two established architects with considerable egos could get along. Wright visited Cranbrook at least three times, for lectures in 1935, 1936 and 1937. All were sold out to standing room only.

The Melvin Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith House will be open for tours May – October on one Friday and one Sunday of each month. For more information on the tours, please visit our website.

Stefanie Dlugosz-Acton,  Collections Fellow, Center for Collections and Research

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