A Delightful Trip in a White Swedish Ship

Between 1925 and 1939, the Saarinen family made annual trips to Europe, always stopping for a time in Finland. They travelled by sea, usually departing from New York and arriving in Southampton, England or Gothenburg, Sweden. When they sailed directly to Scandinavia, they were abaord the MS Gripsholm.

MS Gripsholm 1951 mailed

The MS Gripsholm in New York City, c. 1951. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

The Gripsholm was built in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, in 1924 for the Svenska Amerika Linien/Swedish American Line (SAL). The SAL was founded in 1914 as a direct Swedish-North American cargo and passenger shipping line, and the Gripsholm was the company’s first luxury liner. She was also the first diesel-engine transatlantic passenger liner, which is why she is the MS (or Motor Ship) Gripsholm. After 1929, all the SAL fleet was painted white, giving rise to the moniker “A delightful trip in a white Swedish ship.”

Aboard the MS Gripsholm, first class passengers enjoyed all the traditional features of luxury transatlantic liners (libraries, writing rooms, gyms, a pool, garden rooms, smoking parlors, bars, etc.), along with distinctly Nordic options, like folk dancing, Swedish foods, and a fully Swedish crew.

Along with the port of Gothenburg’s closer proximity to Helsinki, it was perhaps these northern-European comforts that led the Saarinens, who were Swedish-speaking Finns, to repeatedly choose the Gripsholm for their summer journeys. Aboard the Gripsholm in 1929, this photo was snapped on deck showing Eliel, his son-in-law J. Robert F. Swanson, months-old Bob Swanson, and Eliel’s daughter Pipsan Saarinen Swanson. The family captioned the photo “Last Dash Before the Crash.”

Eliel Bob Bobby Pipsan on the Gripsholm 1929

Eliel, Bob, Bobby, and Pipsan aboard the MS Gripsholm, 1929. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

In 1934, Eliel, Loja, Pipsan, Bob, and their now five-year-old son Bobby were again aboard the Gripsholm. On the SAL stationery, Loja wrote a letter back to George and Ellen Booth at Cranbrook. She writes, “I wanted tell you again how happy Eliel and I have been at Cranbrook and how thankful we are to you because you want us there.” She continues:

“So far we are well off although neither Pipsan nor I knew what we took over us in taking Bobbi along. He is like a firework. He is nowhere and everywhere. He hasn’t climbed up the smoke stack yet neither has he ridden on a whale’s back, but he has done other things enough to worry us.”Letter from Loja Saarinen to George Booth_GGB Papers 19-4

On this same trip, a photograph of Pipsan and little firework Bobby was sent back stateside and ran in the local papers here in Oakland County. Pipsan is shown in a fashionable dress and hat, quite possibly of her own design, as at the time she was head of the Academy of Art’s short lived Fashion Department. Pipsan, like her mother, made many of her own clothes throughout her life.IMG_3206

In the Cranbrook Cultural Properties collection, we have the Saarinen’s steamer trunks and suitcases that they used aboard the Gripsholm and other ships. One of the suitcases has its stickers from the MS Gripsholm, still prominently called out in the Swedish pale blue and yellow.

IMG_0516

The Saarinen’s steamer trunks and suitcases. On view now in “Saarinen Home: Living and Working with Cranbrook’s First Family of Design”

During World War II, when the Saarinen’s remained in the States aiding the U.S. war effort and organizing the Finnish Relief Fund, the Gripsholm was charted by the U.S. as a repatriation ship. It carried German and Japanese citizens to exchange points for U.S. and Canadian citizens. Gripsholm (and her neutral Swedish crew) made these exchanges at neutral ports, including Stockholm, Lisbon, Portuguese Goa, and Lourenço Marques. Over 12,000 Americans who had been in enemy territory at the outbreak of war or were prisoners of war returned home aboard the Gripsholm in this diplomatic capacity.

In 1954, SAL sold the Gripsholm to a German company. She was rechristened the MS Berlin and entered into service as a Canadian immigration ship, sailing from points in Europe to Pier 21 in Halifax (the Ellis Island of Canada). The ship was retired and scrapped in 1966, but an image of the Gripsholm (in her Berlin livery) lives on in the Canadian passport!

Copies of the Saarinen’s letters sent from the Gripsholm, photographs of the family about the ship, and the trunks and suitcases used by the family are all currently on view in “Saarinen Home: Living and Working with Cranbrook’s First Family of Design” in Saaarinen House, open for tours Friday and Saturdays at 1pm and Sundays at 1 & 3pm through the end of July. Tonight is our last Finnish Friday, where there is an open house at Saarinen House and games and cake in its courtyard, also, the Cranbrook Art Museum will be open; there are Finnish-related treasures out in the Archives Reading Room; and a cash bar on the Peristyle. Come on by for our last Finnish Friday!

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

Dessert with Décor in Mind

Back in the winter of 1941-1942, the fashion editor of The Milwaukee Journal, Aileen Ryan, visited Loja and Eliel Saarinen here at Cranbrook. She published an article about her day at the Academy and dinner in the Saarinens’ remarkable home on January 18, 1942: “Furnish Home According to Principles of Architecture” (The Milwaukee Journal, section 7, p. 9).

Plate 53

Dining Room set for a tea, c. 1994, Copyright Cranbrook Art Museum and Balthazar Korab

Ryan vividly describes the ceremonial nature of dinner in the dining room of the house, how hospitality, art, architecture, and food intersect in a totally beautiful and complete way. She writes:

“The dining room is at the left of the entrance and gleams a golden welcome to guests. Light is reflected from a gilded dome ceiling back to the top of the round table made of rays of harewood inlaid with ebony in a way that suggests the sun. Places are set on circular doilies of yellow linen block with black figures which the Saarinens’ son, Eero, made when he was a child. On these are black plates, on these folded yellow napkins and on top of these yellow cups and saucers. Each guest unpiles his cup to get his napkin as the plump brass coffee pot is brought around. It’s delicious coffee and amber enough as it streams from the slender spout to fit into the color scheme.

“Mr. Saarinen looks vastly amused when he tells us the chairs, with their Spanish comb look and sunny as the table itself, are made of Hollywood. He has designed them as he has the other furniture in the house, and they are dramatic. The walls of this golden room, seeming sunny on a gray and snowy day, are of waxed California pine. One of them is nearly covered with a Finnish tapestry made by Greta Skogster in soft terra cotta tones. The ombre [sic] shaded carpet is creamy white and brown.”

She ends the description of dinner:

“A pineapple upside down cake is part of the edible harmony, but Mrs. Saarinen refuses to admit she serves food to carry out the architectural scheme.”

Last weekend we reopened Saarinen House for tours, and many of the items Ryan describes are again on view in the house (the yellow place mats, the black dishes, the golden coffee pot, etc). And on Friday night, as part of our first Finnish Friday, we even brought back pineapple upside down cake! Sweet and Savory Bakery in Oxford, Michigan, generously donated plenty of pineapple upside down cake for guests to enjoy. Without Loja’s recipe but trying to be historically accurate, we used a recipe found in Good Housekeeping in February 1938.

Good Housekeeping Feb 1938 p 167

“Hit ideas for any meal with pineapple taking the lead,” Advertisement in Good Housekeeping, February 1938, Courtesy of the Winterthur Library.

Since this weekend is Mother’s Day, and, for many of us, our mothers are especially connected with memories of food and cooking, I wanted to talk a bit more about food in the Saarinen home. Bob Swanson, Loja’s oldest grandson, told me a few weeks ago that Loja was an excellent cook. He remembers her serving lots of ham and lutfisk at the holidays. As great of a cook as Mormor (Swedish for grandma) was, Bob recalled that most meals were prepared by the housekeeper and served in the kitchen dining area (not on tour). That dining area had plain chairs and a rectangular table with a black Formica top—not quite the drama of the main dining room.

His own mom, Pipsan Saarinen Swanson, was also a great cook. Bob remembers her making wonderful and inventive wartime meals—specifically liver and onions, lamb shanks, and calves brains. Pipsan, whose dresses are currently on display in Saarinen House, was (unknowingly) living journalist Aileen Ryan’s own wartime interests: “rations, passions and fashions.”

Bob laughed when I asked him if he remembered Loja serving pineapple upside down cake to match the décor. He didn’t recall her serving it to him, but said it was just her humor to do something like that. He also remembered how much Loja loved pies, particularly peach pie and pineapple pie–both pies that would coordinate with the décor!

For more Saarinen family stories, come join us for a Saarinen Home tour: Fridays and Saturdays at 2:00pm and Sundays at 1:00pm and 3:00pm. To try out our interpretation of a period Pineapple Upside Down Cake (served in the Saarinen House courtyard outside the dining room) join us for an upcoming Finnish Friday (May 19th, June 9th,  and June 23rd). In addition to admission to Cranbrook Art Museum and an open-house in both Saarinen House and the Archives Reading Room, we’ll also have period board games, Saarinen family films, a pianist at the family designed piano, and a cash bar for your enjoyment!

-Kevin Adkisson*, Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

*My mother, for the record, is also an amazing cook.

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