Dolls Make the House

Who doesn’t love dolls? Apparently plenty of people who come through Saarinen House and comment on the two dolls enjoying pride of place in the Cozy Corner. The first response is often “What are those?” The second “What is she looking at?” What indeed. These are two vintage dolls, boy and girl, that Loja and Eliel Saarinen had in their possession and who now sit on the carpeted bench in the sitting alcove or “Cozy Corner” of the Saarinen House studio.

Dolls in Saarinen House. Photograph by James Haefner, 2015.

They were in place in 1947 when Margaret Fish, then art critic from the Milwaukee Sentinel, came to Cranbrook to interview Saarinen as he embarked upon plans for Milwaukee’s war memorial. [Saarinen Cites Keynote for City’s War Memorial. February 22, 1947.] Saarinen confessed to Fish, “Unless your home belongs to your spiritual as well as your physical life, you are entering among strangers.” He went on to explain that the dolls had belonged to his own children (Pipsan and Eero) and that his grandchildren played with them when they came to visit.

The dolls made their way back as a gift from grandson Ron Saarinen Swanson to the house as restoration neared completion in 1994. Greg Wittkopp, then Curator of Collections at Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum, accepted them in a letter of thanks writing “These dolls are critical to the restoration of Saarinen House as they help us interpret [the house] as a ‘home’ not merely an architectural space.” Interesting that this is still the object of the set up of the house and now also of the changing exhibits within curated by current Collections Fellow Kevin Adkisson.

The girl doll was made by the Italian company of Lenci founded in 1918 by Elena König Scavini (1886-1974), nicknamed Lenci, and husband Enrico in Turin. According to the appraisal by the Berkley Doll Hospital, our girl was probably created in 1920.  Lenci dolls became famous for their high quality and cost and the eyes looking away. One wonders what little girls had to do to get the doll to look at them.

Our doll has a felt, jointed body with painted features on pressed felt and those famous eyes looking off to the right. Her hair is a mohair wig, “intentionally tousled” in “little girl fashion” and her clothes are made of felt. Her cheeks swell in petulant child fashion and her third and fourth fingers are sewn together.

After World War II, the company changed hands and the dolls themselves evolved, becoming known as Lenci-type dolls.

Käthe Kruse (1883-1968), the actress creator of the boy doll, was ahead of her time, spurred to create a doll for her children when their sculptor father told them he was not about to buy them the unsatisfactory commercial products then available (this in 1899). Kruse started out with a washrag filled with sand and tied in four corners, carving a potato for the head. This was apparently an unqualified success for her 5-year-old daughter who had asked for a “real child.” Kruse herself realized that a doll should fill an emotional need and not “provide some technical education for running a kitchen.” In response to the doll named Oskar by her daughter, she thought to create a gender-neutral doll so that the children themselves could decide what gender the doll was to be, then the clothes could follow. In the pictures below you have the same doll dressed in different clothes:

Theriault and Bukowskis doll images

Identical Käthe Kruse dolls dressed in different outfits. c. 1930-1940. Courtesy of Theriault and Bukowskis Auction.

Her dolls became an unexpected hit, especially in New York where she sold 150 dolls to FAO Schwarz in 1911. As time passed and Germany was embroiled in World War I, Kruse was pressured to join the patriotic movement catering to the increasing militarism of German society. So her doll grew into a male and appeared in a generic military uniform. So much for the little girls who might not want a soldier baby to play with.

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Boy and girl clothes on Käthe Kruse dolls, 1918. Courtesy of Geheugen van Nederland.

Kruse’s doll was destined for further changes, however, because another war loomed, and the gender-neutral baby was once more required to grow male and don a uniform of more sinister aspect.  Kruse lost two sons of her eight children to this war, and as she continued to produce dolls, their facial expressions grew decidedly sad. Who knows why Hitler or his head honchos in the midst of a war would be paying attention to a toy manufacturer, but somehow the dolls’ apparent lack of politically correct optimism attracted attention, as did the Jewish workers Kruse refused to fire, and Kruse’s workshops were closed down. No more dolls until 1946 when Kruse sent three more children to restart the manufacture.

Our doll is dated by the Berkley Doll Hospital to 1910. He is the Doll 1 type with a molded muslin head and hand-painted features and hair in oils. His wide-hipped body is jointed cloth stuffed with reindeer hair, and he has the typical Doll 1, “frog” hands. His clothes are cotton and wool with a knitted wool hat and leggings.

Whoever played with these dolls, they were certainly handled carefully and not loved to pieces. And yet, when Margaret Fish came to call, she reported there were three dolls “European in appearance, sitting primly on the benches.” What happened to doll number 3? Would this have been a doll of yet another nationality? French maybe?

Kathe Kruse and Dolls

Käthe Kruse and dolls, 1905. Courtesy of Käthe Kruse History.

Some visitors find the dolls creepy, others fascinating. When they come to Saarinen House, visitors do not expect to be taken back to their own childhood as these dolls will do to you, if you let them: she looking off to her right, grumpily in search of better things, and he looking sturdily down.

The Kruse dolls are still in production 50 years after Kruse’s death at the age of 85, still desirable, still looking a bit like baby Friedebald Kruse, the model for the first commercial doll, and still stuffed with reindeer hair if you are willing to pay.

– Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter

 

You can see the Saarinen dolls on Saarinen House tours, led by the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research Collections Interpreters every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, May-November.

Additional sources:

Edwards, Linda. Doll Values: Antique to Modern 13th Edition. New York. Page Publishing. 2017

Ganaway, Michael. Toys, Consumption, and Middle-class Childhood in Imperial Germany, 1871-1918. Bern. Peter Lang. 2009

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.

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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).

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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.

The Elves and the Saarinen Home

Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research “elves,” with help from the Cranbrook Archives and Cranbrook Art Museum, have worked their magic to bring out treasures designed for this summer’s reinvigorated and expanded tours of the landmark Saarinen House. This three-month installation entitled Saarinen Home: Living and Working with Cranbrook’s First Family of Design, expands on the life and work of the remarkable Saarinen family, displaying items used in their home, at Cranbrook, and for projects around the country.

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Selecting sliver, glass, and ceramic items for the exhibition.

The exhibition kicks off with an Open House from 1-4pm this Sunday, April 30th, during the Art Academy’s OPEN(STUDIOS). It will also be open for four nights of special programming – “Finnish Fridays” – the first of which is May 5th. Normal tours of the exhibit are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, May through July. For all the details, check out the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research website.

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Preparing the space to display weavings by Studio Loja Saarinen.

Leslie Mio, Assistant Registrar

May The Fork Be With You

 

 

forkeditedEliel Saarinen taught his students to always consider how the design of one object fits within the next largest context; the building within the city plan, the furniture within the room, down to the fork on the table. Kingswood School for Girls embodies this philosophy, and is considered a “total work of art” designed by the Saarinen family. But that doesn’t mean the Saarinens designed everything in the building: Eliel knew when to delegate, not only to his wife Loja, daughter Pipsan, and son Eero, but also to others, like rugs and fabrics in the school designed by Studio Loja Saarinen weavers Maja Andersson Wirde, Lillian Holm, and others.

Instrumental in decorating the school, Loja Saarinen also used her design eye to choose existing wares from the market to compliment the environment being created at Kingswood.  The 1938 Kingswood School Cranbrook Inventory of Equipment and Supplies is full of entries like this one from May 1934: “Voucher No. 5547, Nessen Studio, Inc., 18 Nut Dishes for Kingswood School (ordered by Mrs. Saarinen).”  The flatware in the Kingswood Dining Hall is another prime example of an existing design used to complete the Saarinens’ vision.

The International Silver Company was a conglomerate of New England silver producers formed in 1898. Subsidiaries of International Silver, like Rogers Bros. and Wilcox Silver Plate Company, continued using their marks on works created under the new organization.  The silver-plate pattern selected for the Kingswood School for Girls dining hall was the International Silver Company’s “Silhouette” pattern.  Though Eliel Saarinen collaborated as a designer with International Silver on a number of projects—including his famous Tea Urn and Tray—the “Silhouette” pattern was designed by Leslie A. Brown, who held a number of design patents while working for International Silver Company. “Silhouette” was produced under both the International Silver Company name and the 1847 Rogers brand.

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Advertisement from Hotel Management, Volume 17, Issue 6 (June 1930), Section 2, page 365.

The ladies of Kingswood used these beautiful pieces on Saarinen designed tables, with plates from the Syracuse China Company (hotel ware division) with a Saarinen-designed Kingswood School crest on them.  Dinners at Kingswood were formal affairs, so there were many pieces to each complete set of flatware.

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Detail from an image of the Junior-Senior Banquet at Kingswood School, June 1941. Notice the “Silhouette” flatware, the crested serving ware, and the Saarinen-designed Silver Centerpiece (KS 1991.1). Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The 1938 Inventory lists the following forms purchased through Marshall Field & Company for use in the dining hall: Viande* Knives, Viande* Fork, Individual Salad Forks, Individual Fish Forks, Bouillon Spoons, Butter Spreaders, Teaspoons, Dessert Forks, Cocktail Forks, Dessert Spoons, Table Spoons, Coffee Spoons, Soup Ladles, and Cold-Meat Forks.  The flatware had a “Butler finish” – a matte or frosted finish — on 18% nickel silver blanks — a metal alloy of copper, nickel and zinc, highly resistant to corrosion and tarnish.  All pieces were marked “Kingswood School.”

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Viande fork (top of page), butter spreader, and bouillon spoon from the Cultural Properties Collection, Kingswood School for Girls. Courtesy of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The flatware was used for everyday dining as well as more formal dinners, but as dining at Cranbrook became less formal and the student body increased in size, more utilitarian commercial-grade knives, spoons, and forks were introduced. Luckily, we still have many of these original pieces in storage for study and display.

*”Viande” is French for “meat” but in this case refers to a form of flatware with longer handles with shorter blades or tines.  It was supposed to fit more comfortably in the hands, advertised as having “smartness and being chic.”

Leslie S. Mio is the Assistant Registrar for the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research and the Cranbrook Art Museum.

 

Transcontinental Threads: Maja Andersson Wirde

One of my favorite parts of my job as an archivist is assisting researchers with locating materials in our collections. Often times a scholar will visit here with a set plan for their research project, and pre-conceived ideas about what they might find here or how the materials in our collections will support their thinking. One of my personal pleasures is when the researcher finds something new or surprising in our collections that changes their course of action. This is exciting on many levels – for them as well as for me!

In August 2015, Swedish author Marie Andersson visited Cranbrook to study the work of the Swedish weaver Maja Andersson Wirde (no relation) in preparation for a monograph on the life and work of Wirde at the request of Wirde’s family. Wirde (1873-1952), an accomplished weaver and textile designer, was asked by Loja Saarinen to come to Cranbrook in 1929 and oversee the operation of Studio Loja Saarinen which was established to design and produce all of the textiles for Kingswood School Cranbrook. As many researchers before her, Marie Andersson found her visit to Cranbrook Archives to be a revelation, and she recently wrote to me that “the Cranbrook chapter became an important part of the book, much more than I thought before I visited you.”

Maja Andersson Wirde (standing) with Loja Saarinen, Studio Loja Saarinen, ca 1930. Detroit News photograph, Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Maja Andersson Wirde (standing) with Loja Saarinen, Studio Loja Saarinen, ca 1930. Detroit News photograph, Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Prior to coming to Cranbrook, Maja Andersson Wirde had been employed by Handarbetes Vänner (The Friends of Handicraft) in Stockholm from 1907-1929. Her textile designs were represented in international exhibitions including Stockholm (1909 and 1930), Malmo (1914), Gothenburg (1923), and Paris (1925). However, according to Marie Andersson, Wirde’s “time spent at Cranbrook must be looked upon as the most important period” in Wirde’s life as an artist, and she created some of her most significant work while here.

So, what did Marie discover at Cranbrook Archives? Comparing photographs and documents from our collections with images of watercolor sketches from museums and archives in Sweden, Marie and I spent two days of “fantastic co-operation” in order to uncover the extent of Wirde’s contribution to the history of textiles at Cranbrook, particularly Kingswood School.

Watercolour sketch by Maja Wirde (1873-1952), Collection of Smålands Museum, Växjö, Sweden.

Watercolour sketch by Maja Wirde (1873-1952), Collection of Smålands Museum, Växjö, Sweden.

The rug for Reception Room III (Rose Lounge) in situ, Kingswood School, 1932. George Hance, photographer, Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The rug for Reception Room III (Rose Lounge) in situ, Kingswood School, 1932. George Hance, photographer, Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Prior to Marie’s visit, Wirde was known for her work as the shop supervisor at Studio Loja Saarinen, the weaving instructor at Kingswood School, and for her designs for several rugs and textiles for Kingswood School, including the fabric for the dining hall chairs and most notably, the large rug for the Green Lobby. However, Loja Saarinen was given credit for the rest. Now, Cranbrook can tell a more inclusive story – for we discovered that it was Maja Andersson Wirde who designed the majority of the textiles for Kingswood School – eleven rugs for lobby/reception halls, all of the curtains and rugs for the dormitory rooms, as well as curtains for the dining hall, study hall, and library! In addition, she designed rugs for the Academy of Art, Saarinen House, and George Booth’s Cranbrook Foundation Office.

While the book, “Trådar ur ett liv: textilkonstnären Maja Andersson Wirde” was published pirmarily in Swedish, there is a translation of the chapter on Cranbrook in the back, and the book features numerous images from Cranbrook Archives. We are so excited to be able to tell a more comprehensive story not only about the objects in our care, but also a key individual in our rich history.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

 

Can You Say Lobster Roll?

It feels as though summer is winding down and this week is the final session of Cranbrook Art Museum Summer Camp. We enjoyed a visit from students earlier in the week who were part of the “Costumes and Characters” session. While pulling materials to show the students, we came across this photo of Ralph Russell Calder (1894-1969), an architect and friend of Henry Scripps Booth. He is in a lobster costume made by Loja Saarinen for a “May Party” in 1926.

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From the Henry Scripps and Carolyn Farr Booth Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

Calder, born in 1894, was a veteran of World War I and an accomplished musician. He graduated in 1923 from the University of Michigan College of Architecture (he and Henry were classmates). In 1924, he studied in England, France, and Italy as the winner of the George G. Booth Traveling Fellowship in Architecture.

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A card from Ralph Calder & Associates, Inc. with a 1924 sketch by Ralph Calder during his travels in Europe on the Booth Traveling Fellowship.

In 1925, Calder worked for several months as part of U of M’s Near East Research Expedition in Tunisia. The research and objects obtained from this expedition are the basis of the collection at the Francis W. Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at U of M. Calder joined the Cranbrook Architectural Office in 1926 and remained there until staff was reduced due to the economic depression. In 1937, he joined the firm of William G. Malcomson and Maurice E. Hammond where he stayed until 1945, when he started his own firm, Ralph Calder and Associates, in Detroit.

Calder worked on the following buildings on the Cranbrook campus: the main academic building (Hoey Hall) at Cranbrook School, Thornlea, and Thornlea Studio. In addition, he was the architect for buildings at Michigan State University, Michigan Technological University, Hope College, Northern Michigan University, Hillsdale College, Wayne State University, Ferris State University, Western Michigan University, and Lake Superior State University. He enjoyed music as a hobby and was the organist and choirmaster for St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Detroit in the 1940s.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

Object in Focus: Viktor Schreckengost Correspondence

Viktor Schreckengost letter, 1938

Saarinen Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives

While doing research for the Cranbrook Archives’ upcoming exhibition Ephemera: The Stories that Letterhead Tells, I discovered a beautiful example of bold, colorful letterhead from 1938. The letterhead, designed by Viktor Schreckengost, was clearly influenced by the Bauhaus designs of the 1920s and 1930s which featured asymmetrical compositions and expressive typography. The content of the letter is of course also very interesting. A response to textile designer Loja Saarinen’s request to purchase the ceramic sculpture “Young Pegasus,” the letter shows a mutual respect between the two artists. The sculpture, which Schreckengost sold to Loja Saarinen, lived for many years in Saarinen House, and is now in the permanent collection of Cranbrook Art Museum.

As the saying goes, “curiosity killed the cat,” and as I knew nothing about Schreckengost, I set out to see what I could discover about him. Turns out that Schreckengost, who spent the majority of his life in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was not only an industrial designer (think streamlined pedal cars and the Sears Spaceline bicycle), but was also a painter and ceramicist. The son of a commercial potter, Schreckengost dabbled in clay sculpture as a child, and went on to design mid-century modern dinnerware for American Limoges and Salem China. Perhaps his best-known ceramic work is the Jazz Bowl (1930-1931) that he created at Cowan Pottery in Rocky River, Ohio, for a commission from Eleanor Roosevelt.

Viktor Schreckengost letter, 1948

Cranbrook Art Museum Exhibition records, Cranbrook Archives

In 1948, then curator of Cranbrook Art Museum, Esther Sperry, was in the process of planning the Academy of Art’s Second Biennial Ceramics and Textile Exhibition and reached out to Schreckengost. The exhibition records yielded two more very interesting letterhead from Schreckengost. With simplified typography, the first reflects Schreckengost’s response to post-war graphic design and the promotion of “less is more” concept, while the second illustrates how Schreckengost constantly experimented with type and design elements. Both 1948 letters show his conscious effort to utilize negative space as an active element.

Viktor Schreckengost letter, 1948

Cranbrook Art Museum Exhibition records, Cranbrook Archives

The bottom line is that for me, these three objects in our collection are fascinating – in their design, in their content and how they, as cultural artifacts, reflect the changing world of design through their rich visual vocabulary.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

Fashioning Architecture

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.

William Van Alen as the Chrysler Building, with other masquerading architects around him. On the far right is Joseph Freelander as the Museum of the City of New York.  Source: NY Times/untappedcities.com.

William Van Alen as the Chrysler Building, with other masquerading architects around him. On the far right is Joseph Freelander as the Museum of the City of New York. Source: NY Times/untappedcities.com.

 

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“In the Twenty-Ninth Century Mode”: Crandemonium Returns

The theme of the first Crandemonium Ball was the Court of Crandemonium. It prompted this newspaper article declaring that the party was in the "twenty ninth century mode." 1934, Cranbrook Archives.

The theme of the first Crandemonium Ball was the Court of Crandemonium. It prompted this newspaper article declaring that the party was in the “twenty ninth century mode.” 1934, Cranbrook Archives.

Since we already upset tradition by posting a “Photo Thursday,” we thought we’d skip today’s Photo Friday and instead focus on a subject near and dear to our hearts—Crandemonium!  A costume ball thrown at various intervals during the Saarinens’ tenure at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Crandemonium was a no-holds-barred party.  From the painted backdrops to the fantastical mythology, Crandemonium had it all.  Academy of Art students were essential to the party, competing to design the interiors and often appearing in the most outlandish costumes of all. This year the Museum Committee has resurrected the beloved Crandemonium party for their yearly fundraiser, happening this Saturday at the Cranbrook Art Museum.  Just in time, enjoy the Crandemonium ephemera from the past!

An intriguing invitation to 1936's Atlantis-themed Crandemonium, this card featured the first part of the story of Atlantis. The invitee would presumably learn the remaining chapters upon attending the party. 1936, Cranbrook Archives.

An intriguing invitation to 1936’s Atlantis-themed Crandemonium, this card featured the first part of the story of Atlantis. The invitee would presumably learn the remaining chapters upon attending the party. 1936, Cranbrook Archives.

The 1936 Atlantis Crandemonium theme led to some amazing promotional material. 1936, Cranbrook Archives.

The 1936 Atlantis Crandemonium theme led to some amazing promotional material. 1936, Cranbrook Archives.

 

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