Photo (Album) Friday

Over the past decade, digital photo albums have become commonplace. Although I enjoy seeing photos in digital albums, there is something magical about peering into the pages of a book constructed by someone decades ago. Here in the Archives we have many scrapbooks – from oversized books with newspaper clippings to school scrapbooks with photographs and ephemera related to sporting events, dances, and awards ceremonies.

Scrapbooks are a fundamental part of many of our manuscript collections – documenting the work and life of artists, educators, and scientists. The four scrapbooks in the Saarinen Family Papers contain newspaper clippings of Eliel Saarinen’s work, as well as photographs of family and friends in the U.S. and Europe.

I find that photographs and scrapbooks document life in a way that is unique to written correspondence. A letter provides detail to the reader or researcher, but a captioned photo provides visual representation and the details that were important to the creator. The Archives recently accessioned the Smith House Records, which includes 20 albums. The albums include artwork that the homeowners valued, as well as photographs of people enjoying their home. These images show what a fun couple the Smiths were – and how much they loved entertaining guests in their Wright home.

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A page from one of the Smith family albums, Dec 1970.

Henry Scripps Booth, youngest son of Cranbrook founders George and Ellen Booth, elevated the scrapbook to a new level with his series of 14 albums, titled “Pleasures of Life.” These albums celebrate travel, as well as family life here at Cranbrook from 1911-1940. The carefully constructed pages in the “Pleasures of Life” series include captions for nearly all the photos (penned by Henry), including one of a house party at Cranbrook House in 1915.

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“House Party, Cranbrook House,” Pleasures of Life, Vol 2, 1915.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

NB: This weekend, 103 years after Henry captioned his photo of “House Party, Cranbrook House,” the Center for Collections and Research is hosting a gala fundraiser A HOUSE PARTY AT CRANBROOK. It will celebrate the three historic houses under the Center’s care, and honor the legacies of the families who built and lived in them. Hopefully someone takes photos for an album to be appreciated in another 100 years!

From Drawing to Driftwood: The Artwork of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell

During the Archive’s Reading Room relocation at Cranbrook Art Museum, we have been digitizing negatives for preservation and access. This has enabled a new collection for CONTENTdm which highlights the artwork of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell (1911-1977). There are thirty images so far, with more being added soon. Five of Mitchell’s paintings can also be viewed during tours through Saarinen House: Presidents/Residents, 1946-1994.

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Wally Mitchell in his studio, early 1940s. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The collection features images of the rich diversity of Mitchell’s artwork, from his early drawings and still life paintings to his later geometric abstract works and painting-constructions. Mitchell’s later works include many driftwood sculptures and Plexiglas paintings.

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Driftwood in Three Sections, 1965. Estate of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

In 1946, two of his paintings were included in the European Exhibition of the Guggenheim-funded Museum of Non-Objective Painting. These two pieces, with two other paintings added in 1948, are now in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Between 1950 and 1962, Mitchell’s work was frequently exhibited at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York. He was also commissioned to design murals, such as one installed at the University of Kentucky in 1962, based on his painting Turnabout Number One from 1952.

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University of Kentucky Mural, installed in 1962 based on a painting ‘Turnabout Number One’ from 1952. Estate of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Mitchell’s archival collection will be available for research again when the Archives Reading Room reopens in July. Mitchell’s collection contains professional papers relating to his studentship and work as an instructor and administrator at Cranbrook. It also includes interviews and correspondence related to Joan Bence’s 1983 publication, The Art of Wallace Mitchell. There are also audio-visual materials including negatives, transparencies, slides and photographs.

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Villa-Neuve-Les-Avignons, 1938. Estate of Wallace MacMahon Mitchell/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Mitchell was born in Detroit in 1911. After receiving his BA from Northwestern University in Chicago, Ill. in 1934, he studied with Zoltan Sepeshy for a year (1934-1935). He then toured Europe before returning to Cranbrook in 1936 as a painting instructor. His career at Cranbrook spanned 1936-1977, during which time he taught Arts and Crafts at Cranbrook School (1944-1947) while he was painting instructor (1936-1956), he was Registrar for the Academy of Art (1944-1956), Director of the Cranbrook Art Museum (1956-1970), and President of the Cranbrook Academy of Art (1970-1977). A retrospective exhibition of his work planned for his retirement at the end of the 1976/1977 academic year became a memorial exhibition following his death in January 1977.

-Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

Sources:

Wallace McMahon Mitchell Papers (1990-21)

Chad Alligood, What to Paint and Why: Modern Painters at Cranbrook, 1936-1974 (Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Art Museum, 2013)

Joan Beehler Bence, The Art of Wallace Mitchell – Cranbrook’s Op Art Master Colorist (Unpublished, 1983, 1996)

Wallace MacMahon Mitchell, 1911-1977: a memorial exhibition of paintings and painting-constructions, 1936-1976 (Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Academy of Art, 1977)

Saarinen/Slade House

When incoming Academy President Roy Slade arrived at Cranbrook in July 1977, the President’s House (known, off and on, as Saarinen House) was in need of a refresher. Three other families had lived in and changed the aesthetic of the house following Eliel Saarinen’s death in 1950, and the house was a far cry from Saarinen’s design intent. Slade worked with designers Jean Faulkner and Carl Magnusson (then Director of Graphics and Showroom Design at Knoll) to rework the house into something befitting the new President of the Academy.

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Saarinen House, February 8, 1978. Norman McGrath, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The original Saarinen-designed furniture had been spread throughout the campus and Museum, and in the redesign much of it was returned for use in the house. But instead of restoring rooms to their 1930s appearance (that would happen a decade or so later), the house was kept as a blend of old and new. “Gibraltar Ash” off-white wool wall-to-wall carpeting by Jack Lenor Larsen stretched between the foyer, living room, dining room, and library, making the main room of the house feel like one continuous open space. Furnishings and art pieces by Cranbrook (and Cranbrook-adjacent) artists and designers from many decades–not just the 1930s–were blended together into a comfortable, deliberately eclectic look. The 1977 interiors of the house were featured in local papers and even included, with text by Paul Goldberger, in Living Well: The New York Times Book of Home Design and Decoration (1981).

It’s interesting in these photos by Jack Kausch how well the space works, but how alien Saarinen’s furniture seems to be! Particularly in the dining room–the holly wood table and brass fixture are decontextualized by the foreign whiteness of the walls, ceiling, and floor. The next restoration, completed in 1994, brought back Saarinen’s rich color scheme and variety of materials–including the gilded ceiling.

If you’d like to learn more about the later lives of Saarinen House, Roy Slade’s tenure as President of the Academy, and other fascinating Cranbrook Academy of Art stories, come out to visit my exhibition, Saarinen House: Presidents/Residents, 1946-1994, opening later this month.

The exhibition features archival material and works by each former resident: painter Zoltan Sepeshy, who directed the Academy from 1946 to 1966 and moved into the house in late 1951 following the death of Eliel Saarinen; architect Glen Paulsen, who led the Academy from 1966 to 1970 and expanded Cranbrook’s campus with late-Modern additions; Wallace Mitchell, a Detroit native whose career at Cranbrook developed from student to painting instructor, then director of the Art Museum and finally president; and painter and educator Roy Slade, who led the Academy and its Museum from 1977 to 1994. Slade initiated the restoration of Saarinen House in the late 1970s and encouraged and supported Greg Wittkopp (then a curator at the Art Museum) in the transformation of this early modern, Art Deco design treasure into a public house museum in 1994.

The free Opening Reception will take place Sunday, April 29, 2018, from 1pm-5pm (in conjunction with Open Studios) and the exhibition will be included on all tours of Saarinen House through November. Learn more on our website.

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

 

 

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.

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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

Indiana Jones and the Search for the Pergola Picture: My Senior May Experience

Growing up so close to the Henry Ford Museum, or watching my family’s favorite go-to movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, I knew that I was interested in history from an early age. Yet, I never stopped to think about Cranbrook’s own fascinating and world-renowned past. To me, this community was just “home”, and the only history I thought of was of my family’s connection with the school. Nevertheless, for my Senior May project, I wanted to learn more about the inter-workings of the educational community as a whole. With this in mind, I chose to intern at the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research and the Archives for my last senior assignment.

Elizabeth Fairman, CKU ’17

The purpose of Cranbrook’s Senior May project is to give soon-to-be Upper School graduates a taste of a “real world” job for the month of May in their field of interest.  Initially, I assumed I would be either in Art Museum storage moving art pieces or doing research on the computer every day, but I could not have been more wrong.

Over the course of my three weeks, I had behind-the-scenes tours of Cranbrook’s many historic landmarks, firsthand looks at restorations, handling and moving donated art pieces, and countless hours of both digital and primary source research. I met many people who are tasked with adding to and preserving this living historical landmark, no small task given the expansive campus. My perspective of the community, initially as the place of my education and a source of livelihood for my family, was altered, and I began to see it as an operational historical site.

In short, I had a very full, albeit whirlwind experience of almost everything that being an archivist or registrar entails.

Organizing original Kingswood School silverware in Heaven.

My favorite experiences were the tours of campus. Although I have attended this school for 14 years, very rarely did my classes study the history of Cranbrook or take field trips to different buildings on campus besides Cranbrook Institute of Science. In fact, I had only visited Saarinen House and Thornlea once before Senior May, just three weeks before I am set to graduate. My supervisor, Mrs. Mio, added another element of the visits, a look at them through the eyes of a registrar who is tasked with upkeep and restoration of historic sites. Through tasks such as cataloging Booth dinner plates at Cranbrook House, identifying historic bookbinding tools used at the Academy of Art, and even checking mouse traps at Thornlea, I developed a deeper appreciation for the amount of work it takes to showcase the history of this community, as well as a chance to see rooms or storage out of the public’s eye.

Clothing collection at Cranbrook House storage.

Another aspect I enjoyed was the research itself, like searching through “the stacks”, where many of the important archival files are kept. It is a place where you can find both important and unexpected things. For instance, one afternoon while searching for photos and records of the Cranbrook House Pergola for Ms. Edwards, I came across security reports from the 1960’s detailing the dangers of “hippie types” on campus. I was also able to piece together more of the history of Cranbrook firsthand through organizing and filing other primary sources created by prominent figures in the Community’s past.

Elizabeth Fairman, CKU ’17

Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Fairman is a “lifer” at Cranbrook, having attended school here since Kindergarten. In addition to that, her father Andy is the upper school baseball coach and physical education teacher at Brookside School. Both of Elizabeth’s grandmothers (Sue Tower and Marilyn Sutton) taught school at Brookside for many years. We thank Elizabeth for her exemplary work ethic and positive attitude and wish her the best of luck in her new adventure at Bates College in Maine.

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.

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“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

Going Green: LED Lightbulbs at our Historic Houses

Since it’s St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d talk about one way the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research is going green.IMG_7957In January 2014, there was a crisis among fans of incandescent light bulbs when the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 went into effect, banning the manufacture of incandescent 40- and 60- watt light bulbs. Some house museums were in a tizzy, and many purchased large stocks of incandescent bulbs to use in their historic fixtures with exposed bulbs—no one wants to see a distracting, spiraling fluorescent light bulb in a period room!

The feared depletion of our national stock of pretty light bulbs didn’t happen (there were lots of loopholes and legal challenges), but one intent of the ban—to force the lighting industry to make more efficient bulbs—was realized. Impossible just a few years ago, today there are energy efficient LED light bulbs that are completely satisfactory for use in exposed-bulb situations. After decades of using incandescent lighting, the Center has switched Saarinen House and parts of Cranbrook House over to LED.

LED, or light-emitting diode, bulbs are most praised for their energy savings, but being such an aesthetically minded place as Cranbrook, we have a few more concerns than the utility bill for our lighting:

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Maintaining the visual warmth of Saarinen House was vital; we wouldn’t have gone LED if it altered the aesthetic. Jim Haefner, photographer.

First is the color. When I told a coworker I was about to change the lightbulbs in George Booth’s Office in Cranbrook House to LED light bulbs, she was crestfallen. “They’re so blue and cold!” she lamented, something a lot of people fear with LED. It’s true, early LEDs were very blue and a far cry from the incandescent bulbs most people are used to (and prefer). But technology has changed, and now we have a range of light warmth to choose from. The spectrum of warmth is measured in kelvins, and incandescent bulbs are around 2400 K, while fluorescent tubes are 5000 K, and sunlight is 7000 K and up. We’ve chosen 2550 K bulbs for Cranbrook. As far as wattage goes, the lighting industry labels LEDs with their watt equivalents to incandescent, as that’s what we know. I used 25-watt incandescent equivalent bulbs in the office that actually use just 4 watts of power (and last, supposedly, 13+ years).

 

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From left: Incandescent bulb removed from Saarinen House fixtures; clear-style LED bulb used in exposed fixtures; LED bulb used in covered fixtures.

The next concern revolved around the look of the bulbs. You may be familiar with the energy efficient compact fluorescent bulb (CFLs) that have a spiral-type bulb—I don’t think anyone would want those in a chandelier. Even earlier LEDs were bulkier than standard incandescent bulbs because of the need for large conductors within the bulb to reduce heat gain—usually in the form a large white base between the glass and the screw threads. Today, you can buy a LED bulb in practically any shape or style with an internal conductor. The main difference between the LEDs we chose and the incandescent bulbs: when the bulb is off, the LED is a visible golden strip instead of a tiny metal filament, so you see a small yellow marking in the center of the bulb.

 

Beyond aesthetics and energy savings, there is the cost of the bulb itself. LEDs are getting constantly cheaper, but there’s a fairly big difference between the cheapest LEDs and the prettiest ones. Here at Cranbrook, when a bulb is not visible (for example, hidden by a solid lampshade), we’ve used cheaper LEDs in the same temperature and wattage as the fully clear bulbs we put in chandeliers and exposed fixtures. Either way, the energy savings should offset the costs within just a few years!

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Saarinen House aglow with LED bulbs inside and out, February 2017. Jim Haefner, photographer.

By switching to LED, we’re doing our part to help realize Cranbrook’s dedication to the environment laid out in the Cranbrook Educational Community’s most recent Strategic Plan; it states that “we commit to the well-being of future generations through our actions and behaviors.” Energy conservation is one simple way we’ve done this!

Kevin Adkisson, Center Collections Fellow

Special thanks to Assistant Registrar Leslie S. Mio for leading the LED Lightbulb conversion.

Vitrolite: Better than Marble

At Saarinen House, the 1930 home of Eliel and Loja Saarinen at Cranbrook, the master bath is one of the best rooms in the house.

img_1580The bathroom is symmetrical, with his and hers sinks on either end of the room. The tile is off-the-shelf, not custom made for Saarinen, but deployed in an utterly unique way. In this post, I want to look specifically at the material of the countertops, Vitrolite glass.

Pigmented structural glass was developed at the start of the 20th century, and its first uses were in hospital, laboratory, and industrial food environments where its qualities of cleanliness, imperviousness, strength, and durability could be exploited. From institutional uses, structural glass took the next logical step into other places where sanitation mattered: bars, restaurants and restrooms.

 

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Vitrolite trade catalog, c. 1922, Courtesy of the Hagley Library Digital Archives

The first structural glass came out in 1900, Sani Onyx by the Marietta Manufacturing Company, but it was under the brand name Vitrolite that structural glass achieved its greatest success. Vitrolite was manufactured from 1908 to 1947, first by the Vitrolite Company, and after 1935, by the Libby-Owen-Ford Company (both out of Toledo, Ohio).

At first, structural glass was manufactured only in black or white, colors befitting its promotion as an alternative to marble (Pittsburgh Plate Glass’ Vitrolite rival was called Carrara Glass, after Carrara marble, and Vitrolite’s sometime slogan was “Vitrolite: Better Than Marble.”) In its 1922 promotional material “Vitrolite Sanitary Tables and Counters,” the company claims that the products “delightfully cool, bright surface is just the place to serve palatable drinks and dainties. It keeps clean— nothing stains it and it just wears and wears.”

img_1585The sanitation and durability arguments likely appealed to Eliel Saarinen as he specified white Vitrolite for the master bathroom, but he was probably also drawn to its aesthetic potential: a single, seamless, and uniform surface for the countertop. It offsets the grid of the bathroom tile beautifully, providing a place to rest both your toothbrush and your eye.img_1590

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Correspondence concerning Saarinen House Vitrolite bathrooms, from our Archives

Installed by the plumbing contractor Robert Purcell, the sink bowls are vitreous china set beneath the Vitrolite counter. It’s likely that the oval for the sink basin was cut out of the Vitrolite by hand by Purcell’s team, and if you look at the result, it’s not a perfect oval—this isn’t your machined Corian countertop! In a house (and on a campus) where craftspeople are often celebrated, it’s neat that the bathroom counter’s utterly modern material still reflects the hand of the maker.

 

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Colors of Vitrolite from 1936, published in “52 Designs to Modernize Main Street with Glass,” Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Co., Courtesy of the Winterthur Library, Printed Book and Periodical Collection

Once Vitrolite bcame available in an array of colors and patterns, its aesthetic potential boomed. After its purchase by Libby-Owen-Ford in 1935, the glass was heavily marketed towards architects for its use in building facades, particularly for remodeling storefronts. In many design competitions and promotional literature, Vitrolite was sold as a way of “Modernizing Main Street,” a quick way to freshen up old buildings. Its these flashy, Art Deco facades that stand out in structural glass history, but it’s nice to remember its humbler, utilitarian beginnings.

 
One final note on the Saarinen House countertops: where are the faucets?! Look inside the sink, the water came out of the small bump at the top of the bowl itself. I hope they had great water pressure.

 

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Back cover of “Vitrolite Sanitary Tables and Counters,” c. 1922

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

 

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

 

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