Kalevala Curtain?

When I started giving tours of Saarinen House more than twenty-two years ago, I was enthralled by the geometric designs architect Eliel Saarinen and his wife Loja Saarinen created for their own home.

Second Floor Hallway Seating Alcove reproduction curtain, circa 1993-94. Balthazar Korab, Photographer.

In the Second Floor Hallway Seating Alcove, I tended to focus upon the dramatic dance between Loja’s curtain design and Eliel’s leaded glass windows. Her woven bands of blue and green triangles layered over his geometric forms. His leaded triangles, squares, and rectangles peeking from behind her sheer textile. The combination of the two casting mesmerizing shadows across the upstairs walls, shifting with the weather and the season.

As a decorative art historian, I reveled in sharing the story of the Saarinens’ support of Finnish National Romanticism—a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century movement celebrating the revival of Finnish language and culture, particularly architecture, arts, and crafts. And to my eye, the upstairs curtain was just another pattern derived from the Saarinens’ Finnish heritage, specifically traditional Karelian motifs found in eastern Finland and Russia.

But then, an unnamed visitor from Finland introduced me to the Kalevala—Finland’s epic poem. And I learned that the upstairs alcove curtain quite possibly had a more intriguing story to tell…

Said the aged Väinämöinen,
And he spoke the words which follow:
“Now my inclination leads me
Unto Metsola to travel;
To the forest’s daughter’s dwelling,
And to the Blue Maiden’s homestead.

Leaving men, I seek the forest,
Heroes leave, for distant regions;
Take me as thy man, O forest,
Take me, Tapio, for thy hero.
May good fortune now be granted,
And to fell the forest-beauty![”]

Translation from the original Finnish by William Forsell Kirby in Kalevala: The Land of the Heroes, in Two Volumes, 1907, “Runo XLVI: Väinämöinen and the bear.”

Could a figure from the Kalevala be hidden within the bands of triangles on the upstairs curtain?

The Kalevala recounts Finnish and Karelian folklore—heroic tales spanning the story of creation to the introduction of Christianity. Compiled by Elias Lönnart from oral tradition, it was first published in Finnish in 1835 and expanded in 1849. Many translations followed, often with creative spellings.

With ever-increasing nationalism—leading to the creation of Finland as an independent country in 1917—Finns, particularly artists, makers, musicians, and performers, turned to the Kalevala for inspiration. Apparently, the Saarinens were no exception.

Second Floor Hallway Seating Alcove with original curtain, circa September 1930. Max Habrecht, Photographer. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The original curtain for the upstairs seating alcove was designed by Loja Saarinen and woven by Studio Loja Saarinen, circa 1930. Bands of triangular forms embellish the top and bottom of the sheer panel. In typical northern-European style, its purpose was to provide a level of privacy without preventing limited daylight from streaming through. Fitting, as the Saarinens took breakfast upstairs in the west-facing seating alcove each morning at 7:30 a.m.

Cranbrook’s black and white photograph of the upstairs seating alcove was published in the October 1933 issue of House Beautiful, with the caption:

In this hall on the second floor the specifically designed furniture from the Cranbrook Cabinet Makers’ Shop and the curtains of natural linen with blue and green geometric figures, from the Cranbrook Looms, give the note of distinction that is seen throughout the house. Pattern in pleasantly contrasted here with plain surfaces, and the result is the restfulness that comes with restraint[.]

Sadly, Loja Saarinen’s original curtain no longer exists. And other than the black and white photograph and magazine caption, there is no archival documentation—sketches, studio production records, receipts, or letters—to reveal Loja’s intentions or inspirations. Close analysis of the black and white image does reveal two shades of color—presumably blue and green as stated in the magazine caption—enabling the Saarinen House restoration team to determine which color was applied where.

Second Floor Hallway Seating Alcove reproduction curtain circa 1993-94, detail. Balthazar Korab, Photographer.

The curtain was reproduced in 1992, by Paula Stebbins Becker, designer and Laura Sansone, weaver. Based on Loja Saarinen’s original design, two horizontal repeats—one at the bottom and one at the top—were woven in blue and green. Measuring 61 inches by 140 inches, the reproduction curtain was constructed with linen warp, lumpy low linen weft, and wool inlay, using a plain weave with supplementary weft inlay border, and fringe.

With my newfound Kalevala clarity, the repeating pattern of Loja’s textile took on new meaning.

The stacked blue triangles at the bottom of the curtain suddenly assumed the form of a towering male figure sprouting a green triangular head. This recurring figure now balanced upon blue cliffs. And blue hills and trees, flanked by green meadows, unfurled below him, while blue mountaintops and clouds danced above.

The scale of the figure in relation to the surrounding elements suggested a deity or hero, not an ordinary man.

Was Loja depicting Väinämöinen?

The central figure of the Kalevala, Väinämöinen is the symbolic first man. Of mythical origins, he rises from a primordial realm beneath the sea. An ancient hero and wise man—think Gandalf or Dumbledore—he possesses a magical voice for song and poetry. He contributes to the creation of the world by cutting down forests and mowing meadows.

Wainamoinen, wise and ancient,
Made himself an axe for chopping,
Then began to clear the forest,
Then began the trees to level,
Felled the trees of all descriptions,
Only left the birch-tree standing
For the birds a place of resting,
Where might sing the sweet-voiced cuckoo,
Sacred bird in sacred branches.

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Wainamoinen, wise and ancient,
Brings his magic grains of barley,
Brings he forth his seven seed-grains,
Brings them from his trusty pouches,
Fashioned from the skin of squirrel,
Some were made from skin of marten.
Thence to sow his seeds he hastens,
Hastes the barley-grains to scatter,
Speaks unto himself these measures:
“I the seeds of life am sowing,
Sowing through my open fingers,
From the hand of my Creator,
In this soil enriched with ashes,
In this soil to sprout and flourish.

Excerpts from “Rune II: Wainamoinen’s Sowing” as translated by John Martin Crawford in his 1888 publication, The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland based on a German translation by Franz Anton Schiefner published in 1852.

Or was it Tapio himself gracing Loja’s curtains?

The God of the Forest and Woodlands, Tapio is the personification of Nature. Described as a tall, slender figure, wearing a coat of tree moss and a fir-leaf hat, the proverbial Green Man was said to have a lichen beard and eyebrows of moss. Cue the green triangle atop Loja’s figure—perhaps a stylized pre-Christian foliate head?

“Grant, O Ukko, my Creator,
That the signs may guide our footsteps,
That the notches in the pine-tree
May direct my faithful people
To the bear-dens of the woodlands;
That great Tapio’s sacred bugle
May resound through glen and forest;
That the wood-nymph’s call may echo,
May be heard in field and hamlet,
To the joy of all that listen!
Let great Tapio’s horn for ages
Ring throughout the fen and forest,
Through the hills and dales of Northland
O’er the meadows and the mountains,
To awaken song and gladness
In the forests of Wainola,
On the snowy plains of Suomi,
On the meads of Kalevala,
For the coming generations.”

From Crawford’s translation of The Kalevala, “Rune XLVI: Otso the Honey-eater.”

Musical inspiration for the curtains?

We can hear Tapio’s horn and the mystical vibrations of Tapiola—the forest where Tapio lived and ruled—in the haunting tone poem “Tapiola” by the Saarinens’ close friend and noted Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius.

Click here to listen to “Tapiola,” Opus 112 as performed by the Gothenburg Symphony, conducted by Detroit Symphony Orchestra Music Director Emeritus Neeme Järvi, set to scenes of Finland’s forests, lakes, rock formations, and clouds edited from the 1984 Christopher Nupen film, Jean Sibelius: The Early Years, and published on the GreatClassicRecords YouTube channel in 2012.

Yet, Väinamönen plays his own role in Sibelius’s repertoire. “Väinö’s Song,” a cantata for mixed chorus and orchestra, evokes the song of our hero as a suitor in “Rune XVIII: The Rival Suitors” from the Kalevala.

Click here to listen to “Väinö’s Song,” Opus 110 as performed by the Finnish National Opera Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by the late Eri Klas, former Principal Guest Conductor of the Finnish National Opera.

Sibelius composed “Väinö’s Song” in 1926, and it was first performed in Sortavala, Republic of Karelia, Russia, in June of that year. Simultaneously, he was working on “Tapiola,” a commission from the New York Philharmonic Society first performed in New York the day after Christmas 1926.

Sibelius provided the following prose, as adapted by his publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, to clarify his score and the role of Tapio and the Tapiola forest in Finnish mythology:

Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

However fanciful it might be, I like to picture the Saarinens in the 1926 Karelian and New York audiences, supporting their good friend’s compositions and drawing inspiration for their own work. The timing is feasible as they summered in Finland and resided in Michigan during the winter—their custom excepting the war years. But more likely, they learned of the compositions through their regular correspondence with Sibelius, now in the collection of the Sibelius Museum. Perhaps the subject of a future blog post and my excuse for another trip to Finland?

It is fair to assume that by 1930, when the upstairs alcove curtain was created, the Saarinens were familiar with “Väinö’s Song” and more so, “Tapiola,” now considered to be Sibelius’s last great masterpiece for orchestra. In all, Sibelius created over a dozen works inspired by the Kalevala. He profoundly impacted the development of the Finnish national identity—and thereby the Saarinens’—adding another layer of interpretation to Loja’s figurative pattern.

Karelian geometric patterns? Väinämöinen creating the world? Tapio ruling the forest?

Whether the curtain in the Second Floor Hallway Alcove at Saarinen House depicts Tapio, God of the Forest and Woodlands . . . or Väinämöinen, the hero of the Kalevala . . . or simply references Karelian geometric patterns, I do not know. But it seems clear that Finnish Nationalism Romanticism impacted Loja Saarinen’s textile designs, reflecting both tradition and her distinctive sense of visual harmony in their arrangement of color and form.

A trained sculptor familiar with traditional weaving, Loja established Studio Loja Saarinen at Cranbrook in 1928 in order to supply textiles for the growing campus. This led to the formation of the Department of Weaving and Textile Design at Cranbrook Academy of Art, for which she served as Head from 1929 until her retirement in 1942.

Studio Loja Saarinen was initially engaged in creating textiles for Kingswood School for Girls and the Saarinens’ own home at Cranbrook. The studio also received commissions from major architects of the period such as Frank Lloyd Wright. Textiles designed by Loja and Eliel Saarinen for Studio Loja Saarinen continue to grace the interiors of notable edifices designed by Eliel, including First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana, and, of course, Saarinen House.

Tours of Saarinen House resume on May 3, 2019. And our upcoming Day Away trip just happens to be to Columbus, Indiana—tentative dates: May 17-19. We hope to see you next season.

In the meantime, don’t forget to celebrate Kalevala Day on February 28—commemorating the date of its first publication by Elias Lönnart in 1835!

Diane VanderBeke Mager, Collections Interpreter, 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

 

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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Photo Friday: Swedish Weavers, All in a Row

Studio Loja Saarinen weavers seated at one of the larger looms.  L to R: Elizabeth Edmark, Marie Bexell, Peggy Broberg, Gerda Nyberg.  May, 1935.  Cranbrook Archives.

Studio Loja Saarinen weavers seated at one of the larger looms. L to R: Elizabeth Edmark, Marie Bexell, Peggy Broberg, Gerda Nyberg. May, 1935. Cranbrook Archives.

Founded in 1928, Studio Loja Saarinen served as a commercial weaving studio at Cranbrook, producing rugs, curtains, table textiles, and tapestries for both the growing Cranbrook campus and outside clients.  Though it bore her name, Loja Saarinen was not the sole weaver at Studio Loja Saarinen—instead, the studio employed a staff of primarily Swedish women who immigrated to the United States during the 1920s and 30s.  At its largest size, the studio had 30 looms in use to keep up with production demands.  Here four of Studio Loja Saarinen’s Swedish weavers are posed at one of the large looms housed in the lower level of the studio.   From left, they are: Elizabeth Edmark, Marie Bexell, Peggy Broberg, and Gerda Nyberg.   Displayed before them is one of the giant rugs produced by the weavers.  Still in use, this rug is on view in Saarinen House today.

– Shoshana Resnikoff, Collections Fellow

Finland Visited: Part One

I’m recently back from a fantastic vacation to Helsinki, Finland with my daughter.  We took a boat tour around the archipelago (did you know there are 315 islands surrounding the Helsinki harbor?), swam in the 1952 Olympics swimming stadium (where we had our first sauna experience), and visited the famed Temppeliaukio Church (rock church), a Lutheran church in the Töölö neighborhood of Helsinki.

Temppeliaukio Church

Temppeliaukio Church

Designed by brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen, the church, which was carved out of the granite bedrock, has a strong connection with nature – exactly what the brothers intended.  When you walk through the door, the cool air of the belowground atmosphere wraps around you.  The interior walls were left rough-hewn, and metal and glass were chosen carefully to complement the rock.  The interior is lit by natural light streaming through 180 vertical window panes that connect the dome and the wall. Quite astounding was the copper dome ceiling – a Google search tells me that it is over 13 miles of copper strips!

And how could an inquisitive archivist from Cranbrook go to Finland without doing a little research relative to the Saarinens?  Naturally we visited the Saarinen’s home, Hvittrask, where we were warmly welcomed by the curator, Pepita Ehrnrooth-Jokinen, who showed us around the current exhibition, “Home as a Work of Art,” by Sirkkaliisa and Jari Jetsonen.  (By the way, the Jetsonens visited Cranbrook and the Archives a couple of summers ago on their research tour of U.S. homes designed by Eliel and/or Eero Saarinen.)

For me, however, one of the highlights of my trip was visiting Bobäcks skola (elementary school), not far from Hvittrask.  What’s so great about visiting a school you might ask? Well, it just so happens that in the 1930s, when Studio Loja Saarinen was weaving the famed May Queen Tapestry for Kingswood School for Girls, they also wove a smaller sample.  In 1952, Loja Saarienn donated this piece to Bobäcks.  And there it hung for nearly sixty years without anyone realizing the importance of it.  Fast forward to 2010, when the nearby village association determined to save the faded and worn tapestry by having it restored.  However, they also felt a responsibility to give the school a replacement in order to continue to provide students, teachers and parents alike the opportunity to experience such a fantastic tapestry.

Enter artist Ann (known as Annsi) Jonasson who had been teaching woodworking classes to adults in the school for years.  Annsi, a weaver with her own home studio in the community, was commissioned to undertake the monumental task of creating a replica of the Saarinen tapestry!  Annsi took on the responsibility and dedicated many months to studying the tapestry, meticulously counting threads and spaces in order to plot the pattern on graph paper for the copy to be as accurate as possible.  The original fabric was made of linen, wool, and silk threads in a variety of shades- nearly 170 different colors.  Annsi studied the colors from the backside which were less faded, and then tried to replicate the threads.

May Queen tapestry sample

A detail of the May Queen tapestry sample showing the dog’s head. Note the spaces that were not woven, and the combinations of thread colors – sometimes a linen yarn twisted with a thread from embroidery yarn – that were used to match the original colors.

Fortunately, Annsi said she has never thrown away anything useful, so she used her own personal collection to match the colors and textures.  Over the years, her collection had grown thanks to the transfer of yarns and threads from friends, acquaintances, and the inheritance of yarns from her mother and grandmother.

Annsi, a most kind and welcoming woman, is proud of her work and rightly so – though you probably can’t tell from the photographs here, the replica is stunning.

Annsi and the replica

Annsi and the May Queen tapestry sample replica.

We have to give thanks that a contemporary weaver cared enough to dedicate many months of her life and literally weave part of herself into a tapestry that connects to us here at Cranbrook.  Soon she will donate to the Cranbrook Archives a copy of her research, which will help keep the Finnish-Cranbrook connection alive.

Oh, and by the way, did you know that the May Queen tapestry sample is the only known Studio Loja Saarinen work in Finland?

~Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

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