A Delightful Trip in a White Swedish Ship

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

MS Gripsholm 1951 mailed

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

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

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

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

Eliel Bob Bobby Pipsan on the Gripsholm 1929

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0516

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

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

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

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

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

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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