Weaving Lesson: Saarinen’s Sermon on the Mount

While Kingswood alumnae will recognize Studio Loja Saarinen’s largest weaving at Cranbrook, The Festival of the May Queen, did you know there’s an even larger piece by the studio off campus?

Ordered in connection with Eliel Saarinen’s commission for the Tabernacle Church of Christ in Columbus, Indiana (today the First Christian Church), the monumental Sermon on the Mount hanging was an artistic and technical triumph completed by Studio Loja Saarinen in 1941.

First Christian Church from Progressive Architecture

Interior view of First Christian Church, showing Studio Loja Saarinen’s The Sermon on the Mount hanging. 1942. Courtesy of Progressive Architecture.

The subject was chosen by the church, and according to their archives, the Sermon on the Mount was selected as a topic because it is “the ideal for human conduct.” The tapestry, they went on, would need to suggest “worship as well as obedience.”

ccCAM2000.13 Sketch for the The Sermon on the Mount, 1941. Eliel Saarinen (attributed). Pencil, colored pencil, and gouache on paper. 26 7/8 x 11 7/8 inches. Courtesy of Cranbrook Art Museum. Gift of Robert Saarinen Swanson.

Eliel Saarinen likely produced the sketch of the hanging, an unsigned colored pencil and gouache drawing now in Cranbrook Art Museum. Interestingly, this is the only textile with a religious subject to come out of the Saarinen studio.

The small sketch was then enlarged onto full-size paper mock-ups, which allowed the Saarinens to review and edit the design and provided direction to the weavers at the loom.

CEC1198 Loja Saarinen showing Eliel a cartoon of their tapestry, The Sermon on the Mount, April 1941. Photo by Betty Truxell. Cranbrook Archives.

Thirteen patterned and colorfully-robed worshipers in two rows stand looking toward Christ, rendered in all white yarn on a cream background. Christ is surrounded by arcs and beams of white light that masterfully descend throughout the hanging, adding a rich depth to the composition.

Sermon On The Mount Tapestry_004The Sermon on the Mount Hanging. 1941. Loja & Eliel Saarinen (designers), Lillian Holm, Ruth Ingvarson (weavers). Wool and linen with supplemental wool weft; 12 x 27’. First Christian Church, Columbus, Indiana. Photo by Hadley Fruits.

Much like The Festival of the May Queen, the weaving is subdivided asymmetrically into rectangular shapes of varying dimensions by rhythmic bands of alternating rust, coral, and gold. These lines link into the scene’s landscape, which is made up of a series of highly stylized branches connecting green and white masses. These color-blocks sometimes read like meadows or hills; in other places, the green reads like flowering shrubs, climbing vines, or a branching tree. In the lower fields are sheep, as the tapestry moves up, birds rest within the branches.

Sermon On The Mount Tapestry large_006 Detail of The Sermon on the Mount showing the lambs, branches, and worshipers. Notice the rich variety of patterning and depth of color on the figures. Photo by Hadley Fruits.

These climbing, abstract elements helps provide movement and energy to the tapestry, balancing the white radiance of the Christ-figure with the wonder of nature. The movement of the geometric green, rust, and white blocks courses between the worshipers, much like the swag of triangles (are they flowers, butterflies, or perhaps something more abstract?) that flow through the maiden’s hands in the Festival of the May Queen hanging at Kingswood.

Cranbrook_Kingswood_8-31-15-0025-dc2_TAPESTRYFestival of the May Queen hanging, 1932.
Loja & Eliel Saarinen (designers), Studio Loja Saarinen (production). Loose linen warp and weft of wool and synthetic yarns; 216 x 192.” Photo by James Haefner, Courtesy of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The Columbus tapestry was woven by two Swedish weavers who’d worked for Studio Loja Saarinen (intermittently) since 1929: Lillian Holm, who also taught at Kingswood from 1933 until 1966, and Ruth Ingvarson. After previous projects for Loja Saarinen had been met with less-than-thorough credit given to the weavers themselves, Holm and Ingvarson demanded acknowledgement from Loja Saarinen in the press materials, as well as on the weaving itself–supposedly, Holm wove her name into the tapestry in multiple places.

After Holm and Ingvarson had completed their work at the loom, Loja worked on the hanging for weeks, unrolling it section by section on a large table in her studio and accentuating the colors through the inlay of additional threads into the primary weave. This was possible because of the discontinuous weft, known as the Handarbetes Vanner (H.V.) technique after the Stockholm school where it was developed, used in all of Studio Loja Saarinen’s large hangings.

The hanging is labeled on the reverse, with an ink-signed piece of appliqued fabric label listing Eliel, Loja, Lillian, and Ruth and their roles. Everyone’s names were also included in the invitation to the hanging’s reveal at Cranbrook in the winter of 1942, where it was displayed in the forty-foot high studio of Carl Milles.

LojaSaarinen001The Sermon on the Mount on display in Carl Milles’ Cranbrook studio. February 1942. Saarinen Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

Cranbrook neighbor and diarist Kate Thompson Bromley described the event in February 1942:

“It had been months in the weaving…One of the biggest tapestries woven in this country, and probably as beautiful as any, for the colors are soft and rich. The large studio [Carl Milles’] was the only place with a high enough ceiling at Cranbrook to hang it. At the end of that huge room it was decorative and glowing. It must have been a great happiness to the weavers to see it in place, for as they could only judge the section on which they were working.”

Once installed in Indiana, the weaving completed the remarkable church by Eliel Saarinen. Protected by curtains meant to shield the hanging from light and smoke, The Sermon on the Mount hangs opposite a wooden organ screen, which itself reads like a tapestry. Outside, the building façade and its glass-illuminated bell tower take on the grid and rhythm of weaving. Even the meandering lines and subtle arcs of the stone architectural ornament relates back to the design of The Sermon on the Mount.

In all its beauty, The Sermon on the Mount served as a high-point on which Loja Saarinen was forced to close her studio. As she wrote to George Booth, she was being “forced into” retirement because of a number of pressures: declining commissions, her husband’s exit from the Academy’s presidency, World War II, and a shift in focus for the Academy Weaving Department away from pictorial handweaving. Studio Loja Saarinen closed in 1942.

You can learn more about Studio Loja Saarinen, her weavers, and her products; see where the works were woven on campus; and visit Kingswood’s weaving studio and dining hall on my upcoming Behind-the-Scenes: Studio Loja Saarinen, 1928-1942 tours August 22 and 29.  You can also experience the exhibition on any of our regular Saarinen House tours. If you find yourself in Indiana, see the Sermon on the Mount any Sunday at First Christian Church or through tours with Visit Columbus.

-Kevin Adkisson, Curatorial Associate

Special thanks to Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate Hadley Fruits (Photography, 1990) for the contemporary color photographs of The Sermon on the Mount and First Christian Church.

Greta Skogster, a Mystery Woman No Longer

On tours of Saarinen House, visitors in the dining room are sandwiched between Greta Skogster’s hanging and leaded glass doors. They look one way to see a courtyard with leafed-out trees beyond; they look the other way to see a wall-sized hanging with birds and a tree and foliage.

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Dining Room of Saarinen House, Copyright Balthazar Korab/Cranbrook Art Museum.

Greta Skogster (1900-1994) herself was a one-woman phenomenon, running her own textile business in Finland. She was born in the small southwest town of Hämeenlinna in 1900, and as far as I can gather studied textiles at the Helsinki Central School of Arts and Crafts. At the time, in the 1920s, students from educated backgrounds were not actually trained to operate loom. They became designers and managers and engaged others to manufacture their designs. 

Greta Skogster

Greta Skogster-Lehtinen at work. Image © Greta and William Lehtinen Foundation

Skogster founded her own company in 1929named it Textile Officeand started producing hand-made designs by the yard and carpets for commercial use. In 1930 her work appeared alongside that of architectAlvar and Aino Aalto in the Small Apartment Exhibition in Helsinki, and from there her company grew apace.

Enter William Lehtinen (1895-1975) who went from studying forestry in Helsinki to earning his Masters of Forestry at Yale in 1926. He served as a trade attaché for Finland’s wood processing industries before returning home in 1930 to join the firm of Enso-Gutzeit, Finland’s largest pulp and paper company. So talented was forester Lehtinen that he rescued the company from post-war ruin and outmoded Russian machinery and became its CEO, transforming Finnish paper production along the way. The company still exists. 

By 1937 Skogster and Lehtinen were married and had moved her studio to Enso in eastern Finland, where her Textile Office became one of the largest private textile companies in the country with power looms and 23 employees. If you had been in Finland at that time you would have seen her work on Finnish trains, on the seats of factory offices, in all the best restaurants, in the headquarters of Enso-Gutzeit and in the upholstery of Eliel Saarinen’s Helsinki Central Railway Station. Her textiles even come to the USA at the 1947 Finnish House in New York’s Murray Hill where the Finnish American Trading Company had set up a showroom to promote trade.

Main Restaurant Hall 1947

Interior of The Finland House with hangings by Greta Skogster-Lehtinen at 39-41 East 50th Street, New York, New York, 1947. Image ©paavotynell.org

Skogster-Lehtinen and husband William went on to lead a good life, devoting their time, money and effort into collecting art and promoting the arts and crafts. By 1964 they intended to establish a museum designed by old friend Alvar Aalto, but an inability to break through Helsinki’s historic area building restrictions meant the museum was never built. Undaunted, the couple established The Greta and William Lehtinen Foundation offering fellowships for artists, artisans, musicians and architects, which, in true Lehtinen fashion, still exists.

Greta Skogster and William Lehtinen and family

Greta Skogster-Lehtinen and William Lehtinen with family. Image © Greta and William Lehtinen Foundation

How the Saarinens came to choose a hanging from Greta Skogster for the dining room in their Cranbrook, Michigan house is not clear, nor do we yet know what the relationship was between the two families, though one must assume they knew each other. According to the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research object record the hanging was acquired between 1935 and 1939. There exists a 1980 letter from Cranbrook to Skogster-Lehtinen, now living in Tampere after the death of her husband, enquiring about the hanging but no reply.

But what a piece, cleaned, restored and still reminding visitors of the serenity of a forested world, where large wood grouse flit amongst the leaves!

Plate 53

Skogster’s tapestry hanging in the Dining Room of Saarinen House, Copyright Balthazar Korab/Cranbrook Art Museum.

This is not a tapestry in the true sense of the word, where the weft is continuous. This hanging employs many different techniques, including supplemental wefts and rectangular patches left with bare warp so that the fir paneling can show through. Echoing the luxury of the gold leaf in the dome over the table, there is gold thread and silk amongst the linen, cotton and rayon. It does recall other Skogster-Lehtinen pieces, many of which are quite large.

Needless to say, there is more to discover in the long life of this prolific designer, and the Saarinen connection puzzle remains to be solved.

Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Sources:

Greta ja William Lehtisen Säätiö (Greta and William Lehtinen Foundation), 2007. http://www.gretajawilliamlehtinen.fi

Scandinavian Design: Alternative Histories, edited by Kjetil Fallan (Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 2012).

Göran Schildt, Alvar Aalto, A Life’s Work: Architecture, Design and Art (Helsinki, Finland: Otava Publishing Company, 1994).

Works by Greta Skogster,  FJ Hakimian. http://fjhakimian.com/greta-skogster 

Hidden in Plain Sight at Brookside

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The Cranbrook 50th Anniversary Rug (BS 1), 1973. Cultural Properties Collection, Brookside School.

In honor of the Cranbrook Kingswood Alumni Association’s Reunion Weekend, I thought I would share the story behind The Cranbrook 50th Anniversary Rug.

In 1973, New York designer Rhoda Sablow (1926-2013) was commissioned to design a rug for the Cranbrook 50th Anniversary Auction. The idea for the rug came from Mrs. Arthur Kiendl, wife of the first President of the Cranbrook Educational Community.

The border and geometric squares are reminiscent of Eliel Saarinen’s designs and surround depictions of various Cranbrook buildings and sculptures. The buildings are Christ Church, Kingswood, Cranbrook School, and Brookside. The sculptures are Orpheus, Jonah and the Whale, Europa and the Bull, Orpheus Fountain, Triton with Shell, Siren with Fishes, and Diana.

The rug was needlepointed by Cranbrook Schools parents: Mrs. Iain Anderson, Mrs. Richard Darragh, Mrs. Micheal Davis, Mrs. Fritz Fiesselmann, Mrs. Walter Flannery, Mrs. Robert Flint, Mrs. Mounir Guindi, Mrs. Wilfred Hemmer, Mrs. Charles Himelhoch, Mrs. James Holmes, Mrs. Lee Iacocca, Mrs. Arthur Kiendl, Mrs. George Kilbourne, Mrs. Jamse Lowell, Mrs. James May, Mrs. David Mott, Mrs. John McCue,  Mrs. Richard Pearce, Mrs. Donald Pendray, Mrs. J. Pierson Smith, Mrs. Edwin Spence, Mrs. Wright Tisdale, and Mrs. James Williams.

ESB and Elizabeth Wallace 1919file HSB15.27.1

Ellen Scripps Booth with granddaughter Elizabeth Wallace at Cranbrook House, circa 1919. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

Elizabeth Wallace McLean bought the needlepoint rug at an auction during the three-day celebration of the founding of Cranbrook schools. Mrs. McLean, the granddaughter of Cranbrook founders George and Ellen Booth, immediately donated the tapestry back to the school in honor of its golden anniversary. Elizabeth was in the original class of seven who attended Brookside School, so it is appropriate that the rug now hangs inside the main entrance of Brookside.

– Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

 

 

BS1_2017

The Cranbrook 50th Anniversary Rug (BS 1), 1973, on display in the Brookside Main Entrance. Cultural Properties Collection, Brookside School.

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