Loja Saarinen: Lady of Fashion

If this were an article for Harper’s Bazaar it would be an imagined interview between a reporter and Loja Saarinen, but since my status is beneath lowly, I won’t presume. Loja Saarinen is a fascinating person in many respects: she was professionally a sculptor, photographer, textile designer, maker of architectural models, landscape designer, teacher, weaver, entrepreneur, designer in general, without mentioning the unquantifiable but no less important aspects of her life. Married to architect Eliel Saarinen and mother of two extraordinarily gifted children, she must have been party to some incredible family discussions on style, architecture, design of practically everything, including fashion.

Daughter Pipsan Saarinen Swanson briefly led a fashion course at Cranbrook Academy Art, and she and her mother made many of their own clothes.  Even though the ready-made clothing industry was growing, women in the 1930s and beyond who had sewing skills but not necessarily the money for special garments would make their own. Commercial patterns abounded: Vogue, Butterick, Simplicity, McCall, among others not all of which survive today.

Here is a Vogue pattern from the times:

Vogue Dress for Lynettes blog

Courtesy of Etsy.com

Remember this look.

Considering Loja Saarinen’s formal training in sculpture in Paris and her own textile designs, not to mention her model-building skills and creativity, one must assume she was ideally set up for making her own special clothes. They would be unique. What could be better?  And then there was the wonder of downtown Detroit’s J. L. Hudson’s vast floor of fabrics.

Hudsons detroit fabric shop

Fabric Department at J. L. Hudson Company Department Store, 1920s. H.W. Brooks, Commercial Photographer. Courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society.

Of course, the essence of fashion is being appropriately dressed. Working from the informal to the more formal attire, one may examine a few photographs of Loja Saarinen as samples of her impeccable taste and ingenuity.

Here is Loja on a relaxed afternoon standing with husband Eliel Saarinen in the 1930s:

Eliel and Loja Saarinen at Cranbrook copy neg CEC493 copyright Cranbrook Archives

Eliel and Loja Saarinen. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

This looks like a take on a peasant dress with its loose sleeves and wide flat fell seams and flared, lightly gathered skirt. What says hand-made to me is the embroidered belt.  While it is possible Loja bought the dress and altered it to fit sleeve length and hem, I think this would have been easy enough to whip up. It is casual, comfortable and different enough to mark her as a person with an eye for good design who is not going to be dressed like anyone else.

Here is a dress in tasteful black which looks a lot like the above Vogue pattern:

Loja Saarinen in Saarinen House Dining Room c 1940 copy neg CEC490 Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Loja Saarinen in her dining room, c. 1940. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The sleeves are a bit longer. Note the Chemex coffeemaker as accessory.

Next is a design so Loja-esque, given the proliferation of triangles all over the campus in every medium you can think of, including in her own contributions, this fabric and the garment have to be Loja Saarinen designs.

I am not sure what the pale fabric is, obviously soft and drapey, but the design could be embroidered or appliqued ribbon. (Family boost: she’s sitting in one of the Eero-designed auditorium chairs.)

Loja Saarinen c 1934 Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Loja Saarinen, c. 1934. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

This is one of the best examples of Loja’s sense of style, though probably not her own work. She is warm, stylish and utterly without fuss. Attention PETA, this is before the days of reasonable-looking faux fur. The coat is a thick wool with light-colored top-stitching down the sleeves and front bodice panels.

Eliel and Loja Saarinen at the rear of Saarinen House copy neg CEC491 Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Eliel and Loja Saarinen. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

Dress-up clothes, we have them: a lovely photograph of a younger L. S. Swirls of fabric and triangle earrings.

Portrait of Loja Saarinen by Max Habrecht 1932 copyright Cranbrook Archives

Portrait of Loja Saarinen, 1932. Max Habrecht, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

This looks like a dress with swaths of color in the bodice such as you might see in her rug design. This could be silk satin, or what was called “art silk.” It looks bias-cut, which would make for a good fit, but which is unforgiving for the seamstress. You can’t see her hair very well, but it appears fashionably cropped.

In the following Crandemonium photograph Loja’s attire looks like a variation on a theme.  I suspect this is a top she made for the occasion, worn over a separate skirt.  Eliel Saarinen’s jacket has matching color stripes. The Saarinen column hats make the outfit for both party-goers. Loja’s dress has a train as befits the queen of Crandemonium. The orb of office for King Eliel is a grapefruit.

Loja and Eliel Saarinen at Crandemonium Ball Feb 1934 Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Loja and Eliel Saarinen at the Crandemonium Ball, Feb. 1934. Richard G. Askew, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

At last a color photograph. This may be the same top with a matching skirt, and quite a few years later, but now we see the Saarinen choice of color (Family boost: another Eero chair.)

Loja Saarinen in Vaughn Road home c 1962 Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Loja Saarinen in her Vaughn Road home, c. 1962. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Loja Saarinen was not a self-promoter. Her work speaks for itself. Her hand is in so many aspects of design all over the Cranbrook campus. This is just a glimpse at a few (fashion) design choices Mrs. Saarinen made about herself. She told Virginia Christ-Janer in a 1964 interview, “With our family [art is] a disease.” More than that, the Saarinens were all so capable, why would they not keep designing? Just like Karl Lagerfeld, to design is to breathe.

For a last word on anything to do with fashion, from all-time humorist Mark Twain: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

–Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter

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.

#

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

 

 

Highlighting Access: The Edward and Ruth Adler Schnee Papers

RuthBiopage

Recently the staff of the Cranbrook Archives announced the online addition of The Edward and Ruth Adler Schnee Papers which was  donated to the Archives in 2010.  While the website is not a biography of Ruth or Eddie’s life, it is a tribute to the work they created as evidenced by the materials in the collection. 

Archives Assistant Justine Tobiasz designed the web pages “drawing from Schnee’s designs and sketches.” She was inspired by, and wanted to pay tribute to, Schnee’s use of color  when creating the site about the collection.  Moving forward I hope that we can find ways to create sites for other collections. I think it’s a good way for us to use the incredible materials we have to convey a ‘whole picture’ view of our mind-blowing collections.” 

Working within the constraints of our web portal was very challenging – it did not allow free reign, and Justine had to find ways to display the content exactly how the staff wanted it to be.  All of the Archives staff worked collaboratively to create the content, digitize the images and post them up on CONTENTdm (our digital asset management system), and find external links to populate the design created by Justine.

Check out this addition and let us know what you think!

Stefanie Dlugosz, Collections Fellow, Center for Collections and Research & Justine Tobiasz, Archives Assistant

Surely Shirley: an Early Knoll Textile

Architect Ralph Rapson may be a household word, especially among aficionados of mid-century modern architecture.  But few likely know of the creative talents of his first wife, Shirley Fletcher.  Just out of high school in 1941, Shirley enrolled in the Intermediate School at Cranbrook Academy of Art.  Like many other students of the day, she spent time in various departments, but found her niche in the weaving department under Marianne Strengell.  While here, she developed a series of block-printed textile designs.  Though she did not continue past her first year (she left to marry Ralph!), Shirley continued to design textiles after she left Cranbrook.

In 1944, Hans Knoll and Ralph Rapson (who was designing furniture at the time for Knoll) discussed the formation of a textile division within Knoll.  Their idea was to introduce contemporary textiles that would complement the modern furniture being produced by the company.  The following year, Rapson brought  Shirley’s designs to the attention of Hans Knoll and her textile “Isles” became one of the earliest printed fabrics at Knoll.  Marianne Strengell may also have contributed to Knoll’s decision to feature “Isles” which was published as part of an assemblage of Academy of Art student “textile studies” in the July 1945 issue of Arts and Architecture.

IMG_1571

“Isles” by Shirley Fletcher Rapson in Arts and Architecture, July 1945.

In October, Hans Knoll wrote Rapson that even though they were “very anxious to do something with Shirley’s fabrics,” due to the shortage of materials during the war, they had to wait until adequate supplies of cloth could be acquired.  The pattern was slightly altered (notice the solid in-fill blocks) when Florence Schust Knoll used “Isles” for drapery in the Rockefeller family offices at Rockefeller Center in 1946.

"Furniture by H.G. Knoll & Associates," Arts & Architecture, September 1947, p. 24. Cranbrook Academy of Art Library.

“Furniture by H.G. Knoll & Associates,” Arts & Architecture, September 1947, p. 24. Cranbrook Academy of Art Library.

The Knoll Textile Division debuted in February 1947 in a new Knoll showroom in New York.  Shirley Rapson textiles were part of the collection (a slightly different version of “Isles” was offered in four different color ways), along with designs by Cranbrook’s Marianne Strengell and Antoinette “Toni” Webster Prestini.

Image

Shirley Rapson’s”Isles” at the Rockefeller Center family office building, 1946.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

Cartoons and Crusades: Booth, Herter, and the Making of a Tapestry

If you’ve ever visited the Cranbrook House library, you’ve probably noticed The Great Crusade, a large tapestry hanging on the south wall.  Many people associate tapestries with medieval times, when they were used to keep drafty castles warm in winter.  Woven wall hangings were also popular as decorations, especially as a sign of wealth since the extensive labor and pricy materials made tapestries more expensive to produce than paintings.  While most of the tapestries that adorn Cranbrook House are fifteenth-century Flemish, The Great Crusade is a toddler; though it utilizes a historic technique, it was designed and produced in the early twentieth century.

Herter Looms, The Great Crusade, 1920.  Cranbrook Art Museum.

Herter Looms, The Great Crusade, 1920. Cranbrook Art Museum.

Continue reading

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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