Look up! Studio Loja Saarinen Ceiling Murals

The Center for Collections and Research’s newest intervention in Saarinen House opens on Sunday, April 28: Studio Loja Saarinen: The Art and Architecture of Weaving, 1928-1942.

In researching the exhibition, Collections Fellow Kevin Adkisson has discovered many remnants of the Studio in the Archives, Art Museum Collections, and on the campus of the Cranbrook Academy of Art. One part of the Studio remains that you’re likely not familiar with: the weaving allegories by Katherine Sibley McEwen (1875-1957), one of the founders of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts and a friend of George G. Booth. Her eight allegories and border elements were painted directly onto the ceiling of the former Studio Loja Saarinen Weaving Room — now the studio of Elliott Earls, Artist-in-Residence and head of the 2D Design Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art.

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Studio Loja Saarinen Weaving Room, 1930. Bouquets by Anne Frykolm (left), Cranbrook Rug No. 1 by Maja Andersson Wirde (floor), furniture by Eliel Saarinen (center), weaving allegories by Katherine McEwen (ceiling). Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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Ceiling murals designed and executed by Katherine McEwen in what was once Studio Loja Saarinen. Each is an allegory of weaving. Photo by PD Rearick.

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Winding thread on the bobbin – detail of ceiling murals by Katherine McEwen in what was once Studio Loja Saarinen. Photo by PD Rearick.

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Collecting the thread – detail of ceiling murals by Katherine McEwen in what was once Studio Loja Saarinen. Photo by PD Rearick.

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Harvesting cotton and flax (linen) – detail of ceiling murals by Katherine McEwen in what was once Studio Loja Saarinen. Photo by PD Rearick.

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Harvesting silkworms and shearing wool – detail of ceiling murals by Katherine McEwen in what was once Studio Loja Saarinen. Photo by PD Rearick.

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Detail of the decorative borders by Katherine McEwen along the ceiling of what was once Studio Loja Saarinen. Photo by PD Rearick.

McEwen executed other works at Cranbrook, including the magnificent frescoes at Christ Church and a witty history of education series in the lower level of the Cranbrook School for Boys Dining Hall.

This Sunday, April 28, 2019 from 1-5pm visitors will have the very rare opportunity to see the Studio Loja Saarinen murals as part of the Academy’s Open(Studio) event–just follow the signs to the 2D Department. At the same time the Center’s special Studio Loja Saarinen show will be opening in Saarinen House, incorporating six historic Studio Loja Saarinen rugs and tapestries new to the house, dozens of archival and new color photographs, and a handful of small personal accessories from Loja Saarinen. And, the loom is up and running and Cranbrook Kingswood students will be giving hands-on demonstrations.

If you can’t make it to the opening, the Studio Loja Saarinen exhibition may be viewed on both public and private tours of Saarinen House during the 2019 Tour Season, Friday, May 10, 2019 through Sunday, December 1, 2019.

– Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar

Vroom Vroom goes the Loom

In preparation for the Center’s upcoming show, Studio Loja Saarinen: The Art and Architecture of Weaving, 1928-42, we recently moved a historic Cranbrook Loom from the Kingswood Weaving Studio across campus to Saarinen House.

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The Cranbrook Loom at home in the Kingswood Weaving Studio.

I wanted a Cranbrook Loom to be a part of the exhibition as a teaching and demonstration tool, so guests can understand how the many beautiful rugs on display were produced. Studio Loja Saarinen started with just one loom in 1928, but grew to include thirty-five. The original looms used by the Studio were quite heavy and difficult to work with; Saarinen’s unhappiness with them eventually resulted in her demand for a loom built exactly to her specifications. She worked with John Bexell, a skilled cabinet maker and husband of one of the Studio’s weavers, Marie, to construct a loom that was lighter, sturdier, and easier to operate. The first Bexell loom was delivered in 1936.

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Bexell (or Cranbrook) looms in the Cranbrook Weaving Studio, April 1936. Cranbrook Archives.

John P. Bexell descended from a long line of woodworkers. Born in Korstrask, Sweden in April 1899, he emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Flint, Michigan in the 1920s. He had made looms back in Sweden, and when he made the first to Saarinen’s specifications he saw potential in the design and made others to sell.

Loja Saarinen and her weavers were so pleased with the new Bexell-made loom she immediately ordered more. Other weavers ordered the looms too, and Bexell also received a commission from the federal Farm Security Administration for several hundred looms. His career as a loom specialist took off. In 1945, at Loja Saarinen’s suggestion, Bexell named his now quite popular (and profitable) loom the “Cranbrook Loom.” He produced the looms with his son, Bert, in Flint until 1977, when he sold the business.

All that to say, I still needed to get a Cranbrook Loom across campus.

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Our first victory! Getting the loom out of the weaving studio and into the truck. Ed looks pleased.

Working with my colleagues Leslie Mio and Matt Horn, along with Matt’s husband Marc Meyers and game members of Cranbrook’s moving crew Ed and Trevor, we got the loom on the go. To exit the weaving studio, we each grabbed a leg of the loom and walked it above the others and out of the double doors, through the courtyard, and into the moving truck.

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Trevor, Marc, Matt, and Ed walking the loom toward increasingly smaller doors.

At Saarinen House, we had to remove the warp stick catcher to get the loom through the door. It then had to turn completely on its side to fit through the narrower interior doors. Nothing but our nerves were harmed in the process.

You might be thinking to yourself, don’t looms come apart? Well, yes. However, the loom had been partially prepped for weaving, and we didn’t want to have to reassemble it from scratch inside the studio. I am not, after all, a loom expert. So instead we twisted and turned until the loom was in place in the Saarinen House Studio!

A few days later, Lynn Bennett Carpenter, Academy alumna and instructor in weaving and fashion at Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School, came to finish setting up the loom for weaving a plaid. There was much tensioning, counting, tensioning, threading, twisting, and tying. It was fun, and quite stressful! One wrong heddle threaded, and our weave would be ruined.

Guests to Saarinen House will now be able to learn about the history of the Cranbrook Loom, see it in action, and even throw the shuttle back and forth to help us make our 12 foot plaid. Tours of Saarinen House start in May and run through December 1, 2019. The exhibition will open during Open(Studios) on April 28, 2019. Come and join us to explore the house and exhibition during our free Opening Reception from 1:00—5:00pm, with demonstrations and lessons from Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School weavers!

– Kevin Adkisson, 2016-2019 Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Special thanks to Lynn Bennett Carpenter for loaning us the loom, for her time prepping the loom, for volunteering her students to assist in our Open House, and for teaching me how to weave.

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.

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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

The Iconic Kitty Kingswood

A colleague recently inquired about a painting on the mezzanine wall leading to the music practice rooms at Kingswood School. The painting is of a girl, “Kitty Kingswood,” who is holding a pennant and is accompanied by a swan on the waves of Kingswood Lake. Eliel Saarinen painted the image in the 1930s to camouflage clay sewer pipes.

Painting by Eliel Saarinen in Kingswood School of Kitty Kingswood. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Nelson.

In 1950, Lillian Holm (Head of Weaving at Kingswood School from 1933-1965) copied the pattern of the gown from the painting and Louise Raisch hand-wove the first Kitty Kingswood doll. This doll was auctioned at the 1950 Autumn Festival.

The original Kitty Kingswood doll auctioned at the 1950 Autumn Festival. Photograph by Harvey Croze. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Is there more to the Kitty Kingswood story? A recent trip over to the Girls Middle School, as well as a dive into our files here at the Archives, indicates that there is much more—and the iconic Kitty still plays an integral role.

Fast forward to 1964. The Kingswood Alumnae Association presents a new award to a seventh or eighth grade girl who has contributed to the spirit of Kingswood and is an outstanding citizen. The Association commissions Kingswood sculpture teacher, Pamela Stump Walsh, to create a statue of Kitty Kingswood for the award. The Birmingham Eccentric describes the sculpture as “a typical KSC girl who holds a hockey stick and a pennant and stands on the KSC seal.”

A sketch for the Kitty Kingswood award by Pamela Stump Walsh. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Today, the statue resides at the Girls Middle School as does a plaque (also donated by Pamela Stump Walsh) with the award recipients’ names. An additional case at the middle school displays a Kitty Kingswood doll, which was reproduced and auctioned off for many years to raise funds for the school.

Kitty Kingswood sculpture by Pamela Stump Walsh at the Girls Middle School today.

The Kitty Kingswood Citizenship Award is still presented to an outstanding student each year at the Girls Middle School. The award is determined by vote of the faculty. Pamela Stump Walsh presented the award to the first recipient in 1964, and her words still inspire students today: “Good citizenship is more than simple obedience to a set of rules or laws. It is a loving obedience to just laws and the courage to change the unjust…but most of all, it is serious concern for the condition of others, even for the condition of our enemies.”

Gina Tecos, Archivist

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. 

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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.

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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!

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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 

A Model and a Memory

Earlier this year, my boss dropped an interesting flier on my desk for me to investigate. It was advertising a show of the celebrated Detroit born, New York based photographer Judy Linn at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery in Ferndale, Michigan. The flier featured Linn’s photograph, “Man and Boat, July 12, 1972.”

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Flier for Judy Linn’s show at the Hilberry Gallery featuring her photograph, “Man and Boat, July 12, 1972.”

Here on the first floor of Cranbrook House we have a remarkably similar model that belonged to the Booths. Model ship building was certainly a popular hobby throughout the twentieth century, but perhaps there was a Cranbrook connection between our ship and the one in the picture?

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Cranbrook’s Ship: Ye Triumphe Ship, Henry Brundage Culver, 1918. CEC1918.1

 

I reached out to Linn to find out more about her picture, and to see if she remembered anything about the man or the boat. Linn, who is perhaps best known for her photographs documenting New York’s music and art scene in the 1970s, informed me that from July 1972 to February 1973, she photographed for a small newspaper in southern Macomb County. It was part of the Detroit Area Weekly News (known colloquially as DAWN), and she took this picture at a local city hall where someone had just donated the ship.

I followed up with the city halls and libraries Ms. Linn thought it could have been (Warren, Roseville, or St. Clair Shores), but no one still has this ship hanging around. I was surprised at the amount of people who knew that there were ships “in the basement, somewhere” and I appreciated them taking time to go check and see if they were the boat in question (it was never a match).

Although I can’t make a connection between the boat in Linn’s photo and the one in Cranbrook House, the best part of this journey into the weeds was hearing Ms. Linn’s reflections of her time at Cranbrook. She shared with me this wonderful recollection, and agreed let me post it here:

“I was happy to get your email. I am very very fond of Cranbrook. When I was ten my mother got a Master’s degree in weaving form the Art Academy. I thought her fellow art students were the most extraordinary people on earth. I even copied their clothes for my paper dolls. If possible I wanted to be just like them. Later I realized it wasn’t just the art students. It was the submersion in a totally designed environment, complete down to the Saarinen designed fork in the Kingswood dining room. I loved it and I still love it.”

If you are in New York, check out Linn’s current show at the Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Gallery, up through this weekend, and if you want to know more about Cranbrook’s boat, check out former Center Collections Fellow Stefanie Kae Dlugosz-Acton’s fascinating post!

-Kevin Adkisson, Center Collections Fellow

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