The Historia Supellexalis: “C” for Cranbrook

The Historia Supellexalis C for Cranbrook Academy of Art


An Alma Mater; An Academy of Art; A colony of experimentation

Cranbrook Academy of Art arose on the Cranbrook Estate, a private fiefdom nestling quietly in a forest glade to the north of the contemporary Detroit ruled by the Booth dynasty; and a fiefdom which in the Age of George and Ellen of Booth developed from an agrarian farm into a garden of creativity.

As the Cranbrook Scrolls record, George of Booth was a devotee of The Artsandcrafts, a movement most popularly embodied by the English evangelist William the Morris and which followed a belief in a brave new future in which our objects of daily use would be crafted in harmony with their material, in harmony with nature, in harmony with the communities in which they were produced, in harmony with the needs of the peoples for whom they were produced, and with an aesthetic purity largely missing in the mass-produced industrial objects of the day.

Yet while Booth had the financial resources, the lands and the vision to pursue this goal, he lacked the creative faculties; Fortune however tarried in those days on the banks of Lake St Clair and contrived to send a young architect named Saarinen from the forests and lakes of Finland to the lakes and forests of East Michigan. Saarinen, or Eliel as he is often also referred to, was known throughout Finland for his valiant attempts to steer the peoples away from the historicism that was suffocating their façades and interiors and to move them towards more reduced formal expressions and to develop architecture and design based on the peculiarities, realities, idiosyncrasies of Finland, its nature, its cultures, it traditions, its materials rather than on imported (mis)understandings. Even if at first Saarinen himself become a little lost in the myriad confusions of Finnish folklore.

Having guided Saarinen across the Atlantic, Fortune’s unseen hand led him to the door of George and Ellen of Booth, and who, on realising that they shared many principles and ideals with the resolute Finn, commissioned Saarinen to not only build their Cranbrook vision, but to take charge of their new garden and to lead the nurturing and nourishing of new generations of creatives, and thereby further the dissemination of The Artsandcrafts in Michigan. To assist him in his task Saarinen assembled a cadre of like-minded creatives from across the known lands of the day, including, and amongst others: Carl af Milles who was brought from Sweden to head the sculpture department; the Magyar Zoltan Sepeshy who was appointed to lead the painting and drawing department; Saarinen’s fellow Finn Maija Grotel who took charge of the ceramics department. In addition Saarinen’s family contributed their own creative energies: Loja, wife of Saarinen, taking charge of the weaving workshops; Pipsan, daughter of Saarinen, attending to contemporary interiors and furnishings, and Eero, son of Saarinen, assisting his father with architecture and design.

And in doing so assembled a human infrastructure who, and in conjunction and cooperation with the great many international artists, artisans and craftsfolk who populated the Academy’s myriad workshops, contributed to an early history of Cranbrook Academy of Art which is universally celebrated as not only a Golden Age in the history of the Cranbrook Estate, but as making a key contribution to the development of design understandings in the lands that comprise the contemporary (United) States of America; a development that saw The Artsandcrafts serve as the foundation for what history has recorded as American Modernism. And saw the name Cranbrook spread far beyond its quiet corner of East Michigan.

Among the more notable Old Cranberries from those earliest years, or more accurately the more notable Old Cranberries with a furniture association, for Old Cranberries can be found in near all creative genres, one can count the exploits of, and amongst many others, the Italian emigrato Arieto Bertoia whose forte was metal, be that decorative, functional, conceptual or musical and who following completion of his studies remained in Cranbrook to enlighten others in the ways of the metallic arts; Florence Schust, who although not an Old Cranberry herself, had attended the Kingswood School, a further component of the diverse Cranbrook Estate, and who as young girl family Saarinen had taken under their wing and who thus became as one with Cranbrook, a unity which helped her modernise the venerable Germanic dominion of Knoll upon its arrival in New York; an affable young Missourian drifter by the name of Eames, in whom Saarinen, as arguably the first, saw a lingering spark in need of an opportunity to ignite, and who thus brought Eames to Cranbrook on a fellowship before incorporating him into the faculty staff; the Kaiser Ray, as with Schust not an Old Cranberry herself but who while travelling from New York to California one autumn sought refuge on the Cranbrook Estate, took delight in all she saw, stayed till the following spring, and whose innate creativity fused with that of Eames, the two being reborn as one, as the legendary Eames Office; or Don Albinson who having assisted Eames and Eero, son of Saarinen, with their successful attempts to further develop the fabled curving of wood as practised by the Aalto tribe in the forests of Finland, joined Eames Office’s post-Cranbrook alchemy workshop, before assuming responsibility for the management and development of the ever burgeoning Knoll estate.

And a contribution by those early Old Cranberries, the early academic faculty, early workshoppers and family Saarinen, to the passage of design which has seen the legend oft repeated that Cranbrook Academy of Art is built at the source of an enchanted well, a well whose waters far from quenching thirst, intoxicate those who imbibe with an insatiable creative thirst which forces them to continually push forward, ever further, breaching ever more borders of convention and accepted wisdom in search of relief from a yearning that seems to cry from their very soul. That is however, and as with most legends, a legend. Much more Cranbrook’s early history, and the many fables and myths which surround the early Cranbrook Academy of Art, can be located in the deliberately and resolutely practised non-teaching of its instructors, in the Booths and Saarinen’s creation of a space in which those chosen creatives could work their own way through the problems they had chosen to tackle in their own fashion, via their own experimentation, their own fantasy, own iteration, own understandings of contemporary realities and of the associations between the tangible and intangible worlds, yet always in discussion and discourse with others in the community, a place where answers, as with relief from the fabled thirst brought forth by the enchanted well, are searched for rather than necessarily found. And a place which despite any perceived similarities should never be confused as being an American Bauhaus. That it is to be found in Illinois. And in North Carolina. Alone the number and persistence of the myths and legends which surround Cranbrook align it with Bauhaus.

As with any institution where the popular understandings of its early years are primarily based on fable, myth and legend, that popular understanding tends to understand only those early years, and ignores later additions to the chronicles.

Yet Old Cranberries have continued to impact on the development of not just our furniture and interiors, but our understandings of our relationships with our furniture and interiors, and thereby on understandings of design, and amongst the many Old Cranberries whose deeds history correctly recalls one finds: David Rowland who defied the laws of classic physics to develop a chair, 40 of which could be packed into a space only 4 vertical feet high and thereby greatly reducing the space required for their storage; or Don Knorr who with nothing more than a grasp of basic applied geometry turned a length of sheet metal into a rounded chair; or Niels Diffrient who proclaimed that the office chair should accommodate the human body rather than the human body having to accommodate the office chair; or Ruth der Adler von der Schnee whose textile designs beguiled even the most conservative of souls and whose advocacy for contemporary interior design, contemporary lighting and contemporary furnishings helped a new breeze blow through corporate and domestic interiors.

In the untold decades and centuries since the Age of George and Ellen of Booth, William of Morris’s Artsandcrafts teachings have become, by necessity, increasingly abstractly interpreted as the world has continually evolved and developed ever further away from that which William fought to comprehend and define. Abstracted understandings that in a Michigan context began on the Cranbrook Estate as those first Cranberries critically reflected on the teachings of The Artsandcrafts in context of the coming society. And while the ongoing evolutions and developments have seen Cranbrook Academy of Art move into ever new areas, including most recently into the realm of 4D design, a realm some sages argue should more properly be referred to as D-free design, the institution has remained loyal to the ideals on which George and Ellen of Booth and Saarinen built their vision, and for all in George and Ellen of Booth and Saarinen’s belief in the contention that non-teaching is the better form of teaching, and that a spark which learns to ignite itself, burns brighter and longer…….

…….à suivre

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