One is Finland 100: The Cranbrook Connection, a straightforward and succinct display of Finnish design in the gently modern, limestone art museum. The other is an amplification of the domestic Gesamtkunstwerk that is Saarinen House, where the architect lived for some 20 years with his family. ...
Saarinen’s philosophy was to always imagine an object within its larger context, and from there scale up to the next, and the next, and so on: “a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, environment in a city plan.” In this spirit, Saarinen not only designed Cranbrook’s lauded campus, but also populated it with great artists who collaborated with, rather than simply taught, their students. The ensuing community included the potter Maija Grotell; textile artist Marianne Strengell; designers Alvar Aalto, Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Schust Knoll, and Harry Bertoia; and the sculptor Carl Milles. Between the two current exhibitions at Cranbrook, all of them are represented.
The museum installation, which was organized by collections fellow Steffi Duarte, offers an outline of Cranbrook’s impact upon midcentury modernism. The mix of utility and skillful crafting which Saarinen advocated is displayed in a group of chairs representing a pivotal point in modern design. A bent-and-laminated wood chair by Aalto establishes a Finnish context; its design is echoed in two late 1930s chairs by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames. With his wife, Ray, Eames went on to develop the Lounge Chair Wood (1946), which consisted of separate panels for seat and back. In contrast, Saarinen stayed with a unified seat and back but switched to a more flexible material, fiberglass, combining it with a pedestal base to create the Tulip Chair. Put into production by Knoll in 1955–56, the Tulip Chair exemplified the curvaceous, futuristic look most popularly associated with midcentury modernism. Between them, the chairs on view embody the functional but friendly Finnish aesthetic and the bravura American positivism that became Eero Saarinen’s leitmotif.
The museum show’s clearly flowing narrative is complemented by a more diffuse, nonlinear presentation at Saarinen House. There, collections fellow Kevin Adkisson has created a sense of habitation in a setting that normally conforms to the typical, careful neutrality of house museums. For example, the ordinarily bare dining table is set with dishes, linens, and silver objects designed and/or made by members of the Saarinen and Cranbrook clans. Loja Saarinen’s living room rug is strewn with toys that Eero would have played with as a little boy, and case goods designed by Pipsan and her husband, Robert Swanson, are casually bunched together as if awaiting removal to a permanent site. It feels as though family members are about to converge and start up lively conversations about design or sit down to work through some new challenge. It also demonstrates how difficult it would have been for Pipsan and Eero not to have followed in their parents’ footsteps.