Eliel Saarinen’s House at Cranbook is an Art Deco masterpiece, a precedent for what modern American architecture might have been. Located just outside of Detroit in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Saarinen House is part of the Cranbrook Educational Community, a community founded in 1915 by the patrons George and Ellen Booth. Booth, a newsman, worked his way up The Detroit News ladder, married Ellen Warren Scripps (daughter of TDN’s owner), and become TDN’s president. Together, the Booths were influential patrons who founded The Detroit Society of Arts & Crafts (where I studied and taught), endowed The Detroit Institute of Arts and numerous organizations that fostered American artists and craftsmen.
The Booth estate, Cranbrook (named for Booth’s ancestral home in England) was given over to the creation of six educational institutions: Brookside School for Children, Christ Church Cranbrook, Cranbrook School for Boys, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Cranbrook Institute of Science, and Kingswood School for Girls. Saarinen, a Finnish architect who competed in Chicago’s Tribune Tower competition, was Booth’s choice as Cranbrook’s architect. Booth at Cranbrook intended a richly crafted American answer to the reductionist German Bauhaus, and Saarinen was a master of many crafts, a lover of Beauty and a diligent scholar, a brilliant choice.
From 1925 until his death, Saarinen designed the buildings of Cranbrook and taught at the Cranbrook Academy of Art where he inspired generations of artists and craftsmen and architects (including some of my teachers). In 1947 Eliel Saarinen won the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal. In 1936, his son Eero joined the firm and went on to design many landmarks of modernist architecture, sleek and empty. Cranbrook though, well, Cranbrook, the work of father Eliel, is deep and full, resonant of tradition, conservative, a slow and steady development of the Classive.
Eliel designed numerous masterpieces at Cranbrook, some of which are the faculty houses along Academy Way, especially his family home, Saarinen House, among the most notable houses of the 1920s. Here you will find furnishings by members of his family (Eliel, Loja, Pipsan, Eero, and Eva-Lisa were always dabbling in one craft or another). And here you will find the direct influence of 1925’s Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, Paris, which Eliel visited and, as I suppose, improved upon. As you know, the Exposition Internationale defined the international Art Deco, a style that Eliel developed, a style sometimes named “Scandinavian Moderne”.
Saarinen House is symmetrical, hierarchical, restrained in the high classic way, is archaic in its borrowings from ancient cultures. Perhaps a stretch, yet when I first looked into the Saarinen House, I was put in mind of the Pazzi Chapel, something of its universal abstractions, its restraint and intellectual cleanliness. The golds, grays, and cool highlights calm and ennoble, the ordered patterns quietly unify allowing the statuary and pictuary to speak the humane human stories of sentiment, peace, and high purpose. Notice the fine furniture, exquisite in simplicity, much alike Paul Cret in his stripped classicism (which I think the culmination of Deco). Graceful and lightly stable, Saarinen House is a masterwork of the Deco, a great American house by a great Classive architect.
Tickets to visit Saarinen House can be purchased through the Cranbrook Art Museum which offers tours, Friday through Sunday.
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Featured image: Saarinen House dining room.
Images courtesy of Cranbrook Museum of Art.
For more on the Art Deco house, see the Deco Edition of The Beautiful Home.
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