Kathleen Beckett 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Throughout history in certain places at certain times, like-minded people —geniuses, some might say—have inexplicably lived and worked in close proximity, competing, supporting and inspiring each other to reach further, to aim higher. Think of the Renaissance in Italy when Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, and Leonardo da Vinci elevated the arts to unimaginable heights or Paris in the ‘20s, when Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein reinvented contemporary literature. Think of the remarkable writing that came out of England’s Bloomsbury Group and its most famous members, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, in the early 1900s. And then there’s Cranbrook. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the same sort of magical phenomenon occurred outside Detroit, in the idyllic embrace of Bloomfield Hills, MI. Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero, along with Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia, and other architectural and design talents all crossed paths at the Cranbrook Academy—and changed the face of modern design. The Academy opened in 1927, founded by wealthy newspaper magnate George Scripps Booth and his wife “to afford talented and highly trained students the opportunity of pursuing their studies in a favorable environment and under the leadership of artists of highest standing.” Booth hired Eliel Saarinen, a visiting professor from Finland at the University of Michigan, to design Cranbrook and later to become its first president. Saarinen was a proponent of designing a total environment, much like Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago and Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow. “As an architect, he could work at the macro level, as a city planner or planning the Cranbrook campus,” says Gregory Wittkopp, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum. The exquisitely planned harmony and both manmade and natural beauty of the campus contributed to the nurturing atmosphere. Wrote critic Wolf von Eckardt, Cranbrook is “one of the most enchanted and enchanting settings in America and an ongoing stimulus to students, artists and individuals.” Today, Cranbook Educational Community includes the Art Museum, the Academy of Art for graduate study, the Institute of Science and a private school for grades PK-12. Back in its early years, students “came to Cranbrook because they were contacted by Eliel Saarinen. He saw talent in them And wanted them at these early points in their lives to be part of the synergistic mix he had created at Cranbrook. He set something in motion, recognizing these talents and getting them to Cranbrook,” Wittkopp explains. Once there, “there was this golden moment when there was this critical mass at the same time. The energy united was greater than any one at a time. They fed off each other. Ideas were flowing.” In this setting, creativity flourished. Eliel Saarinen guided it toward chairs. “Eliel often talked poetically about the role of furniture and particularly the chair,” Wittkopp says. “Eliel would talk to students about how important it is to design a good chair. The chair became the quintessential design problem.” He steered his protégés to grapple with and conquer the challenge. “Saarinen felt the chair is the intermediary between the human being and the architectural environment,” Wittkopp continues. Part of its appeal was its ability to serve many purposes, being at once a functional object and a beautiful sculpture. The results: Think of the Tulip chair, the Womb chair, the Lounge chair, the Wire chair, the Diamond chair; each an iconic example of modern 20th-century design. “Everyone who went on to define what 20thcentury modernism is all about was here,” claims Wittkopp. Continues Reed Kroloff, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, ”what we know as mid-century American modernism was invented at Cranbrook in the 1940s at a time when Saarinen, Eames, Knoll and Bertoia were all here.” Saarinen’s son, Eero, studied at Cranbrook and went on to design the St. Louis Gateway Arch, Dulles Airport in D.C., the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport, and some of the most iconic chairs of our time, among them the Tulip chair. Another design student, Florence Schust, came to live with the Saarinen family at Cranbrook when she was a teenager. Years later she married Hans Knoll and turned his furniture business into one of the most prominent and respected sources of modern furniture. She, too, Tried her hand at designing chairs, and her bench remains a hallmark of simple chic—a tufted leather rectangle on metal legs that looks as good today as when she created it more than half a century ago. “If you drove a 50-year-old car, it would look like an antique. If you sit on one of these 60-year-old chairs, it will look like the hippest, coolest chair in the room,” Kroloff points out. The connections go on and on. Knoll hired Cranbrook graduate Harry Bertoia, who arrived at the Academy as a student and stayed on to teach metalwork. Today his Wire chair remains one of Knoll’s bestsellers. Bertoia worked with perhaps the most prominent designers of chairs, Charles and Ray Eames. Charles first came to Cranbrook at Saarinen’s urging to study and advance his evident creative talents. While at Cranbrook, Charles met Ray, his future wife and design partner, and also collaborated with Saarinen’s son Eero on the designs for 1939’s Kleinhans chair and 1941’s Organic chair. “They created a whole series of wooden plywood furniture,” Wittkopp explains. “They created one of the first plywood chairs molded not just in two, but in three dimensions. Saarinen and Eames would both go on to design the most important chairs of midcentury modernism in the U.S.” All the chairs designed by those attending Cranbrook back in its heyday are both modern and timeless. They relate to the human body, to its comfort, and also to Its demand for artistry and beauty. They are as relevant today as they were a halfcentury ago. Another feature of these classic chairs was to make them affordable. “They were designed to be reproduced in huge numbers to keep their prices down,” says Kroloff. They are still in production, through Knoll Associates, Herman Miller, and Design Within Reach, and priced if not cheaply, at least within the budgets of many households. There’s another place people can experience some of these iconic chairs: at Hyatt Hotels. The company enjoys a long tradition of respect for and patronage of the arts; after all, Hyatt’s owners, the Pritzker family, fund the most esteemed architecture award and honor in the world, the Pritzker Prize. The Park Hyatt Chicago, for instance, has Eames’ Lounge chairs and ottomans in all guest rooms. “We don’t have just one iconic piece in the lobby,” says Robin Mackay, Vice President of Hyatt’s Architecture and Design Group. “We use them in the restaurants, in the guest rooms, as everyday useable objects woven into the fabric of the hotels, there to be used. These classic pieces are timeless, like our hotels, and project us as people who respect and understand style and quality.” And if, after staying at a Hyatt, guests decide they want to continue enjoying their Eames chair back in their own homes, they can purchase one by logging on to www.hyattathome.com.
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