The Cranbrook Educational Community is located in beautiful Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. The property is 319 acres and contains the Cranbrook Art Museum, Cranbrook schools, Cranbrook Academy of Art, the Cranbrook Institute of Science and Cranbrook House and gardens. I had never visited the property before and we went on a gray and chilly fall Saturday. It turned out to be the best weather for taking in the grounds as the cloudy sky made the trees and architecture stand out. Our plan was to visit the art museum, walk the grounds and we had a scheduled 2 pm tour of the Saarinen House. I love modern art and midcentury modern furniture and design, which you may have noticed if you follow me on Pinterest. Let me share with you why Cranbrook is special. Fun fact #1: This is the academy where Charles and Ray Eames met and fell in love, despite Charles already being married.
The Cranbrook Art Museum admission is included when you purchase tickets for the Saarinen House tour. It is small, but impressive. Even before I went downstairs to the museum, I found myself gawking at the design of the building, doors and windows. Everything is inspiring.
The current exhibits are What to Paint and Why: Modern Painters at Cranbrook 1936-74 and A Driving Force: Cranbrook and the Car. The Modern Painters exhibit features paintings by Zoltan Sepeshy, a figurative painter and Wallace Mitchell, an abstractionist and the contrast between their styles as early figures in Cranbrook’s history. The car exhibit features old letters imploring Cranbrook to create a car design program for a generation of students interested in a formal education designing cars. It also highlighted the accomplishments of early Cranbrook graduate Suzanne Vanderbilt and her design influence on car interiors.
After an hour in the museum, we walked around the expansive grounds that were green with pops of color from the first signs of fall. In 1904, newspaper mogul and founder of Cranbrook, George Gough Booth and his wife Ellen Scripps Booth, bought the property and hired architect Albert Kahn to design their country manor. It was designed in the Arts and Crafts style and called Cranbrook House in honor of George’s father who was born in Cranbrook, England. The house is the centerpiece of the property and is surrounded by lush gardens and sculptures. George and Ellen decided they wanted to use their considerable wealth to create an art school on their property.
The photo above and below show Cranbrook sculptor-in-residence Carl Milles’ Mermaids & Tritons Fountain. Milles was at Cranbrook from 1931-1951 and lived in a house that is a mirror-image of the Saarinen house next door. More on that later.
The photo above is the Orpheus Fountain by Carl Milles. I imagine it’s quite pretty in the summer with water flowing in the fountain.
Eliel Saarinen was an established Finnish architect that won second place for his design idea for the Chicago Tribune building. His design was not built, but he used the money to move to America. He first settled in Evanston, Illinois and in 1924 became a visiting professor at the University of Michigan. George Gough Booth’s son Henry was one of Saarinen’s students at the university and George asked Eliel to be chief architect for Cranbrook. In addition to designing most of the buildings on the property, he also created the academy’s curriculum and served as Cranbrook’s first president and head of the Department of Architecture and Urban Design.
Eliel started designing his house in 1928 along with the mirror image home next door for Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. Both homes cost $140,000 to build in contrast to the typical 4-bedroom home in metro Detroit costing $6,250 at that time.
The home was very modern for the time and combined the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Deco design, and Eliel and his wife Loja’s Finnish heritage. Loja herself was very influential at Cranbrook as a textile designer. She founded and directed the Department of Weaving and Textile design at the academy. Her work was commissioned by Frank Lloyd Wright and other pieces were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Golden Gate International Exposition.
The fireplace tile was made from Detroit’s own Pewabic Pottery. Founder Mary Stratton oversaw the firing of over 30 samples until Eliel was satisfied with the color and finish. The resulting tile is different from what you typically find with Pewabic pottery and it was my favorite thing in the house. I love how striking it is yet simple at the same time. To me the design in the tile really speaks to Saarinen’s Scandinavian roots.
The dining room is square, but made octagonal by 4 corner niches. It has lots of geometric interest between the circular ceiling and table and contrasting square and octagonal shapes in the room. The rug was designed with a pattern of concentric octagons to flow with the courtyard pavement just outside the dining room through french doors.
The butler’s pantry is very plain and utilitarian with cream-colored cabinetry. Modern materials like Monel metal countertops and battleship linoleum floors were used and the Frigidaire was proudly positioned where it could be seen when the pantry door swung open from the dining room.
I couldn’t get enough of this leaded glass. Originally, each piece of glass above was translucent yellow or green glass to mimic sun streaming through tree branches. Subsequent presidents of Cranbrook made changes to the Saarinen home, like switching out the colored glass for plain glass, but in 1988 restoration work began and the home was restored to its mid-1930’s appearance after Eliel and Loja had completed decorating their home.
The space above was the studio where both Eliel and Loja worked. This is how the room looked when the Saarinens were entertaining, but typically the rug would be removed and three drafting tables were positioned for the couple to work. Cranbrook’s architect department was built adjacent to Saarinen house and Eliel loved working with students at the school and inviting them into his home studio.
The Saarinens had two children, a daughter Pipsan, who married before the house was completed and a son Eero, who lived in the house briefly during his school breaks before he was married. Eero is famous for his modern furniture that is still sold today, like his tulip and womb chairs. He designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the main terminal of Dulles International Airport and was influential in the selection of the design that would become the Sydney Opera House.
Eero took courses in sculpture and furniture design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art before going on to study at Yale’s school of architecture. He became close friends with Cranbrook students Charles and Ray Eames, as well as Florence Knoll. Charles Eames was invited by Eliel to come to Cranbrook in 1938 and would become a teacher and head of the Industrial Design Department. Charles and Eero designed prize-winning modern furniture for New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Later, Eero would name his second son Eames. Pictured above, a young Eero designed the tubular chairs in his parents’ studio and the woven chairs in his father’s office.
Upstairs the Saarinens had a small nook outside of their bedroom where they would have coffee every morning at 7:30 am. Loja’s original curtains had been removed before the restoration and the curtains above were recreated using Loja’s technique at Cranbrook with the help of black and white photos. Our docent shared with us that they didn’t know which colors were used in the curtains, but then they found an article with a photo of Loja posed elegantly in this nook and the curtains were described as being blue and green.
Twenty-year-old Eero was commissioned by his parents to design furniture for their bedroom including this lovely mirror on his mother’s dressing table. A symmetrical master bathroom with his and her sinks on either end is attached to the room and decorated in simple light gray and black tile.
Saarinen house was built on the most charming street inside Cranbrook’s campus, which I believe is still faculty housing. It’s the kind of street you would imagine movie set producers scouting for a romantic comedy.
That post took me back to my research paper days. I learned so much on our trip to Cranbrook and it prompted me to do further research on how its famous students found themselves studying there and how these modern furniture and design giants collided. For $10 per ticket, we had a docent-guided tour of Saarinen house and complimentary admission to the art museum. The gorgeous grounds are free to roam and everywhere you looked is another opportunity for a perfect photo.
Cranbrook Art Museum
39221 Woodward Avenue Bloomfield Hills, Michigan 48303
June-August Hours: Wednesday-Sunday 11-5
September-May Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 11-5
Tours offered May-October, call for reservations 248-645-3320
Places to Eat Nearby
Cityscape Deli 877 W. Long Lake Road Bloomfield Hills, Michigan 48302
Franklin Grill 32760 Franklin Road Franklin, Michigan 48025