Art

How Finland Helped Shape American Midcentury Modernism

When architect Eliel Saarinen moved to the US and designed Cranbrook, he brought his Finnish heritage with him.

Carl Milles’s “Europa and the Bull” (1926) on a terrace at Cranbrook (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. — In 1917, Finland declared itself an independent nation, free from the Russian Empire.

In 1924, a University of Michigan student invited one of his instructors home to meet his father, the newspaper publisher and progressive capitalist George Booth.

These events seem unrelated, but they share one element: Cranbrook, the interdisciplinary educational community in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which Booth founded and funded, and which architect Eliel Saarinen — the Finnish teacher who came for dinner — brought to fruition.

The dining room in the Saarinen House

That brilliant collaboration of Finnish heritage and American foresight is celebrated in a pair of installations in two of the buildings that Saarinen designed for Cranbrook’s rolling, forested campus. 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.

Gottlieb Eliel Saarinen was born in 1873 in Rantasalmi in the Grand Duchy of Finland. Due to his father’s calling as a clergyman, he had a somewhat peripatetic childhood. Happily for him, one of his father’s congregations was in Russia, near St. Petersburg. His experience there, including access to the Hermitage, initially inspired him to be an artist, but after high school, he chose to pursue architecture instead. While at university in Helsinki, he and two other students formed a design partnership that lasted until 1907.

The firm’s first major project was the Finnish Pavilion for the 1900 world’s fair in Paris. Their design combined a variety of elements, drawing on Finnish folk art, British Gothic Revival architecture, and Art Nouveau. That stylistic fusion came to be known as National Romanticism and culminated in Saarinen’s 1904 design for the Helsinki central rail terminal.

Curtain designed by Loja Saarinen hanging in front of windows designed by Eliel Saarinen

The early years of Saarinen’s career were distinguished by a whirlwind of personal and professional developments that unfolded during an intensely tumultuous era in Europe. He became involved in urban planning and wrote books; got married; designed furniture for a studio-house, which he and his family shared with his work partners and their families; designed Finnish postage stamps and banknotes; co-designed dishware for Arabia pottery; got divorced and married the textile artist Loja Gesellius, with whom he had a daughter, Pipsan, and son, Eero; and in 1922 submitted a proposal for the Chicago Tribune company’s new skyscraper headquarters.

Over roughly the same span of time, Russia underwent two revolutions — and the czar and his family were murdered — which in turn triggered Finland’s claim to independence. These events occurred during the larger conflict of World War I. Finland became an independent republic in 1919, but had to continually negotiate a political and economic balance between the new Soviet state to its east and the German Empire, which had played a part in its civil war.

Entrance to the Cranbrook library

When his design for the Tribune building earned a highly praised second place, Saarinen decided to move to the United States. The situation in Finland and in Europe overall was fraught with political and economic instability, and Saarinen was convinced the U.S. would provide him and his family with more opportunities. Within two years of emigrating, he was employed to design the campus for Cranbrook, where he then became a member of the faculty. In 1932, he was appointed president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

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.

Installation view, Finland 100 at Cranbrook Art Museum

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.

Two iconic chairs by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames

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.

An 18th-century Finnish folk textile behind Eliel Saarinen’s desk in the Saarinen House studio

Between them, the two installations ably demonstrate the role that Cranbrook has played in design since the middle of the 20th century. But, given that they position Cranbrook as a link to a nation whose birth occurred 100 years ago, it would make sense to present artifacts of that deeper history. The shows do not, with very few older items that are actually from Finland on view. 

Cranbrook’s vault contains objects that Eliel Saarinen designed before leaving his home country. Including, for instance, a couple of his rounded, three-legged chairs from that period would represent to visitors the roots of the holistic modernism that Cranbrook exemplifies. Unlike the International Style that ultimately prevailed, Eliel Saarinen’s was not a doctrinaire credo that turned away from temporal and physical context. The current installations could learn something from his approach.

View of Cranbrook vault with chairs by Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, and Harry Bertoia

Finland 100: The Cranbrook Connection continues at the Cranbrook Art Museum (39221 Woodward Avenue, Bloomfield Hills, MI) through January 14, 2018. Tours of the Saarinen House can be booked online. (The house will be closed in August 2017.)

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