WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
PHOTOGRAPHS – RICHARD POWERS.
The invention of the Saarinen House, cradled within the Cranbrook academic campus in Michigan, was truly a family affair. It was home to its architect, the Finnish born master Eliel Saarinen, but also to his wife, Loja, who designed many of the fabrics in the house as well as planning the surrounding gardens. Their daughter, Pipsan, was an interior designer who developed a series of decorative paintings for the doorways of the upstairs landing. Added to this their son, Eero Saarinen – whose achievements as one of the pioneering Modernist architects of the Twentieth Century have almost overtaken his father's work – was commissioned to draw up the furniture in the master bedroom at the age of just nineteen.
But, of course, it was Eliel Saarinen himself who was at the heart of the house, while the building was at the centre of the Cranbrook educational community – a 315 acre campus in Bloomfield Hills, twenty miles north of Detroit. Cranbrook was founded by George Booth, a newspaper baron, philanthropist and an enlightened patron of Arts & Crafts architecture. It was Booth who entrusted Eliel Saarinen with the epic task of masterplanning and largely designing an extraordinary assembly of buildings, which included boys and girls schools, an institute of science, a museum and library along with the Academy of Art, which Saarinen himself headed until the late 1940s.
The Saarinen House was completed in 1930, almost six years after Saarinen began working for George Booth – who he had first been introduced to by Booth's son, Henry, one of Saarinen's architecture students while he was teaching at the University of Michigan. The house is often described as Saarinen's crowning achievement at Cranbrook, blending an Arts & Crafts exterior with an accomplished and layered Art Deco interior, seamlessly integrated into a unique and harmonious whole. It was a reminder that while Saarinen was masterful with the grander picture of community planning, he also had an exquisite eye for detail and was a true perfectionist.
'The importance of the house is really the result of the level of totality, cohesion and detail in the design as opposed to just being a pure architectural space,' says Gregory Wittkopp, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, which looks after the Saarinen House, as well as the person responsible for the careful restoration of the building. 'When I first visited the house before the restoration the rooms had been brought back to their original proportions and painted white. It had perfect proportions and felt elegant and comfortable but it wasn't until we began returning all the finishes to their original state and bringing back Saarinen's furniture and the textiles that suddenly I realised just how extraordinary these spaces really were.'
Back in Finland, Eliel Saarinen had established himself as the country's leading architect, working in an Arts & Crafts manner. He first practiced in partnership with Herman Gesellius and Armas Lindgren and then on his own, with key buildings including the Finnish National Museum of 1912 and the Helsinki Railway Station of 1919. His reputation was spreading abroad when he entered the competition to design a new skyscraper for the Chicago Tribune. Saarinen came in second but his design was so widely praised that he was enticed into moving to America in 1923.
At Cranbrook he soon established himself as a magnetic and influential presence, not just as an architect but also as an educator, overseeing the Academy of Art and enticing and encouraging talents such as Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, Florence Knoll – who the Saarinens took under their wing to the point that she became part of their extended family, accompanying them on summer trips to Finland. Alvar Aalto called him 'a bridge builder' and he was certainly one of those intriguing and original personalities who managed to span two different eras of architecture, while his later architectural work in partnership with his son suggested an ongoing commitment to innovate.
The Saarinen House also manages to combine aspects of traditionalism and modernity without a jolt. Designed at the same time as its neighbouring faculty house, the Saarinen building has a discreet presence to the street, with its façade now coated in a vertical carpet of Boston ivy. Most of the windows on this side of the house, within a very public avenue of dormitories and other student and academic buildings, look into hallways and thoroughfares to preserve a sense of privacy. The larger windows and French doors are to the back of the house, where the house opens out to form a U-shaped plan around a large courtyard, partially protected to the sides by a covered porch to one aspect and a studio wing to the other.
'There was a sense of separation between the public appearance of the house and then the private experience on the inside,' Wittkopp says. 'There is a very intimate communal environment at Cranbrook that faculty and students share, all living within the space of a city block. That's one of the reasons why the house appears quite private from the street and does not give any real indication as to the level of detail on the inside.'
Within, the Saarinens created a series of rich, warm spaces with a wealth of colour, texture and natural light. Loja Saarinen, who ran her own weaving business at Bloomfield Hills and headed the Academy's Textiles department, designed curtains, rugs and wall hangings while also collaborating closely with her husband. Saarinen involved himself in each and every aspect of the interiors, from the finely detailed panelling and furniture in the dining room to the 'raisin and silver' tiled fireplace in the living room. Saarinen made good use of Cranbrooks' own artisan studios, which were opened in 1929 and later folded into the Academy itself, to commission pieces from resident craftsmen such as Swedish carpenter Tor Berglund.
During the restoration process, furniture that had been scattered across the campus in the years after Saarinen's death in 1950 – when the house was used by subsequent Academy presidents – was reassembled by Wittkopp and returned, along with paintings and artwork.
'A few of them had left with the Saarinen family and they were then kindly returned to us,' says Wittkopp, who completed the restoration and opened the house to the public in 1994. 'We tracked down all the original furniture with three exceptions, where we used photographs and the archives to recreate them, as we did with many of the textiles. I received a call from a woman in the West Coast who said she had been a student of Saarinen's and had been given his desk from the studio and would we like it back? She shipped it out to us. Many people with first hand experience of the house did anything they could to return pieces.'
But undoubtedly it was the studio that was the best used and most hard working part of the house: a large and flexible room, with space enough for drafting tables for Eliel and Loja. These could be pushed back to the sides of the room for larger functions and parties, which the living room could not cope with.
'It was definitely a house of entertaining,' Wittkopp says. 'I get the impression that the Saarinens worked hard and played hard. The cocktail hour would happen on a daily basis [Saarinen called his martini time "the happiest hour of the day"] and at the end of the afternoon they would relax with friends from Cranbrook or others who were visiting. Dinners in the dining room also happened regularly, but after this was over the Saarinens would often go back to the studio and work some more.
'Frank Lloyd Wright visited on many occasions and Saarinen and Wright were as good a friends as two architects with rather substantial egos could be. The one story that has passed down tells how the Saarinens kept some white birch logs neatly stacked in the fireplace of the living room. On one occasion Wright came in and took his cane and pushed a few of the logs out of line and said "Mr Saarinen, that's what I think of your symmetry". Eliel Saarinen replied: "well, you are always frank, but you are rarely right".'
The Iconic House, by Dominic Bradbury and Richard Powers, is published by Thames & Hudson, £35
Saarinen House - www.cranbrookart.edu/museum/saarinen – 001 248 645 3361