Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

Cranbrook’s Golden Age: How a Freewheeling School Changed American Design

Illustrations by Paige Vickers.

Alumni visits don’t get much more high profile than Ray Eames’s brief return to Cranbrook Academy of Art in May 1980. Half of the dynamic design couple whose grabbag of inventive projects became synonymous with post-war Modernism, Ray, who had been widowed a little less than two years prior, was then living by herself in the trailblazing Case Study house she built with her late husband Charles. Known for its pioneering layout and polychromatic interior, the home, decorated with the vast quantity of objects, artwork, and collectables accrued by the couple over nearly four decades together, must have been a potent source of memories.

But Ray’s trip to speak at the Michigan arts school where she met her husband in 1940 proved a similar catalyst for nostalgia. A Detroit Free Press article from that summer says she was “smiling continuously.”  During a discourse that covered all manner of design topics, she often “wandered into memories.”

“It was an extraordinary time when we were here,” Eames is quoted as saying. “There wasn’t a degree involved, only people who were here to learn.”

The legend of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and its role as a prewar petri dish for American modernism, revolves around the brief period of time from roughly 1937 to 1941. Ray, Charles, and a host of future architects and designers crossed in and out of each other’s paths, studying and teaching at the wooded campus roughly 25 miles north of Detroit. But Cranbrook’s singularity didn’t just stem from its collection of talent. An experiment in education by founder George Booth, a wealthy industrialist, his wife Ellen, and Eliel Saarinen, an eminent Finnish architect who designed the campus and served as the first president, Cranbrook was a new institution, a modern arts colony that reflected the times. The philosophies that Ray and her classmates picked up there could be considered the DNA of modern design: cross-disciplinary thought, organic forms, and a fidelity to experimentation and research.


“Mr. Booth wanted to have immortality, I suppose,” recalledMarianne Strengell, a textile designer and weaving professor at Cranbrook during this period, in an interview with the Archives of American Art. “He had money and he had a beautiful, enormous piece of land in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and he thought he would just start a museum. And I think Eliel managed to talk him out of that and say that a living person is more important. ‘There’s lots of museums, and why don’t you start a school?'”

More than a set of formative experiences, the Cranbrook Academy of Art was a way of thinking, providing collaborations and contests that unleashed the creativity and skill of design pioneers. This group likely would have made their mark regardless: Florence Schust, a design prodigy known as “Flossie” or “Shu” (later Florence Knoll), had a keen eye for architecture and design that would inform her trailblazing interior designs and successful corporate career; Ralph Rapson, a one-armed architect and sketching genius who called himself “Le Rapson” after Le Corbusier, seemingly won every competition he entered; Harry Bertoia, a jocular Italian immigrant with a predilection for sculpture and metalwork, bragged on his application that he could “use any tool or machinery with dexterity;” shy Ray Kaiser, a painter who would become half of one of the century’s most prolific design partnerships; Charles Eames, a practicing, charismatic St. Louis architect who came to “live in a library for a year” while experimenting with material and forms; Harry Weese, a preternaturally talented architect with a sly grin who helped shape Chicago and the historic preservation movement; and Eero Saarinen, the hard-driving, Ivy League-educated son of the school’s director.

Their careers would take many different directions after Cranbrook, but wouldn’t have been the same without encountering the nascent school’s open curriculum and unique personalities.

Cranbrook Academy of Art Crandemonium Ball, Photographer Richard G. Askew, 1936. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

ACanadian-born publishing magnate who married into the wealthy Scripps family, George Gough Booth was the picture of an up-by-his-bootstraps immigrant success story. But the man arguably most responsible for Cranbrook taking shape couldn’t stop looking back, obsessing over his family’s English working-class roots. His relatives, from an area of Kent called Cranbrook, were metalworkers, known for making exemplary “ewers, kettles and flagons (beer flask).” Booth himself got a start in business with his father, an ornamental ironworker in Windsor, Ontario, eventually buying his store and running it himself. He became one of the biggest proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States. In a catalog he composed for the Cranbrook Press—his bid to create a private printing operation in “uncultured, far-off Michigan” before establishing the school—he said that first-hand familiarity accounted for “his own love for the artistic work of handicraftsman” and desire to create a true design movement in his adopted hometown of Detroit.

While Booth made his fortune running the Detroit Evening News, he bankrolled numerous arts organizations and artists in the early part of the 20th century, including the Detroit Institute of Arts and Detroit School of Design. His son Henry S. Booth called his father “builder Booth” for his propensity to create, fund, and develop. “If a mistake was made it didn’t seem to bother him too much as long as you weren’t in the poorhouse afterward,” he told the Archives of American Art. But the elder Booth, a direct man, did know what he wanted. When a gate needed to be repaired at Cranbrook, he delivered a perfectly rendered sketch to the workman. “My father expressed more with a pencil than any architect he had ever met,” his son said.

By the early ’20s, the benefactor had become excited by the prospect of creating something more elaborate. In 1922, during a trip to Italy, he observed the American Academy of Art, an institution that supported an array of practitioners and craftsman, and began to think about building his own small school and artists’ colony at his 174-acre farm and estate in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which he had also named Cranbrook. He just needed a designer and planner to help realize his vision.

At the same time, Henry was trying to realize his own artistic ambitions by studying architecture at the University of Michigan. He was frustrated by the rigid teachers and conservative philosophy, except for one instructor: Finnish architect and urban planner Eliel Saarinen, who came to the school to teach a special seminar in 1924. Henry, a senior at the time, was excited to learn from a European educator, whose recent entry into a design contest for the Tribune Tower in Chicago was a sensation. (He lost anyway: Saarinen’s entry, praised by Louis Sullivan, the father of skyscrapers, as displaying the “logic of a new order,” arrived to the judges a day late.) During a pageant the younger Booth arranged for the professor, Saarinen impressed the family. At the time, Detroit was looking for someone to design a memorial hall, and to avoid sparking resentment among local architects, Booth helped give the job to the foreign-born Saarinen. It was during discussions for that never-to-materialize project that Booth and Saarinen began dreaming up what would become Cranbrook, and in 1927, Booth officially announced a $6.5 million gift to create a school that would “attract masters of art from around the world,” according to a 1927 New York Times article, with “students functioning as almost apprentices.”

Saarinen went on to design nearly the entire idyllic campus, which would extend across a total of 225 acres including land on the River Rouge and Kingswood Lake. While his initial plan, which Henry called “astoundingly beautiful …. but ultra grandiose,” would be scaled back, he would ultimately create a series of schools, including a boys’ and girls’ prep schools, the graduate academy, as well as his own residence, that would reflect an evolving combination of classic and modern architecture, what a critic of the time called “The New Tradition.” Laid out in a manner inspired by Camillo Sitte, an Austrian city planner, the campus had an organic design, as opposed to a strict grid. Saarinen was so adept at rendering, he would often complete an entire sketch in one pass, starting in one corner and filling in the entire page.

The buildings, finished over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, were also celebrated for being total works of art; along with Eliel’s wife, Loja Saarinen, and even his son, Eero, the family designed and furnished the interiors, from furniture to tapestries and textiles Loja created on a massive loom. In 1932, the school’s first year of operation, the Times praised Saarinen’s creation, calling it an “educational and cultural center of unusual beauty,” an “artistic achievement” that seems “almost part of the landscape.”

Cranbrook Academy of Art Faculty Breakfast. Photographer, Richard P. Raseman, 1939. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

The idea that an architect or designer should be able to create a house and furnish the entire interior was important to Saarinen, and it formed the basis for the Cranbrook model. Saarinen wanted students to be able to envision, create, and understand all aspects of design, from architecture to furniture to metalworking, and to engage in experimentation. Thus the campus and curriculum were created as a massive laboratory for the graduate students, giving them free rein to work as they pleased. “Eliel’s ideas fitted Booth’s idea of a great big barn where a whole lot of artists got together and they all shared their talents,”according to Lilian Swann Saarinen, a Massachusetts sculptor and the first wife of Eero. There were no grades or specific projects, and students were free to pursue their interests. Sculptor and designer Harry Bertoia said classes could be “freely attended or abandoned at will” and that the entire atmosphere was “open and experimental.”

Saarinen, the first president of the school, encouraged experimentation and learning, building the community by example. Despite his refined Scandinavian exterior and his wife’s stern reputation, Saarinen was warm and approachable, earning the nickname “Pappy” from students. Ralph Rapson arrived early to school in 1939 just to get a desk close to “Pappy.” Lilian Swann Saarinen, his future daughter-in-law, remembers that when she arrived at school in 1937, students socialized over coffee parties, where everyone would be “very stiff.” She said Eliel “didn’t like these stuffy coffee parties,” and would “have his architect boys” over for cocktails that would eventually include all the students.


Saarinen was serious about design, but he also knew students would be students. Architect and planning studentChristopher John Chamales, who called Saarinen “the warmest person,” recalls one evening with two fellow students where, after a few drinks, they decided to drive an old Ford car around the campus, eventually running up a set of brick steps, which they demolished. The school’s executive director told the three that they had better pack because they “won’t be students at Cranbrook any longer.” Later that day, the morose students ran into Mr. Saarinen, who pulled them aside. “Have I ever told you youngsters the time when I was a boy in Budapest and I had a little too much wine to drink and I and three or four others pulled about half a dozen fire alarm boxes then ran and ran and ran?”  he told them. They were never punished or dismissed.

Saarinen also recruited a team of expert practitioners and professionals, many from Europe, to serve as teachers and mentors on campus. He gave instructors such as Hungarian-born painter Zoltan Sepeshy and Finnish ceramicist Maija Grotell a free hand to do their own work. Finnish-American artist and weaver Marianne Strengell, who would pioneer synthetic textile design for projects such as the GM Tech Center, arrived in 1937 after turning down Saarinen’s invitations for years. Perhaps the most famous instructor at the time was Swedish sculptor Carl Milles, whose work, including the famous Orpheus statue in the central fountain, adorns the campus. A prolific and possessed artist, he would only work at his on-campus studio three months of the year, taking full advantage of the “working teacher” situation afforded Cranbrook faculty; Lilian Swann Saarinen recalls him occasionally poking his head into the studio, entertaining students with stories of his travels across Europe. Strengell said the charismatic teacher was “a cult” unto himself on campus, an eccentric who would speak about theories of art and creativity. Saarinen rounded out this array of artists with a roster of guest speakers who added to the campus dialogue, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. Harry Bertoia recallsfinding Gropius across the dining hall table at lunch one day in 1936. The German thinker turned to Bertoia and, instead of introductions, immediately asked “What can you do with objects in space?”


Along with the stately grounds—Jack Lenor Larsen, an interior designer who would attend the school in the ’50s, said the campus was so well funded and attended to “there were as many gardeners as students”—the air of freedom and the unconventional curriculum made the early years of Cranbrook a singular experience and a magnet for idiosyncratic students. Classes were small, around 35 students, according to Bertoia, so you “knew everyone.” Benjamin Baldwin, an architecture student from Alabama, said Cranbrook in the late 1930s was a “luxurious and beautiful place.” “Each of us had his own studio, and we were not on any kind of schedule. We had no responsibilities whatever as far as the school was concerned.” Students usually rolled into the dining hall between 8 and 9 a.m., and then started the day with ping-pong in the rec room (according to Harry Weese, part of the attraction was that there “were some pretty nice girls”). Between personal projects, students gravitated between crafts and learning, pursuing their own muses without formal structure. Harry Weese remembers taking over the metal shop to build furniture, such as his failed, experimental hi-fi set that tried to turn the enclosure into some kind of resonator, and weaving so much cloth he could “have a coat made.” Many of the architecture students earned real-world experience working with Eliel on big projects, such as the Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo. Nights were spent discussing and debating at the Saarinen house, or drinking at the Fox & Hound pub, and during the days, you might find students tobogganing or playing football (Rapson was known for organizing pick-up games to give architects a mental break).

But campus wasn’t always relaxed. Eliel, who had made a name for himself in Finland and the United States by entering competitions, strongly encouraged students to do the same. Many, especially the architects, assembled a prolific portfolio of contest entries, often working with classmates across disciplines and enlisting all of Cranbrook’s impressive resources. In 1938, Eero Saarinen, Ralph Rapson, and Fred James won a contest to design a campus plan for William & Mary University, beating out Richard Neutra; Saarinen said he’d never worked with better “partners in crime.” Perhaps the classic example of a Cranbrook competition entry was the plan for the Smithsonian Gallery of Art. A team of architecture students worked for three weeks straight, sleeping just a few hours a night, to create a detailed model and plan. Their winning entry caught the judge’s attention in part because of its detail: Carl Milles had melted down nickels and dimes to make miniature statues, and when the roof was removed, the interior galleries were filled with a series of miniature paintings created by Benjamin Baldwin.

Ben Baldwin, Harry Bertoia, and Eliel Saarinen overlooking the Smithsonian Museum model, 1939. Benjamin Baldwin Papers, Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

This collaborative, creative environment became fertile ground for pioneering ideas about modern design, especially those advanced by a cadre of students whose paths intersected during the late ’30s. Florence Schust had the longest relationship with the school, having studied at the other Cranbrook institutions in the ’20s as a child and taken classes at the Academy in the ’30s in between studies at Columbia and elsewhere. An orphan who attended Kingswood Girl’s school, Schust was, for all intents and purposes, taken in by the Saarinen family when her teachers discovered her aptitude for architecture and design. One of them, Rachel Rasman, even let the prodigy design her own house as a class project: “I designed it with a T-square and a drafting board,” said Schust. “The janitor built it; he was my contractor.”

Schust was so close to the Saarinens that they would take her to Finland with them on vacation (she met Alvar Aalto while traveling with the family in Helsinki in 1938). Eero would write long letters to her when traveling abroad, illustrated with his own cheeky sketches (at one time, his parents hoped that Eero and Flossie would marry). Schust found the brick-clad campus to be a great learning experience, and the connections she made with fellow students became invaluable later in her career.


Where Schust appeared to refine her style and focus during her time at Cranbrook, Charles Eames used his time as a student and teacher for experimentation. The St. Louis-based architect had a moderately successful career but wanted more, and after Saarinen offered him a scholarship and teaching position in 1938, he decided to move to Michigan to “live in a library for a year.” He ended up using the campus as his playground, investigating notions of form, material, and freedom (according to an archival interview with Marianne Strengell, who had a studio next to his, things were very informal; Eames would come down in his pajamas to have breakfast). He would begin playing with cameras during his time on campus, shooting shorts, foreshadowing future film work such as “The Power of Ten.” Since he didn’t have money for a close-up lens for his 16mm camera, according to Ray Eames, he devised his own method using cardboard tubes and rubber bands.

During his application process, he wrote that “architecture is the most vital of the creative arts,” but his work at Cranbrook would span disciplines. The multidisciplinary approach seemed to spur numerous ideas in Eames, who sat in on classes with Milles and Grotell, and who taught an architecture class that, as one student explained, was mostly just a seminar in materials and processes. According to Benjamin Baldwin, students would “play with strings, sandpiper, wire screen [and] abstract design,” espousing a sense of playfulness that would become an Eames signature. Eames was celebrated for his creativity as a teacher, but he struggled to keep classes organized.


Eames, by all accounts a dapper dresser and a charismatic student leader during his time at Cranbrook, formed an especially tight bond with Eero Saarinen, another student and instructor. With his focus and habit for second-guessing, Saarinen was a foil for his more extroverted partner. (He’d later name a child Eames in his honor.) They would engage in numerous projects together, from the 1939 faculty and student exhibitions that showcased modern and avant-garde designs to the “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition at MoMA in 1940, where they introduced curvilinear and bent plywood furniture that would serve as early models for some of  Eames’ famous later works, such as the Shell Chair. Inspired by the elder Saarinen’s belief that research and testing informed good design, the duo constantly refined their work, with most of the student body serving as models to inform shape and fit. Ideas of organic forms in furniture, as well as bent plywood, had been floating around Cranbrook; Rapson had played with similar ideas in 1939, and the work of Alvar Aalto was an established reference point among Cranbrook classmates.

Of course, Charles’ most lasting and important partnership would be formed with Ray Kaiser, a painter from California who, on her way west from New York in 1940, decided to stop at Cranbrook after hearing raves from her friend Benjamin Baldwin. Kaiser quickly became involved in campus life, and with Charles, working with him and Eero on the Organic Design competition, where they first met, and quickly eliciting a proposal from the (still-married) teacher. They met in December and were married in Chicago the next summer (the couple’s wedding rings were fashioned in the Cranbrook metal shop). Kaiser was a great designer, as well as a great inspiration, and the experiments she and Charles performed with bent plywood furniture would influence the couple’s decision in 1941 to move to Los Angeles to refine the technique, first on a series of wooden splints developed on contract for the U.S. Navy.


The wedding ring on Ray’s finger was the work of Harry Bertoia, a multi-disciplinary designer and teacher from Detroit. Originally from the small town of San Lorenzo in Italy, the recent immigrant found a bit of home in Cranbrook’s rural setting and inspiration in the school’s spontaneous nature. While he came to school as a painter, his skill in the shop, with both silversmithing and jewelry-making, so impressed Eliel Saarinen that he was made a full-time faculty member and head of the metalsmithing department, even though he was technically a student.

Bertoia said the biomorphic, organic shapes of his jewelery were inspired by childhood memories of watching Hungarian gypsies make kitchenware. But they could easily be mistaken for the work of Alexander Calder. Perhaps the extensive modern art collection of the father of his then-girlfriend and future wife, Brigitta Valentiner, whom he met at Cranbrook, was a formative influence. Bertoia’s work on metal and jewelry set a precedent for his future designs, according to Glenn Adamson, director of the Museum of Arts and Design; the jewelry and the paper prints from that era explore similar shapes and patterns.

The focus on more organic shapes, which Bertoia applied to furniture, metalwork and graphics, was also a key part of the work of Eero Saarinen. The younger Finn, who came to Cranbrook after studying at Yale and found himself once again in his father’s shadow, exhibited an incredible drive and competitive streak. Growing up surrounded by Eliel’s work, design was his life; he was driven to contests and artwork early (he became an expert at sketching nudes at age 12, since he got to observe the models coming into his father’s studio while he worked on a redesign of Finland’s currency).

Eero’s seriousness, his expression of “sisu” (an untranslatable Finnish expression that means something akin to stoic determination), was a defining characteristic. He was always on; a profile of him in Time later in his career recalls a moment when Eero found himself carving parabolic arches in a grapefruit during breakfast, then taking the rind to the office to try and see if the concept would work. Lillian Swann remembers the first time she met her future husband and saw him listening to a news reporter with steely focus. “He was so serious listening to it that I liked that, because I always liked seriousness. And I was sort of in awe of him.” When Eero later saw classmate Harry Weese flirting with Lillian before he was supposed to marry her, he challenged Weese to a duel and had to be talked out of fighting. Eero was puzzled by Ralph Rapson’s football games. But after Rapson literally dragged him out to play, Eero quickly became involved and soon made himself permanent quarterback.

Football at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Photographer, Richard P. Raseman, 1939. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

Eero’s projects and extensive work with his father showcased the Saarinen generation gap; the elder, who came up in the age of Arts & Crafts, exalted the handmade and hand-crafted. Eero promoted the mass-produced and streamlined, such as the plywood furniture he did with the Eameses and his work on the Kleinhans Music Hall. This constant push for new ideas often left Eero frustrated and slightly unsure; Swann felt he lacked his dad’s intuitive self-confidence. “He didn’t trust his own judgment very often,”she told the Archives of American Art. “And sometimes at night when everyone had gone out of the office and gone to bed—my studio was downstairs—he’d ask me up to see something, knowing I’m not an architect in the slightest. And he just wanted to have my intuition about how it looked.”

While Eero would certainly move beyond these feelings of insecurity—when he won the 1948 competition to design the St. Louis Arch, his entry ranked just above his very proud father—what’s intriguing is just how important Eero’s work at Cranbrook was in pushing both his father and fellow classmates forward. His technical skills were a key factor in the later mass-production of Eames plywood furniture, and his designs, especially for joint projects with his father, advanced a more prescient view of modern architecture, which he would later showcase for era-defining projects such as the GM Technical Center and the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport. While he was beloved, Eliel was considered “not as much out of style but as a regional traditionalist” by students at the time, according to Rapson, who favored Pappy’s guest speakers and Mies van der Rohe more than his the elder Saarinen’s design sensibilities.

Eero’s later career exemplifies how the Cranbrook students of that era would not just be friends but frequent collaborators. Florence Schust, who later married Hans Knoll and changed her name to Florence Knoll, became the driving creative force behind the eponymous furniture company, employing a score of her Cranbrook classmates, including Eero, who would develop the singular Tulip chair for the company. She wanted a chair that “felt like a pile of pillows you could sink into,” so he did whatever it took to deliver, even at one point petitioning the manufacturer to invest in new machines.

After leaving Cranbrook in 1941 to focus on their work, Charles and Ray Eames drove west on their honeymoon, eventually settling in Los Angeles. They would begin working on mass-produced bent plywood furniture, expounding on the concepts from Cranbrook, and opening up the Eames Office, which would become a wildly influential, eclectic design firm and talent incubator. They recruited Bertoia to help, though they would eventually have a falling out—Bertoia claims he wasn’t getting credit for his work. Bertoia spent some years bumming around California, until a call from the Knoll company led to him designing the Diamond Chair, a gridded, sculptural apex of midcentury furniture design.

Harry Weese called the school a Scandinavian Bauhaus, and while Cranbrook can’t point to a single  aesthetic tradition like the famous German school, it can rightfully lay claim to encouraging a way of thinking that made the later work of Rapson, Weese, Bertoia, and the others so exciting. Cranbrook would maintain an open curriculum and continue to attract generations of talented students, but that brief window when freewheeling schedules, talent, and institutional innocence came together would never be repeated. When Ray Eames recounted her time at the academy, she felt the same way. “I counted the days, and there were not very many,” she recounted. But the experiences she and Charles and their friends soaked up at Cranbrook were formative. “He [Charles] had a special way of working there that was marvelous.”

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