A New Look at Modernist Michigan

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An exhibition at the Cranbrook Art Museum (accompanied by a four-day symposium) will address the too long-overlooked subject of Michigan’s large and significant contribution to modern design in America. Both aim to establish the ways in which Michigan-based designers and architects defined modernism at mid-century—with work that ranged from the Eames Lounge chair to the expressive styling of the fins on a Cadillac to such progressive work environments as the General Motors Technical Center or offices by Herman Miller.

The exhibition, Michigan Modern: Design that Shaped America opens June 14 and runs through October 13. Launching it—from June 13 to 16—will be the symposium, held on Cranbrook’s Eliel Saarinen-designed campus. “In the late 1930s, a remarkable group of artists and designers were at Cranbrook—notably Eliel and Loja Saarinen, their son Eero, faculty members such as Harry Bertoia and promising young students like Charles and Ray Eames, Ralph Rapson, Florence Knoll, and many others,” says Gregory Wittkopp, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum and Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. “Collaboratively, and then individually, they used the Academy’s studios to experiment and create the furniture and products that became the icons of the twentieth century. It is no exaggeration to say that mid-century Modernism was conceived at Cranbrook.”

Saarinen House living room, view from front entrance hall.

Saarinen House living room, view from front entrance hall.

The symposium will also feature tours of Eero Saarinen’s General Motors Technical Center; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Palmer House in Ann Arbor; Minoru Yamaski’s Wayne State University campus; and Lafayette Park, the residential complex designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

On a smaller scale, visitors to the campus’s Saarinen House (where the Finnish-American architect and his weaver wife Loja lived from 1930 to 1950) will see Danish ceramist Anders Ruhwald’s series of seven site-sensitive installations (Anders Ruhwald at Saarinen House: The Anatomy of a Home) in conjunction with the new season of docent-guided Saarinen House tours. Ruhwald is both artist-in-residence and head of the ceramics department at Cranbrook Academy of Art. The exhibition will run through October 31. “Saarinen House not only provides the perfect backdrop for Ruhwald’s exploration of modernism, but the presence of his work in the home will allow our visitors to reexamine the house, which has been ‘frozen in time’ since it opened as a museum in 1994,” said Wittkopp.