In 1925, soon after his second place finish in the Chicago Tribune Tower competition, Eliel Saarinen (1873 - 1950) became the architect of the new Cranbrook Educational Community in Bloomfield Hills, MI, just north of Detroit. Soon afterward, Saarinen also became President of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, a position he held until his death in 1950. Those not intimately familiar with Saarinen's design work may recognize him better as the teacher and mentor of a number of important mid-century American designers.
Included in this Cranbrook group are not just his own children Eero and Pipsan, but also his son-in-law Robert Swanson. The then Ray Kaiser met her future husband Charles Eames while they were both studying at Cranbrook. From their studies and early careers at Cranbrook, Harry Bertoia, Jack Lenor Larsen, Paul Evans, Florence (Schust) Knoll, and many others owe a strong debt to Eliel Saarinen's influence. Saarinen's influence made Cranbrook the most fertile ground in America for mid-century modern designs.
It was a great privilege of mine to have lived many of my Michigan years directly across the street from the Cranbrook educational community.
The items included in our exhibit are part of a broad commercial furniture collection drawn from designs originally developed in 1937 for Detroit area residential clients of the Saarinen & Saarinen architecture firm, Charles and Ingrid Koebel. The Koebel commission was one of the first on which Saarinen and his son Eero collaborated following Eero's return from Yale. The furniture collection is called "Flexible Home Arrangements," and is now increasingly recognized as the first "modular" series of modern furniture produced for a mass audience.
The collection was introduced in 1939, but it's opportunity was severely limited during World War II. The first edition (called "Basic") has the combination birch / aluminum hardware, while the second edition "S Series" was introduced in 1948, with additional pieces, and the title referencing both the hardware detail and the bases created for the case pieces, each in a subtle "S" curve.
The items here, as the entire collection, are extraordinarily architectural in form, appearing to float above rich walnut recessed bases.
We've developed a limited 40+ page study guide for those interested in more details about "Flexible Home Arrangements." The guide contains original catalog material, line drawings of all items in the collection, photos of all the items introduced at MassModern, and additional detailed photgraphy of some of the group's common details. More information is available on our "Research and Resources" page.
Saarinen Furniture Attributions
image courtesy Cranbrook Archive
On today’s secondary market, a variety of designer attributions are assigned to the FHA collection. Admittedly, with the similarity of some Saarinen names, and the interwoven nature of the different Saarinen professional practices, casual attribution has occasionally been confusing, even within the family.
At the Cranbrook archives we’ve looked unsuccessfully for correspondence between the Saarinens and Johnson Furniture that would shed light on the question of attribution. And there is very little original Johnson related correspondence in the furniture archives at the Grand Rapids Public Library. A 1948 local dealer advertisement names Johnson Director of Design Renzo Rutili as a Flexible Home Arrangements co-designer, but this can probably be dismissed as the effort of an over eager marketing employee. In the absence of other “primary resource documentation,” it is the 1948 Flexible Home Arrangements catalog that provides our best information.
By current standards this catalog seems rather hastily pulled together. After 65 years, the catalog reads as though from another historical period. But it clearly credits Eliel Saarinen as the Flexible Home Arrangements designer of record, “in collaboration with J. Robert F. Swanson and Pipsam (sic) Swanson.” It should be noted that the catalog notation fails to correctly spell Pipsan’s name, or to employ the typical usage of “Pipsan Saarinen Swanson.” The only other catalog mention is simply “Saarinen-Swanson,” as related to the other producers included in the 1948 broader ensemble of companion products.
In our 2007 interview, Cranbrook expert Mark Coir directly confirms FHA attribution as “Eliel Saarinen and J. Robert F. Swanson and Pipsan Saarinen Swanson.” Without benefit of a 1939 catalog indicating otherwise, we feel the formal attribution for the Johnson Furniture FHA collection should combine Coir’s comments and the 1948 catalog: “Eliel Saarinen, in collaboration with Pipsan Saarinen Swanson and J. Robert F. Swanson.”
On the secondary market, individual Items and broad collections are occasionally attributed incorrectly. This rarely happens through malevolence. Most often it happens through inattention. Unfortunately the internet spreads this information at lightning speed.
Currently there is a group of American mid-century styled furniture that was produced by the RWay Furniture Company that regularly and broadly appears with attribution to Eliel Saarinen. RWay was a manufacturer of mid-range dining room, bedroom, and occasional furniture based in Sheboygan, WI. The Rway brand was produced from 1949 until 1992.
The RWay group in question isn’t unattractive. But especially in terms of materials and execution, the group fails to achieve the excellence of Eliel’s overall body of work. The group lacks the sophistication of both design and construction that one expects to see in any Eliel Saarinen object.
Nothing in our research leads us to believe any connection ever existed between RWay Furniture and Eliel Saarinen. Nor do conversations with several highly regarded Saarinen and Cranbrook experts offer any connection between the two.
It also seems unlikely that Eliel would have designed a mid-market product line for another manufacturer when he, his family, and his design firm were already contracted to upper end producer Johnson Furniture. We are comfortable that no Rway connection ever existed with Eliel Saarinen, or any other Cranbrook affiliated designer.