Friday, November 20, 2015

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2015, by Patrick Sisson

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.