Cranbrook Academy hosts an evolving school of design thought

Just outside Detroit in the wealthy suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Cranbrook Academy of Art endures as one of the best campuses in the world, if not the country. It is filled to the brim with great architecture, great spaces, and great art, and to this day, Cranbrook is one of the most highly regarded post-graduate programs for the arts.

DSC_0836Cranbrook was founded in 1926 by George Gough Booth and his wife Ellen Scripps Booth. Booth was the Detroit-based publisher of several newspapers and radio stations at the beginning of the 20th century. The Booths desired two major elements for their project: a coed elementary and high school, and an academy of art. Mr. Booth invited Eliel Saarinen to design the campus and most of its buildings after learning about Sarrinen’s work through his entry in the Tribune Tower competition. The design of the campus is a meeting of old collegiate gothic and modern. Some of the housing units are more modern, and some of the studio buildings reference the European industrial style.

Booth later asked Saarinen to recruit the faculty for the school. Saarinen’s wife taught fabric design–her designs are highly respected to this day. He also hired his longtime friend and collaborator Carl Milles, who would create most of the beautiful sculptural elements placed across campus. Milles’s sculptures engage the spaces, making them rich, open public areas. The sculptures feature horses, mermaids and beasts of burden.

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Cranbrook’s influence is seen around the world. New graduates continue to influence the field of industrial design, graphic design, architecture and sculpture. You can recognize Cranbrook’s legacy in American design through the work of former students and faculty such as Charles and Ray Eames–of furniture and exhibit design fame–and Eero Saarinen. Eero was Eliel’s son who went on to design the St. Louis Arch, the JFK terminal in New York, the GM Technical Center, and the “Tulip Chair” featured on the sets of the original Star Trek series. Eero’s firm expanded Ceasar Pelli’s international architectural practice, which thrives to this day.

Walking through campus, you can see the evolution of its design, from Sarrinen the Elder’s classical Beaux-Arts to the organic modernism of Sarrinen the Younger (different from Meisian modernism, which is much more rigorous and controlled) to Cesar Pelli’s take on modernism (elegant, and embracing classical proportions of base-middle-top). The campus’s style evolves; it is dynamic.

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Starting with a vision by Mr. Booth, Cranbrook attracted talent from across Europe to the Detroit suburbs. Booth and Saarinen convinced them to stay and form a school of thought, allowing it to evolve, thrive and maintain significance. This is different than the story of Talliesin, formed by the genius Frank Lloyd Wright, and which was based on a single man. Because of its lack of pluralism, Talliesin has not evolved like Cranbrook.

I have loved this campus since I first visited for SEGD meetings in the 1980s. For the past 6 years, I have helped to evolve a program in exhibit design that occurs every August. The light quality of the Michigan summer is wonderful, and reminds me of Saarinen’s native Finland, where this light level is typical going late into the night.

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