December 29, 2021

Weaving a New Story: Cranbrook Centers Loja Saarinen

Renowned Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen is celebrated for his work in the first half of the 20th century in both his countries. His skills are reflected in the design of his former residence, the eponymous Saarinen House, which sits on the campus of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Saarinen designed many of Cranbrook’s buildings and served as the academy’s first resident architect, architecture department head, and president from 1932-46.

While the house is considered one of his many significant architectural achievements, it’s not Saarinen’s work alone—far from it, in fact—that makes the site stand out. “These are beautifully proportioned spaces, but they don’t blow you away,” Gregory Wittkopp, the director of the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, says, noting that the house wouldn’t give the same impression if it was empty. “It is dependent upon having all these elements in place that define the interiors, and the most important of those interior elements are the textiles.”

The exterior of the Saarinen House.

photo by: James Haefner, 2017; Courtesy Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Saarinen House is an unassuming brick rowhouse located at the heart of Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

The textiles that transform the house—which earlier this year was accepted into the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Artists' Home and Studios (HAHS) program and is also part of the National Trust’s large campaign for Where Women Made History—into a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, were the product of the studio run by Eliel Saarinen’s wife, Loja Saarinen, the first person to lead Cranbrook’s Weaving Department.

Coming to Cranbrook

The Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, which is the Cranbrook division responsible for stewarding Saarinen House, has been working to foreground Loja Saarinen in their tours and presentation of the home. Wittkopp says his team has overlooked Loja in some ways, traditionally depicting Eliel Saarinen as the driving force in the story of the house. Now, Wittkopp sees “an opportunity for us to correct history” by putting Loja Saarinen and her textiles in the limelight.

Born Loja Gesellius in 1879 in Helsinki, Loja Saarinen studied art in the Finnish capital and sculpture in Paris. She met her future husband through her brother, Herman Gesellius, an architect who partnered with Eliel Saarinen in Helsinki. While living in Finland, the couple used their art to help fight for independence from Russia. Remnants of their anti-imperial leanings could later be seen in some of the materials within the Saarinen House, including a form of Finnish rug known as a rya that would never be seen in a Russian home, Kevin Adkisson, the curator at the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, says.

Interior of the Saarinen House

photo by: James Haefner, 2016; Courtesy Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The Saarinen House living room features textiles and hangings by Studio Loja Saarinen and veneered furniture designed by Eliel Saarinen.

Although Eliel had become what Adkisson describes as the designer of the new Finnish nation (even though many of his projects were never built because of Finland's economic situation) and the Saarinens’ Scandinavian roots remained present in their art throughout the rest of their lives, their future as artists lay in the United States. In 1923, the Saarinens moved to Illinois after Eliel entered a competition to design the Tribune Tower in Chicago; he was inspired to do so, the story goes, after Loja had a dream about going to America's then-second largest city.

Eliel finished second in the competition, but the family—which included daughter Pipsan and son Eero, both of whom were artists in their own right (Eero became an acclaimed architect and designed St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, among several prominent landmarks)—remained in the U.S., and a few years later, Cranbrook’s founder George Booth asked Eliel to design and lead the Cranbrook Academy, which Booth envisioned as a stronghold of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

During those early years across the Atlantic, Loja continued to carve her own path, exhibiting folk handicrafts independently of her husband. But, Adkisson notes, she could also be considered a collaborator of Eliel’s, especially since she built the models for his architectural designs.

The second floor interior of the Saarinen House

photo by: Photography by Balthazar Korab, 1994; Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Second-floor stair hall at Saarinen House with curtains, upholstery, and rugs inspired by Finnish folklore by Studio Loja Saarinen.

Loja and Eliel Saarinen discuss their work.

photo by: Betty Truxell; Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Eliel and Loja Saarinen with the cartoon of the "Sermon on the Mount" hanging, April 1941.

The partnership, naturally, extended to the Saarinen House, which is a striking blend of the entire family’s contributions—Eliel’s design, Loja’s textiles, Pipsan’s painting and color selection, and Eero’s furniture and textiles, Adkisson says. Both Wittkopp and Adkisson say they want visitors to view the house as a cohesive piece, one that blurs the lines between forms. “All elements complement and support each other,” Wittkopp says. It reaches a point, Addkison adds, where the fabrics “begin to look like paving,” while the “bricks look like they were woven.”

Studio Loja Saarinen

Although Loja Saarinen is widely described as a weaver, Adkisson notes that that’s a bit of a misconception, in part because she successfully marketed herself as such. Again, her background was in sculpture, and she did not actually weave the textiles she designed herself, seeing that she wasn’t trained in the practice.

That’s not to take away from her influence over the field, however. Perhaps the best way to describe Loja’s role is that of a CEO. Loja ran Studio Loja Saarinen, a commercial enterprise within Cranbrook, between 1928 and 1942, hiring female weavers from Scandinavia, including Maja Andersson Wirde, a Swedish weaver and textile designer who became the studio’s shop supervisor; coordinating the buying of weaving tools and instruments; and striking deals with her clientele, including Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom the studio produced rugs, hangings, upholstery fabric, and curtains.

Loja also oversaw the educational aspect of her studio—she was the head of the Department of Weaving and Textile Design, although Adkisson says she appears to have mostly delegated teaching duties and seemed to focus much more heavily on the business aspect of the studio, sometimes to the chagrin of her students, who didn’t necessarily appreciate being referred to as Loja’s “hobby weavers.”

Loja Saarinen and a weaver in Studio Loja Saarinen

photo by: Hermann for The Detroit News; Courtesy Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Loja Saarinen seated at the loom in her weaving room at nearby Studio Loja Saarinen on Academy Way, circa 1930.

Even when the Great Depression reached its peak in Michigan in 1933, and Booth was forced to shutter Cranbrook’s other studios, Studio Loja Saarinen continued to operate. It did eventually close against her wishes, when Cranbrook transformed into a more traditional higher education institution and academic bureaucracy took precedence, Adkisson says. All told, though, Loja’s years running the studio were fruitful. Initially housing a single loom in 1928, the number reached 35, including three master looms, by the end. “Her persistence and scale of operation were very impressive,” Adkisson says.

Rebalancing the Narrative

After the studio closed, Loja and Eliel continued to live in the Saarinen House until Eliel died in 1950. Loja did live there for another year, but she then moved into a house in Eero’s backyard, and the Saarinen House became the home to the college’s future presidents, some of whom made dramatic changes to the house. In 1977, a new president, Roy Slade, came from Wales armed with a different sense of history and sought to rejuvenate the house, which led to a lengthy restoration project, overseen by Wittkopp. The revamped house opened in 1994, and it is now based primarily on the aesthetics from 1935-39.

But while the house got new life, it still took more than two decades until Loja took on a larger role in the story. Wittkopp and Adkisson achieved that through subtle changes, including rerouting tours so they first stop at the site of Loja’s studio and placing more historic images of Loja and her Weavers throughout the house. In 2019, they also introduced a year-long exhibit that brought six more rugs into the house.

Cranbrook, Adkisson says, never forgot Loja and her work, but the college and its museums didn’t celebrate her contributions to the academy as much they did when it came to Eliel and other artists. The museum is now “rebalancing what was always known and true for a public that is not as aware,” he says.

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Tim O'Donnell is the assistant editor at Preservation magazine. When not writing about historic places, he spends most of his time reading about modern European history and hoping the Baltimore Orioles will turn their fortunes around. A Maryland native, he now lives in Brooklyn.

todonnell@savingplaces.org @T_S_Odonnell

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