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Cranbrook Academy Revives Eliel Saarinen's House

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These rugs (currently under reproduction), like the one in the dining room and in the studio alcove, repeat the motifs in the rooms they decorate. Those motifs sometimes echo Saarinen's version of Art Deco and often reflect Finnish tradition. On one living-room wall, for example, a rug is attached to the wall, draped over a bench, and runs onto the floor - an old Scandinavian tradition. The sitter folded the rug up over his feet for warmth. But the distinctive geometric pattern is Saarinen modernism. All the rugs were hand-knotted in ``rya'' knots - a traditional Finnish technique. Saarinen's famous peacock andirons (retrieved from the trash by a Cranbrook teacher many years ago) reflect Saarinen's interest in Art Deco's exotica.

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The large studio, which was also used for receptions, has been compared to a symphony, Wittkopp says. He likens the chairs and textiles to ``instruments'' with both elements coexisting harmoniously.

The studio is graced by an alcove in moss greens and off-whites. Stained glass in subtle geometric patterns seem to echo the Middle Ages as much as they reflect modernism. This is where the Saarinen family liked to sit with friends (Frank Lloyd Wright was a frequent visitor) after dinner.

The living room, too, has its alcove - called the ``book room.'' Saarinen rebound his favorite books in tooled leather that he designed and color-coordinated in rich russets, toast, and golds. The chairs are comfortable, practical, and beautiful, the upholstery reflecting the colors of the book-bindings.

Nowhere in the house is Saarinen's mastery of detail and integration of aesthetic ideas more complete than in the octagonal dining room. It remains the undisputed jewel of the house.

Through complicated research, Wittkopp learned that the wood paneling removed by one of the occupants had been Douglas fir - now a protected tree, and nesting site of the endangered spotted owl. But Wittkopp located an old supply in Grand Rapids, Mich., and had it bleached, stained, and waxed.

The elegant gray rug was reproduced to perfection, the soft-glowing russet and gold curtains rewoven to cast their gentle glow over the room, the dome was regilded with 1,000 leaves of 23-karat gold, and the niches in the corners of the room were restored to their former brilliant Chinese red. An original tapestry picturing a tree and birds by Finnish weaver Greta Skogster still graces the wall opposite the doors to the outdoor courtyard. The exquisite round table and chairs of inlaid woods in golden hues resonate with the golden ceiling and the rosy light through the thin side drapes. The brass light fixture bounces its indirect light off the gold dome, so that even at night, the light will be soft and warm. Scandinavian pewter and a brass coffee set designed by Saarinen complement the glowing tones of walls, ceiling, windows, and furniture.

``Throughout all phases of his career, Saarinen was not simply reflecting and absorbing what was going around him, but in many ways he was defining it,'' Wittkopp says.

Though Saarinen is perhaps most famous for projects built in Europe, such as the Helsinki train station, his influence on American architecture is great.

Saarinen House was widely regarded by art historians as ``the most significant interior design of that period [1925-1935] by anyone working in the United States,'' Wittkopp says, adding, ``Saarinen House probably exemplifies American Art Deco better than any other interior at this time.''