Cranbrook Academy Revives Eliel Saarinen's House

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

EVERYWHERE you look in the Saarinen House, subtle harmonies of color, form, space, and texture soothe and rest the eye or engage it in wonder. One alcove invites relaxed conversation. Another, reading and quiet thought. Each room has a completely different feeling by design, yet each is related to all the others, and the effect of the whole is a soothing, peaceful haven.

Saarinen House is undergoing meticulous restoration at the Cranbrook Academy of Art 20 miles outside of Detroit. It is named for Eliel Saarinen, the academy's first president and its resident architect, who designed, built, and lived in the house from 1930 to 1950.

The exterior, built of buff-colored brick with Indiana limestone detailing and a slate roof, is two-story, and resembles the European row houses common to Saarinen's native Helsinki.

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Saarinen also designed the other structures on the sprawling Cranbrook campus, including studios, a boys' school, a girls' school, a science institute, the art academy, and finally, the art museum.

The tender care with which he built his family home has been revitalized in what will become the community's second museum, scheduled to open in May of 1994.

The art academy has had only five presidents. The second, third, and fourth made changes in the house to accommodate their own family needs and tastes. But the fifth president, Roy Slade, decided to return the house to its original (and lavishly documented) state after he took over the reins of the school and took up residence in the president's house in 1977.

In 1988, Mr. Slade turned over the curatorial responsibilities to Greg Wittkopp, the Cranbrook Art Museum's director, and the most involved tasks of detective work began. Since then, 170 paint samples have been analyzed, fragments of wallpaper have been discovered and reproduced, recessed light fixtures have been liberated from burial beneath wall board, all the principal pieces of furniture have been restored by collectors and family members, and nearly all of the important textiles have been located and preserved, and many of them reproduced.

``Saarinen believed that architecture should encompass all the arts,'' Mr. Wittkopp says, ``and that therefore, the architect as designer should be responsible for designing all aspects of the building.''

Saarinen was a master of subtleties, a genius of details and surfaces. Deeply influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement of the period, his modernism was always tempered by the humanism of handcrafted objects, Wittkopp points out. From the rugs on the floor, to the chandelier, chairs, cushions, book covers, dishes, placemats, silver services, china, lamps, and andirons in the fireplace, Saarinen, in collaboration with his wife, Loja, governed every aspect of design.

Loja, a textile artist who founded the weaving department at Cranbrook and a commercial weaving company, designed and oversaw the making of remarkable curtains, rugs, wall hangings, and upholstery.

Looking through any doorway in the house reveals a series of exquisitely balanced planes and lines, colors and textures. The colors are predominantly gray, russet, green, and various off-whites. The wood tones of the floor and some of the paneling are deep gray-brown, smooth and cool. Rugs are used architecturally to direct the eye and define the axis in the room. The large studio where Saarinen and Loja drafted their designs was warmed and finished with another large handwoven rug of Loja's design.

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.

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.''

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