A number of years ago I was fortunate enough to take a tour of the Saarinen House at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI. It was one of those extraordinary experiences in visual imagery that, even to this day, continues to factor into my design thinking. Actually, I wanted to move in to the house so that I could study the countless rich details, the palette, materials and texture of the house Saarinen built for himself and his family on the campus of Cranbrook. It is quite possibly one of the most significant houses built during the 1920s.
Eliel Saarinen was a masterful architect who created breathtaking vistas and spaces. He cleverly wove decorative elements of brick, stone, tile, metal and wood into the interiors. He was a superb colorist; the house has a palette of subtle hues and dramatic contrasts. Its 1990 restoration, thoughtfully and meticulously directed by Gregory Wittkopp, then Curator of Collections at Cranbrook, revealed all of the original details while much of the original furniture was rescued from storage in the basement.
Eliel Sarrinen’s great strength was his ability to establish axes not only in his house but in the skyscrapers he designed as well. His skill was to allow spaces to unfold in a gradual and often surprising manner. He leads the eye along the edge of the room and delays the comprehension of the entire space. Sometimes he would shift the placement of a rug or a detail on a building to activate an axis and heighten an awareness of the architectural surroundings.
There are two things in the house that stand out for me. The first is a dramatic fireplace. The fireplace has a horizontal form without a mantle shelf. The tile was designed by Eliel and crafted by the Pewabic Pottery in Detroit, which was unusual for them as they were known for their glaze variations. The color has been described as deep raisin accented with silver. The exceptional ceramic fireplace served as a dramatic backdrop for bronze andirons.
Then there are the bathrooms. The master bath is dramatic tan and black ceramic installed on a grid. The graphics are stellar, the colors unusual, and the design endures. The second bath also has great graphics with lighter accents. Both are memorable and as relevant today as when they were first installed.
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