Detroit: the Birthplace of Modern American Design
By Janet H. Thomas, RID
Detroit is known as the motor capital of the world and epicenter for development of the US auto industry. What is less well known is the powerful influence on Modern American Design that grew out of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan a community northwest of the Detroit metro area.
George Gough Booth married Ellen Scripps of Scripps publishing in the late 1800’s. In 1904 they decided to build a country estate in Bloomfield Hills. Cranbrook House, designed by Albert Kahn, is European Arts & Crafts style. The Booths built upon this collection using items from the American Arts & Crafts movement, creating an enduring, high quality collection.
The Booth’s were keenly interested in enriching the community and founded institutions on the grounds of Cranbrook to promote education and culture. Booth’s son Henry was Eliel Saarinen’s Architecture student at the University of Michigan and introduced the two. Saarinen had garnered attention for his Chicago Tribune Tower contest entry which intrigued Booth. Eliel agreed to design the Cranbrook School for Boys, Kingswood School for Girls, Cranbrook Institute for Science, Cranbrook Academy of Art and the Cranbrook Art Museum. Agreeing to become first President of the Academy teaching the architecture program he designed Saarinen House which delights the senses with its rhythmic use of the square, rectangle and triangle coupled with finely crafted furniture, ceramics and textiles. The Nook, bottom photo, demonstrates this attention to detail and symbolism. His wife Loja, a known textile designer, directed the department of weaving and Textile Design at the Academy and provided textiles for Cranbrook and many of Eliel’s outside commissions.
The Cranbrook Academy was a think tank for American modernism. Ray and Charles Eames, Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia, Jack Lenor Larsen and Carl Milles were all students or faculty who mentored each other on design, culture and the importance of hand crafting. Their circle of influence reached outward thru their affiliations with Knoll International, Herman Miller, Vitra, Mies Van der Rohe, Frank Llyod Wright and many more. Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s work in Columbus Indiana into the Midwest and beyond.
In 2015 Detroit was named by UNESCO as the only American City to receive a City of Design designation in the Creative Cities Network.