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Bloomfield Hills

Cranbrook takes a modern look at Michigan design

June 19, 2013

BLOOMFIELD HILLS — From now through Oct. 13, Cranbrook Art Museum is hosting a unique exhibit that will highlight Michigan’s essential role in the development of American mid-century modernism.

The exhibition, which took more than a year to bring to life, is the result of a collaboration between Cranbrook Art Museum, the state Historic Preservation Office and MPdL Studios of Ann Arbor. Experts from each organization have come together with a unique collection of artifacts, photographs and iconic pieces to show guests how Michigan was the epicenter of one of the greatest design eras in American history.

From an original framework for a Ford Model-T to George Nelson’s famed marshmallow sofa and the unique architecture of Albert Kahn, Michigan served as a breeding ground for some of the most noted modernism artists and designers that flourished from the turn of the 20th century through the 1950s and ­’60s. Some people don’t realize that the signature style of AMC’s hit show “Mad Men” was really born in the Motor City.

“In the late 1930s, a remarkable group of artists and designers were at Cranbrook, notably Eliel and Loja Saarinen, their son Eero, faculty members such as Harry Bertoia, and promising students like Charles and Ray Eames, Ralph Rapson, Florence Knoll and many others,” said Gregory Wittkopp, director of Cranbrook Art Museum and Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, in a prepared statement. “Collaboratively, and then individually, they used the academy’s studios to experiment and create the furniture and products that became the icons of the 20th century. It is no exaggeration to say that mid-century modernism was conceived at Cranbrook.”

According to State Historic Preservation Officer Brian Conway, the “Michigan Modern” exhibit is one that’s been brewing for years in the minds of local historians and art enthusiasts. He’s hoping that guests will learn something they didn’t know about the state’s design history, such as the invention of Styrofoam — which was conceived at the Dow Chemical Co. headquarters in Midland — or the Troy office of architect Minoru Yamasaki, who went on to design the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

“We have these enclaves of architectural importance around the state: Midland is one; Ann Arbor, the neighborhoods were designed by faculty at the University of Michigan; the General Motors Tech Center in Warren; and Cranbrook itself is a national landmark,” said Conway. “Michigan was an industrial powerhouse for the auto industry, and the furniture industry was on the west side of Michigan. The outstanding educational institutions and (industrial) prosperity, all working together, attracted design talent to Michigan.”

The exhibit, which opened in mid-June, will mark the first viewing of the collection by the public. Once the Cranbrook run ends in October, the exhibit will be moved to an institution in Grand Rapids. Conway said he hopes that, for those in the state who check out the one-of-a-kind display, they’ll come away with the notion that Michigan was a haven for brilliant design minds — and in many ways still is.

“If you think about what impacts your life, of the major purchases in your life, you have your house, your automobile and the furniture in your house. A lot of iconic things were coming out of Michigan,” he said. “This exhibit focuses on that industry and the designs that came out of that industry. It was an era of optimism and looking towards the future, so we see these futuristic designs coming out of Michigan. It draws attention to the fact that Michigan has a strong design foundation, and we still have a strong design industry that thrives in Michigan today.”

The “Michigan Modern: Design that Shaped America” exhibition will run through Oct. 13. Summer hours at the museum are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission to the museum is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, $4 for students with identification, and free for ArtMembers and children 12 and younger. For more information, visit

The Cranbrook Art Museum is located at 39221 Woodward Ave., in Bloomfield Hills.

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