Cranbrook Academy Promotes the Arts and Crafts Movement

Although the Cranbrook Academy was founded as a model nineteenth century Arts and Crafts movement educational community, its faculty and students had major influence in shaping twentieth century design.

Cranbrook, Michigan

Summary of Event

In a style typical of upwardly mobile and upper-class Victorian businessmen, George Booth became something of a patron of the arts after his marriage to Ellen Warren Scripps in 1887 and upon his assumption of a managerial position at the Detroit Evening News, the flagship of his father-in-law’s publishing empire. Between 1900 and 1920, Booth was actively involved in the promotion of arts and crafts at the local, state, and national levels. His interest in the Arts and Crafts movement Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteenth century may be traced to his roots: Both his great-grandfather and his grandfather had been English coppersmiths. [kw]Cranbrook Academy Promotes the Arts and Crafts Movement (1925)
[kw]Arts and Crafts Movement, Cranbrook Academy Promotes the (1925)
[kw]Crafts Movement, Cranbrook Academy Promotes the Arts and (1925)
Cranbrook Academy of Art
Design movements;Cranbrook Academy of Art
Architecture;Cranbrook Academy of Art
Interior design;Cranbrook Academy of Art
Furniture design;Cranbrook Academy of Art
[g]United States;1925: Cranbrook Academy Promotes the Arts and Crafts Movement[06200]
[c]Fashion and design;1925: Cranbrook Academy Promotes the Arts and Crafts Movement[06200]
[c]Organizations and institutions;1925: Cranbrook Academy Promotes the Arts and Crafts Movement[06200]
Booth, George
Saarinen, Eliel
Saarinen, Eero
Eames, Charles

The importance of the Arts and Crafts movement to the quality of life in his own community was of particular importance to Booth. As the automobile industry in Detroit began to expand and dominate the local economy, Booth felt that he might make real contributions to the city by emphasizing the importance of good design and art education. He was a significant patron of the Detroit Museum of Art, acted as president of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, and helped to found the Detroit School of Design.

By the early 1920’s, however, Booth was dissatisfied with the results of his yeoman efforts. He began to consider projects over which he could have more personal and complete control. Booth spent several years traveling and researching museums and art academies in Europe, and he decided to create his own experimental art education community on his suburban farm estate, twenty miles from Detroit. In 1924, he asked the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, who was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan at the time, to create a master building plan for the site and to act as a consultant for the proposed academy’s educational program. The Cranbrook Foundation was organized in 1927, although the Cranbrook Academy of Art, with Saarinen as its first president, was not formally established until 1932.

Booth believed the community’s physical plant should be given first priority, and Saarinen immediately began to plan the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Building was dependent on the availability of funding and so took place over a fairly extended period. The first academy building was begun in 1925. Designed by George Booth and J. Robert F. Swanson, it housed an architectural office, library, and museum. The first Arts and Crafts building was finished in 1929. The Academy of Art projects, constructed between 1925 and 1963, include seven studio buildings, seven residences (including the Saarinen House), three dormitories, a foundry, a garage, and a museum and library. The Cranbrook School for Boys was built on the site of the original farm and is made up of twenty-five structures constructed between 1925 and 1979, including several remodeled farm buildings, a hockey rink, and a fire station. The Cranbrook Institute of Science is a complex of five buildings, including a revised version of George Booth’s original 1930 design, a planetarium, and a nature center. Kingswood School Cranbrook, for girls, is made up of seven buildings constructed between 1930 and 1973. Brookside School Cranbrook is housed in the meetinghouse that George Booth designed in 1918 to provide his father with a pulpit. Several additions, a gymnasium, and two residences complete the Brookside facilities. The original estate, including Cranbrook House (designed in 1907 by Albert Kahn to contain Booth’s sizable Arts and Crafts collection and library), a Greek-style theater built in 1915, a greenhouse, and a number of cottages, has also been preserved.

The architectural development of the community was seen as a symbolic and practical emblem of the educational program and goals of the academy. Following the model of the American Academy of Art in Rome, Cranbrook’s educational plan was loosely organized. Ideally, there was to be no formal curriculum, and students and scholars would be encouraged to interact informally. Originally, Booth wanted to invite “master artists” to Cranbrook with the understanding that, in addition to working on their own projects, they would contribute to the physical and educational environment of the academy. Residences, studios, and honoraria would be provided, and each “master” would supervise a select group of “fellows,” who would also receive payment for work done in cooperation with their teachers. In this spirit, and because costs were high, in 1930 Booth established a gradual self-sufficiency plan for the craft studios.

For Saarinen, this organizational scheme was uncomfortably reminiscent of medieval guilds, and he attempted, not altogether successfully, to guide the school toward a more organic model of the relationship between art and life. Despite a fuzzy theoretical orientation and administrative difficulties (the school did not grant degrees until 1942), beginning in the 1930’s, Cranbrook was able to provide a unique educational setting in which students were expected to learn by doing. Personal projects, individual interests, and experimentation were the norm, and the diversity of the professional experiences and backgrounds of both students and faculty made Cranbrook a rich laboratory of design ideas and practices. As a center for advanced study in nine areas—architecture, design, metalwork, photography, sculpture, printmaking, painting, textiles, and ceramics—the Cranbrook Academy of Art made major contributions to the forms, practice, and production of arts and crafts around the world.


George Booth founded the Cranbrook Academy in the early 1920’s as a utopian community that would focus its energies on returning art and craftsmanship to a primary place in the commercial and industrial arenas of American design. For Booth, the development of social utopia was dependent on aesthetic reform. Booth’s ideas for Cranbrook place art and craftsmanship squarely in the center of a number of “reform” movements of importance to American culture: the ideal of the dedicated community that has influenced Americans since the time of the Puritans; the Arts and Crafts movement, which reached its peak in the United States between 1890 and 1910; and later attempts to define an aesthetic that would unite new technologies with moral values and social purposes.

Cranbrook was meant to be a special place, devoted to the integration of labor and leisure, life and art. Contentious British philosophers and artists such as John Ruskin and William Morris argued that industrialization debased both design and production and, by extension, culture itself; redemption, they claimed, lay in a return to “arts and crafts.” In the United States, reformers in the nineteenth century Arts and Crafts movement were disillusioned with urban society. In response, they attempted to revive handcraftsmanship, to promote simplicity and traditionalism of design and lifestyle through unification of the applied and fine arts, and to celebrate nativist culture.

Eliel Saarinen, Cranbrook’s master planner and guiding hand until his resignation in 1946, embodied both the social and aesthetic components of Booth’s vision of reform. Like his contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright, Saarinen was interested in an expansive universe of creative design, from city planning to carpets. His architectural works influenced the stream of modernism that focused on the importance of the environment as a physical and emotional center of meaning. Saarinen’s presence as an instructor made Cranbrook a central testing site for early experiments in American modernism, particularly in the decorative arts. By the late 1930’s, the interaction of Cranbrook’s first generation of European teachers with a second, younger generation of American instructors and students produced works that had a tremendous influence on post-World War II design. Much of the work of Cranbrook students and faculty from the 1920’s on reveals how an ideal of the Arts and Crafts movement—the elevation of the applied arts to the level of fine arts—affected the ways modern designers searched for an integration of artistic style and lifestyle.

Under Saarinen’s direction, faculty and students were encouraged to experiment and collaborate. As the academy had no established curriculum, national and international competitions often provided the impetus for exploration of new concepts. For example, four designs by Cranbrook students won prizes at the “Organic Design for Home Furnishings Competition” sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in 1940 and 1941. Students Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen (Eliel Saarinen’s son), both of whom had backgrounds in architecture, collaborated to create a group of chairs, modular storage units, tables, and a sectional sofa that won two first prizes. Benjamin Baldwin Baldwin, Benjamin and Harry Weese Weese, Harry also won prizes in multiple categories of the competition; their most significant entries were for outdoor furniture and lighting fixtures. The competition generated designs that were influential in shaping American furniture between 1950 and 1975 and helped to establish Eames and Saarinen as leaders of American design.

Florence Knoll, Knoll, Florence who had attended Kingswood School Cranbrook, gained a reputation as an important interior designer and entrepreneur. She domesticated the European International Style International Style for American homes and offices and designed elegant hospital, bank, university, and hotel interiors from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. Along with her husband, Hans, in 1951 she formed Knoll Associates, a company that drew on the best talent in Europe and the United States to design furniture, textiles, and graphics.

The worlds of modern architecture, furniture, and interior design were not the only beneficiaries of the Cranbrook Academy. Booth’s interest in traditional craftsmanship remained a steady influence on study and practice at Cranbrook. Although the Cranbrook Press, which he founded in 1900, was a short-lived experiment, his efforts on behalf of metalworking, textiles, and ceramics continue to be central to Cranbrook’s importance as an American educational institution. In the early twenty-first century, Cranbrook is one of the few U.S. institutions to offer instruction in fine metalworking in an educational environment. Eliel Saarinen was very active in metalworking, and a number of his designs grace the Cranbrook campus. Harry Bertoia Bertoia, Harry revived the metal shop in the late 1930’s, first as a student and then as an instructor, and his work there in jewelry, precious and nonprecious metals, and sculpture was a remarkable mixture of technique and technology. After World War II, Richard Thomas began the first teaching department in metalwork at Cranbrook.

Cranbrook’s contributions to the crafts of textiles and ceramics also began in the 1920’s. In the early years, Eliel Saarinen’s wife, Loja, established her weaving studio at Cranbrook, and a weaving department and shops soon followed. Many of the carpets, curtains, wall hangings, and decorative textiles for community buildings were produced under Loja Saarinen’s Saarinen, Loja supervision. The best known of Cranbrook’s textiles students is, no doubt, Jack Lenor Larsen, Larsen, Jack Lenor a practicing weaver whose international corporation gained fame in the mid-twentieth century for mass-produced fabrics with handwoven characteristics.

Booth intended that ceramics be one of the first arts taught at Cranbrook, although the ceramics department was small and undistinguished until the late 1930’s, when Maija Grotell Grotell, Maija joined the faculty. Under her guidance, the department became a center of individual creative activity at Cranbrook, and Grotell’s students have made significant contributions to modern American ceramics.

In attempting to create a community that illustrated the positive relationship between aesthetics and social life, George Booth laid a foundation for the transformation of education and production. Such a spirit characterized the modernist agenda of the twentieth century, and it remains at the heart of Cranbrook’s impact on American design. Despite the passage of time and changes in technology, society, and aesthetics, this spirit continues to influence the work of the graduates, faculty, and students of the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Cranbrook Academy of Art
Design movements;Cranbrook Academy of Art
Architecture;Cranbrook Academy of Art
Interior design;Cranbrook Academy of Art
Furniture design;Cranbrook Academy of Art

Further Reading

  • Becker, Howard. “Arts and Crafts.” American Journal of Sociology 83 (January, 1978): 862-868. An information-packed introduction to the crafts revival movement by an insightful sociologist of art.
  • Clark, Robert Judson, et al. Design in America: The Cranbrook Vision, 1925-1950. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983. Profuse and beautiful illustrations characterize this excellent volume of essays, which served as the catalog for an exhibition organized by the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts. Includes biographies of artists, chronology, notes, and index.

  • Design Quarterly 98 (1975). Special issue titled “Nelson/Eames/Gerard/Propst: The Design Process at Herman Miller” discusses the work of four important American designers. Excellent introduction to postwar American design. Well illustrated.
  • Kaplan, Wendy.“The Art That Is Life”: The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1875-1920. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987. Well-illustrated, articulate catalog, with fine introductory essays, created to accompany an exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Includes index.
  • Lecuyer, Annette. “Cranbrook Continuum.” Architectural Review, November, 1997, 76-77. Article focuses on architectural and other design projects completed at the Cranbrook Academy from the late 1980’s to 1997, connecting this work to the institution’s tradition of excellence.
  • Noyes, Eliot F. Organic Design in Home Furnishings. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1941. Monograph designed to accompany an exhibit illustrates various entries and winners. Includes black-and-white photographs.
  • Sparke, Penny. An Introduction to Design and Culture: 1900 to the Present. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2004. History of the development of modern design includes discussion of the work of many people associated with the Cranbrook Academy. Features illustrations, bibliography, and index.

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