The Cranbrook Art Museum at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, the Eero and Eliel Saarinen-designed Bloomfield Hills, Michigan institution that fostered the talents of Charles Eames, Nick Cave, Florence Knoll, and various other luminaries of art and design, returned from its two-year, $22 million renovation on November 11, 2011 (for 11 hours that day, just for good measure). Freshly reinvigorated from its subtle facelift, it reopened with “No Object Is an Island: New Dialogues With the Cranbrook Collection,” an exhibition of 50 contemporary works that respond to 50 of the museum’s most celebrated pieces from its permanent collection.
While most museums would see this as an opportunity to “roll out their 100 greatest hits,” as curator Greg Wittkopp stated, Cranbrook instead decided to reinforce its relevance by connecting its permanent collection with works by living contemporary artists, juxtaposed against one another to raise thought-provoking questions. In one instance, Maarten Baas’s 2009 "When There’s Smoke" chair (an utter adulteration of Marc Newson's 1992 "Wooden Chair") charred with a blowtorch until it turned black — is positioned next to a more traditional collaboration between Eero Saarinen and Eames — the "Organic Chair" they crafted together for MoMA in 1938. The pairing is displayed under the question, “Is appropriation also collaboration?”
“Marten Baas, if you were to talk to him, he would say 'I absolutely revere Marc Newson's 'Wooden Chair,' and me doing this is a way that I can internalize it and in part really learn from it',” Wittkopp told ARTINFO. “I don’t know if Marc Newson would feel the same way about it. Seeing a true collaboration and then this collaboration asks you to just think what the nature of collaboration is all about.”
The pair is grouped under “Process,” one of five thematic sections — along with “Craft,” “Comfort,” “Resistance,” and “Fiction” — used to give the show a chronological path, each highlighting a distinct period of innovation throughout Cranbrook’s history. Under “Craft,” Cave created “Tree Soundsuit” specifically for this show in direct response to a 1917 embroidered bed hanging by early 20th-century craft pioneer May Morris, purchased and used by Cranbrook founder George Booth. Directly referencing the tapestry’s woodland imagery of wildlife and flowers, Cave found its 3-D counterparts to compose a similar scene in his signature medium.
“This was an instance where we invited Nick to be a part of the show and he knew this piece,” Witkopp told us. “You just have to look at the two pairings and you realize what a kinship he would have for that particular work.” This set of designs raises the question, “How do the birds and the bees evoke our desires?”
Most designs fall under “Comfort,” a nod to Cranbrook’s influential role on the pioneers of mid-century modernism. Ceramicist and Cranbrook artist-in-residence Anders Ruhwald crafted a lamp made to look as if it were melting down the side of Eero Saarinen’s 1929 sideboard, asking, “Can a gesture be both reverent and transgressive?” Two chairs by Cranbrook graduate and ergonomics pioneer Niels Diffrient, one 1982 design that was one of the earliest chairs designed for computer use, and another computer chair designed in 2011, poses the query, “Are the standards of comfort timeless?”
Like the exhibition, the museum’s renovation is a connection to the past and present in itself. Along with a 20,000-square-foot storage unit where visitors can actually view the full collection not on exhibition, the museum made major upgrades to the 1942 building, like air conditioning and moisture control. Despite the renovations, very little of the building itself was changed. Eero Saarinen, famously infatuated with technology, left plenty of room within the walls to add these technological elements without having to change his designs, as if he foresaw the needs of the building changing with technological advances as time progressed. As the exhibition demonstrates, his creativity is a legacy that remains relevant well into the present, and onward into the future.
"No Object is an Island" is on view through March 25.