By Rebecca Price
Architecture, Urban Planning & Visual Resources Librarian
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Maybe it was the turn of the millennium, maybe it’s seeing landmarks of the 20th century fade and decay, or maybe it’s the communal nostalgia of thousands of baby-boomers; but whatever the cause, the last decade has brought with it a deliberate look back at the early years of modern design in Michigan. Although perhaps best known for automobiles and breakfast cereal, Michigan was a breeding ground of furniture, product, and architectural design throughout the mid-century modern period.
General Motors Technical Center; Eero Saarinen;
Warren, Michigan; 1949-1953. Photo by Edward Olencki, 1962.
Post-war manufacturing and the coincident economic boom brought designers and architects to the state. The Cranbrook Academy of Art, founded in 1926, was by the late 1930s attracting many notable international designers to teach including Eliel Saarinen, Florence Knoll, Carl Milles, and Charles Eames. Other architects came to teach at the University of Michigan College of Architecture or had offices in the Detroit area and still others took on corporate and residential commissions across the state resulting in works by Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marcel Breuer, Erich Mendolsohn, and Minoru Yamasaki. Furniture and design companies such as Herman Miller and Steelcase, based in western Michigan, drew many designers to their ranks, including architect George Nelson, and produced such notable works as the marshmallow sofa, the Noguchi table, and the Eames Lounge Chair (and perhaps less desirably, the cubicle or Action Office, offering flexibility and an improvement on earlier office environments).
Interest in this period was substantiated by a Preserve America grant awarded in 2008 by the National Park Service to the State Historic Preservation Office. The award spawned Michigan Modern, whose aim is “to document and promote Michigan’s architectural and design heritage from 1940-1970” (though they soon learned that those dates were too limiting and the focus has broadened to include earlier contributions).
Michigan Consolidated Gas Company; Minoru Yamasaki;
Detroit; 1963. Photo by Edward Olencki, 1963.
Michigan Modern has an informative website rich with information about architects and designers who practiced or produced work in Michigan in the years just before WWII and up to the 1970s. Visitors to the site can browse or search for designers and their work and will see photographs, as well as archival and bibliographic citations to guide them further in their research. One can also download or print beautifully produced walking, biking, or driving tour guides of mid-century modern architecture in various cities in Michigan.
Michigan Modern generates an annual exhibition and symposium called Michigan Modern: Design that Shaped America. This year the symposium will be held at the Kendall College of Art & Design in Grand Rapids from June 19-21.
This statewide initiative is echoed by local groups, which focus their attention on mid-century modernism in their communities. An example of this is A2modern based in Ann Arbor. The group of homeowners, architects, and enthusiasts advocates for the awareness and appreciation of modern architecture in our midst. Their website is becoming a place to document and showcase modernist architecture in the area and their outreach efforts include hosting tours and lectures for the community.
Images are from the University of Michigan Art, Architecture & Engineering Library Digital Image Collection. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.