Houseplans Blog

Interior Design Ideas from the Saarinen House at Cranbrook

Interior Design Ideas from the Saarinen House at Cranbrook
Combining Arts & Crafts and Art Deco influences, the fireplace,
Cranbrook Shines a Light on Integrated Design

If you are like most people, your tastes aren’t confined to a single design style, especially not today with so much diverse décor within such easy reach. The issue for anyone with even mildly ecectic taste becomes how to tie a sometimes eclectic collection of furniture, art, and interior finishes into a seamless scheme.

A great place to look for inspiration, and practical tips, is Eliel and Loja Saarinen’s House and Garden at the Cranbrook Academy in suburban Detroit. Finnish immigrants, the Saarinens were both designers. They loved the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Deco styles, but they appreciated traditional forms and materials. They collected art and designed textiles. And they managed to wrap up their sensibilities into a delightful whole.

Eliel Saarinen, who left Finland after having designed the very sculptural and emblematic Helsinki railroad terminal of 1919, taught architecture at Cranbrook and designed much of the campus. He believed that each design element of the house, starting from the city plan and reaching all the way down to silverware pattern, should work in harmony. That may be why his home looks as fresh today as it did when he and his wife lived there from 1930-1950. It's also where the Saarinen's son Eero lived during his college years, and must have influenced Eero's later career as the architect of the St. Louis Arch and Dulles Airport.

One technique worth emulating is to repeat colors and patterns on furniture, floor coverings, and 

fixtures, even if they are from different eras. The best example of this may be the dining room. The room is actually a square, but the Saarinens turned it into an octagon by adding four corner niches. 

Then they repeated the octagonal pattern in a square rug (which has a design that resembles snow drifts outside), a round ceiling dome, the light fixture, and the dining table. Saarinen designed leaves for the table that pull up from the outside so that the table would still be round even if enlarged.

Bursts of coordinated color punctuate the room. The bright red – the Saarinens called it Chinese red – in the rounded wall niches might appear garish except that the color is echoed in the curtains and upholstery. It’s balanced by the complementary honey gold in the dining room table and gold-leaf dome and a blue carpet.

Curtains separate a very practical entry vestibule. There’s enough room here to wipe off the snow, hang your coat, use the bathroom, and even check your appearance in a recessed mirror. Once you pass through the curtains, the resplendent design of the house comes into full view. It’s a great example of creating sight lines to make a home appear larger and more dramatic.

The living room, to the right (and shown at the top of this post) is filled with furniture hand made at Cranbook from Saarinen’s designs, that is, hand-made in the tradition of the Arts and Crafts movement. But the exotic woods used to produce them  – greenheart, African walnut, rosewood, and ebony – are more characteristic of Art Deco. A long rug designed by Loja, deliberately placed off-center, draws your eye to the fireplace designed by Eilel and a wall hanging. The rug echoes patterns in the exterior brickwork, upholstery, and bookshelves in the study beyond.

The Saarinens spent most of their time in the studio. They worked at drafting tables in the middle of the room

so that they could enjoy prized natural light streaming through large windows on two sides. The drafting tables could be pushed aside to accommodate large parties. Guests and family could retire for conversation

to a cozy corner with built in seating. The Saarinens served martinis late in the day from a portable bar buffet.
 Saarinen is considered a transitional figure in architecture, which is very evident in the studio. Though his roots were in modern architecture and the Arts and Crafts movement, he drew from tradition for the columns and vaulted forms. He adorned them with contemporary details to pleasing effect.

The master bedroom is a more utilitarian space. But it's notable for its lack of furniture and clutter. Wall

panels hide an extensive built-in shelving system. It's not immediately clear which panel hides the door to the master bathroom. shelves and cabinets don’t detract from the straight lines of the master bedroom. The symmetrical master bathroom, detailed with squares and rectangles, is like a geometry lesson. Black lines punctuate the square pattern of floor-to-ceiling tiles, off-white and gunmetal gray.

The faucets are built into the backsplash and the tap is built into the sink basin so nothing clutters the counter. The Saarinens designed towels that pick up on patterns in the room.

From the street, the Saarinen house, one of several brick town homes on the block, doesn’t stand out. In fact, at first blush, all the homes look the same. But closer inspection reveals that each home has subtly different brick, window, and door patterns, done with varying triangles, squares, and rectangles. Geometric patterns on the homes -- triangles, squares, and rectangles -- are repeated in the landscaping and outbuildings, another technique that anyone could use.

Boyce Thompson is the author of The New New House from Taunton. 
[Photos in this post are by Boyce.]

Interior Design Ideas from the Saarinen House at Cranbrook Inspiration

All Article Tags