Art Deco rugs by Loja Saarinen in rare display

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

The Saarinens of Cranbrook were an almost absurdly talented artistic family.

All four -- parents Eliel and Loja, and children Pipsan and Eero -- collaborated on the design of the three remarkable, interlocking academic campuses in Bloomfield Hills. 

A handsome show currently at Saarinen House, "Studio Loja Saarinen: The Art and Architecture of Weaving, 1928-1942," casts a long-overdue spotlight on the rugs, wall hangings and other textiles produced under Loja's direction, many of which graced the halls of what was once called the Kingswood School for Girls.

A 1936 Cranbrook loom frames "Cranbrook Rug No. 1," Studio Loja Saarinen's first creation.

Most who know about Loja, who died in 1968, think of her as an immensely talented weaver. But that's not precisely the case.  

"Studio Loja Saarinen" is displayed in what once was Eliel Saarinen's presentation studio in Cranbrook's Saarinen House.

"Loja actually studied sculpture in Finland and in Paris," said Kevin Adkisson, the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research curatorial associate who organized the show. "But she was never a professional weaver herself, though she was involved in lots of textile arts, including dyeing and embroidering."

"Studio Loja Saarinen" features six large weavings, most of which haven't been seen in decades, and an array of period photographs that evoke the heady early days at Cranbrook.

In reality, Loja was a skilled businesswoman who founded the textile studio on campus that bore her name. Studio Loja Saarinen didn't just create for Eliel's academic buildings. It also produced works for Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Eames, and upscale retail outlets in New York City.

Loja Saarinen shows husband Eliel, the architect who built Cranbrook, a cartoon of her tapestry Sermon on the Mount, in 1941.

A number of studio pieces were also exhibited in the 1934 Museum of Modern Art show, "Contemporary American Industrial Design." 

"Loja founded and managed the studio," said Adkisson. "She ran the budget, got the clients, made sure commissions were delivered on time, marketed her studio as well as Cranbrook, and exhibited widely at museums and world's fairs."

Through Dec. 1, the exhibit will form part of regularly scheduled Saarinen House tours, which take about 90 minutes to go through the house, a Michigan design treasure, as well as the Loja show in the adjacent studio architect Eliel used for client presentations. 

This exhibition features six weavings -- rugs and wall hangings -- that for the most part haven't been seen in decades. Included among them are the 1931 Kingswood Library Rug, which was taken out, rolled up and put in storage in 1980. 

Of the many Studio Loja Saarinen textiles at Kingswood, the only one that remains at the school is the 1932 "Festival of the May Queen" in the upper dining hall. 

The Library Rug gives some sense of the scale of the studio's projects. Adkisson said, "It probably took three or four weavers 95 days to complete, and contained 102 pounds of wool and linen yarn."

The rug cost Cranbrook $1,050.86 -- or almost $17,000 today.

The Cranbrook "Rooftops Rug" produced by Studio Loja Saarinen.

Other dazzling pieces include what's commonly called the 1928 "Cranbrook Rug No. 1," a lush, crimson work of art that was the studio's first creation. It hangs in front of a 1936 Cranbrook loom -- which your tour guide will operate in a brief demonstration. 

Loja's masterstroke as studio director was to lure Maja Andersson Wirde, famous for her rugs in Stockholm's 1915 City Hall, from Sweden to Cranbrook. Wirde, in her turn, convinced a considerable number of other talented weavers to join her in Michigan. 

The designs for the rugs and tapestries, Adkisson says, came from Eliel, Loja or Wirde, though the latter's role has been obscured up till now. 

"This exhibit reclaims Wirde into the Cranbrook story," he said, "even though she was only here four years." Alas for Cranbrook and the studio, under financial pressure in 1933, George G. Booth, the Detroit News publisher who founded the educational institutions, laid off 100 employees, including Wirde. 

Almost everything that came out of the studio was art deco in style, much like Saarinen House itself. But according to Adkisson, you can usually distinguish Loja's designs from Wirde's.

"Loja's own designs are more architectural," he said, noting that her Exhibition Rug, which carpets the floor of the exhibition, "looks like the pavings around her husband's buildings.

"Or," Adkisson added with a smile, suggesting the creative interplay that characterized Loja and Eliel's relationship, "her husband's pavings look like her rugs -- which could also be the case." 

A portrait of Loja Saarinen.

'Studio Loja Saarinen: The Art and Architecture of Weaving, 1928-1942'

Through Dec. 1

Saarinen House, 39221 Woodward, Bloomfield Hills 

Tours start at front desk of Cranbrook Art Museum

2 p.m. Fri. & Sat; 1 p.m. & 3 p.m. Sun. 

$15 - adults; $13 - seniors 65 and up; $11 - students with I.D; museum members enter free 

Reservations recommended: Call (248) 645-3307 or email 

For more discussion of art matters in Cranbrook's history, visit:   

(313) 222-6021 

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy