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The Cranbrook Academy of Art educated a generation of American designers.
Inside the Cranbrook - the school that revolutionized modern furniture design

The School that Changed Furniture

A Michigan art school taught our most iconic designers.

12 17 19

Kate Connors

The Saarinen family at a tulip table and chairs

Charles and Ray Eames.

Florence Knoll at work.

Bertoia chairs, designed by Harry Bertoia.

The Cranbrook Academy of Art is not what you’d expect. Tucked in a leafy suburb of Detroit, the school is both museum and training facility for generations of architects, artists, and designers.

Conceived by George Booth as a center of artistic education in 1926, the school served as laboratory and incubator for designers who would challenge the status quo and cement Michigan as the epicenter of modern furniture in the United States.

The influence of Cranbrook is clear for those in the know. Simply googling “Mid-Century Modern Furniture” results in a long list of pieces associated with the school. But five alumni stand out as leaders of a post-war furniture revolution that replaced staid, traditional designs with bold, affordable, and modern pieces.

 

Eero Saarinen

Saarinen’s father Eliel was dean at Cranbrook, so Eero not only attended the institution as a student but grew up on the campus. While the elder Saarinen is famous for his tranquil designs that meld traditional and art deco style, Eero’s work is emblematic of the space age.

Along with architectural achievements like the St. Louis Gateway Arch, he is particularly famous for his pedestal collection of ‘Tulip’ chairs and tables. Aiming to rid the dining experience of the disruptive “slum of legs”, the Tulip chairs were designed to appear as a single piece of curvaceous fiberglass.

 

Charles & Ray Eames

Without Cranbrook, the legendary Eames design partnership wouldn’t exist. The couple met at Cranbrook, and it was at the school that they began experimenting with molded plywood (Eero Saarinen was an early collaborator, too).

Their work at Cranbrook was stalled by the war, but a plywood splint designed by the pair for wounded soldiers was a foundation for much of their later output. They emphasized function in their designs; believing “what works good is better than what looks good because what works good lasts.” Today, the molded Eames Chair is a coveted piece of furniture history.

 

Florence Knoll

Each of the aforementioned Cranbrook designers partially owe their success to Florence Knoll, who studied at Cranbrook as a boarding student and became close with the Saarinen family.

In 1934, Knoll enrolled in the architecture course at the academy, and entered into a furniture studio in 1936 where she collaborated with Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames. After finishing school, Knoll was a practicing interior designer who emphasized functional layouts and modern aesthetics. With her husband, she founded Knoll Associates, which famously worked in partnership with leading designers to bring modern furniture to market.

With her business sense and strategic vision, the Eames’, Harry Bertoia, and Eero Saarinen became household names in the post war era. Her signature “Knoll Look” revolutionized American offices, bringing cutting-edge design to spaces that had long been dominated by faux European antiques.

 

Harry Bertoia

Bertoia came to Cranbrook in 1937 as a jeweler and sculptor. His work centered around metals, and so when he dipped a toe in the world of furniture design it was only natural that he would design pieces from wire. The famous diamond-shaped Bertoia chair used welded wires to form a molded seat. Bertoia considered furniture an extension of his sculpture practice, writing of his seating, “If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them." The chairs were a huge hit, and their success allowed Bertoia to devote himself almost entirely to sculpture in the mid-1950s.

 

1. Header Image: A studio at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Image via the Cranbrook Foundation. / 2. Saarinen and his family at a tulip table. Image via Knoll. / 3. Ray and Charles Eames. Image via the Eames Foundation.. /
4. Florence Knoll. Image via Knoll. / 5. The famous Bertoia chairs.

A writer built a dream home that's perfectly suited to his collection of art, books, and music.
Front porch with slatted wooden sunscreens, hammocks, modern deck chairs, and table

Alejandro Puyana’s Bold Austin Home

The writer built his own modern sanctuary.

12 17 19

Kate Connors

Floyd leg table with buckets seats in home office

living room with library wall and low mid century style leather couch

Modern open kitchen with greens, blues, and grays

Vespa, bike rack and screen print collection in hall

 

1. Header image: A slatted facade helps to mitigate the hot Texas sun. / 2. Puyana often writes from home. / 3. Looking into the living space from the kitchen. Custom built-ins house Puyana's extensive book collection. / 4. A sleek kitchen is built for entertaining. / 5. Map drawers house more of Puyana's screen print collection (that didn't make it onto the walls).

One glance at Alejandro Puyana’s home reveals its owner’s creative nature. The writer, originally from Venezuela, built the bold East Austin house from the ground up.

The exterior is certainly distinctive, with elegant vertical slats and an angular facade. But the interior is where Alejandro’s personality really shines — his sharp eye for color and form evident at every turn. The small space houses large collections of books and art, but feels impressively airy.

We asked Alejandro about his space and learned how the author showcases his pop culture obsession without sacrificing style.

Give us an intro!

My name is Alejandro Puyana, I’m a 38 year old house builder and writer in Austin, currently getting an MFA at the Michener Center for Writers. I live here with my cat, Logan.

Where do you live? What should we know about your home?

My home is in the East Side, in Austin, Texas. It’s a brand new home! I designed it with architect Murray Legge and then finished building it about a year ago. I built it on a corner lot with a sister home, a 900 SF accessory dwelling unit that I sold to my very nice neighbors. It’s a modern house, designed to be in scale with homes on the street and to fit with the East Side’s funky neighborhood character.

Did you fall in love with your home the first time you saw it?

Yes! I guess it’s more apt to say that I fell in love with it as it came to life. I’ve spent hours and hours thinking about this house, been in its bones while it was coming up and I’d like to think we are both learning to live with each other now.

Were you worried about anything in the space, before living there?

Yes! It’s a small living room/dining room/kitchen. I didn’t quite know if I’d be able to figure out a way to make it feel right and look right and still have definition of spaces. I feel it worked out really well and it suits me perfectly.

What room do you use the most? Did it surprise you?

The kitchen, office, living room and dining room (and when the sliding doors are open, the deck!) are all one big room full of light. I always thought it would be the place I’d spent the most time, and I’m glad it turned out to be true.


Bedroom with Floyd platform bed
modern open plan kitchen with credenza/small buffet table
Front porch with two comfortable modern patio chairs
bold color in the bathroom
Shaded kitchen and living room off the porch

1. The bedroom opens onto the patio, where Alejandro's favorite hammock hangs. / 2. The credenza is a recent find. / 3. A balcony runs the length of the home. / 4. The shady outdoor space overlooks Alejandro's favorite pecan trees. / 5. The home's unified color scheme extends to the master bath.


What are some of your favorite sources of inspiration for your space?

Color, plants, books, movies. I wanted a place where people would feel happy to engage in conversation and feel surrounded by things that they want to spend time with.

How would you describe your interior style? Has it evolved over the years?

I would say eclectic but clean. I like color and texture and angles. I’ve been a pop culture enthusiast since I was a kid: comic books, science fiction movies, and so many books—and that aesthetic really centers my style. I don’t think there’s anything that brings a house to life more than books and plants, so I’ve got them scattered around the house.
The most beautiful wall in my house is the library (designed by Trey Farmer and Adrienne Lee Farmer of Studio Ferme), I usually just sit and look at book spines, remembering what a particular book made me feel, or just look at the colors and shapes, it relaxes me. I also collect screen prints, both alternative movie posters (from galleries like Mondo, Spoke Art, and Bottleneck) and art prints, and my house is full of them (some on the walls and some waiting to be framed in the flat file cabinet!).

How did you go about furnishing the space? Was it a start-from-scratch process, or did you bring old favorites along with you?

I pretty much started from scratch. I really wanted to have pieces that could stand the test of time, that were practical and beautiful without being too frilly or ornate.
I gravitated to modern American design, companies like Floyd and Bludot, and really took advantage of floor sales that allowed me to afford some pieces otherwise out of my price range. The two old favorites I brought were Venezuelan hammocks that at some point hung in my home in Caracas.

Do you have any favorite pieces? What’s their story?

My yellow hammock, for sure is a favorite. You have not truly read a book until you’ve done so swaying in threaded fabric! I’m currently in love with my Lap Credenza, which I use as a bar, one of those floor sale finds that cost me a fraction of what the piece is actually worth. And finally, every time I see the handsome angles of my Floyd table I swoon a little.

What's the one thing you’d rescue in a fire? (Other than family & pets, of course).

A pen drive with my novel manuscript. I get anxious just even thinking about the possibility of losing that.

What makes you feel most at home when you walk in the door?

My cat, Logan, and walking up the stairs and feeling like I’m in a canopy of pecan trees.

 

What’s a favorite memory you have in your home?

Every time I’m able to sit at my desk and look out the huge window and write. Like I’m doing right now! But also the prospect of all the other memories that are yet to be made, can’t wait for those.

The Brooklyn couple on designing a space that reflects both of their personalities.
Two people cooking in light and airy but small kitchen with white shelves and tile

Liron & Gal’s Colorful Loft in Brooklyn

A couple maximizes the lightness & brightness of their airy loft.

12 17 19

Kate Connors

A street in their East Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Their loft building with huge windows

Sitting at white and pink dining room table with plants

Their birchwood Floyd panel bed and headboard

 

1. Header image: Liron & Gal love to cook at home. / 2. East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. / 3. Their apartment has huge windows overlooking the neighborhood. / 4. The couple have lived together for ten years. / 5. A Floyd Bed underneath a newly acquired "La Pantera" print by Enzo Mari.

 

New Yorkers aren’t typically associated with a taste for exuberant color. But for Liron Eldar-Ashkenazi & Gal Eldar, bold shades are a starting point. The creative couple converted an industrial-style apartment in Brooklyn into a modern space with big, colorful impact.

Inside, an enviable plant collection thrives under massive windows, while modern furniture mixes perfectly with design classics. We spoke to Liron and Gal about their space and how it’s an extension of their graphic, bright design style.

Give us an intro! What should we know about you?

We’re Liron Eldar-Ashkenazi & Gal Eldar. I’m a freelance design director and 3D artist and Gal is a senior product manager at a fin-tech company. We’ve been married for a little over 3 years and have been living together for around 10.

Can you tell us a bit about your home?

We live in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY in a medium size multi-family building. It’s a renovated post-war building with concrete ceilings and a generally open floorplan.

Did you fall in love with the space the first time you saw it?

We did indeed. We walked in and saw the large wall-to-wall windows, and how lit the apartment was at around 5 pm, it was the golden hour and the house was glowing. We decided right there and then.

Were you worried about anything in the space, before living there?

We were afraid it wasn’t going to be big enough to fit everything, but after we started putting in the furniture we were relieved to find out it was just an optical illusion and it is indeed spacious enough.

What room do you use the most? Did it surprise you?

Living-room kitchen combo and the fact that it’s all in one large space so light-filled is the great part about it. We love cooking and entertaining so it didn’t come as a surprise at all.


Living room with Floyd sofa with chaise & mid century coffee table
Open shelving in kitchen for East Fork pottery dishes and cups
Dining and living room combo furniture
mid century modern natural wood cosole
Small circle bedside table with light & floyd platform bed with headboard

1. The yellow sofa is a favorite piece. / 2. The open kitchen lends itself to creative cooking. / 3. Workspace and living space. / 4. Liron & Gal want to continue collecting art for their home. / 5. They'd rescue their book collection in a fire. / 6. Lighting sets a warm mood.


How would you describe your interior style? Has it evolved over the years?

We always loved cozy living spaces, calming colors and natural textures such as concrete and wood. Our last sofa was velvet grass-green, then we switched to our lovely yellow Floyd sofa, and our dining-room table has a light pink top.

Our apartment is filled with plants, they contribute a lot of bright colors and more natural textures. We have many types of woods, some are darker some light, but they all seem to work nicely together. We’re dedicated to filling our lives with bold colors.

What are some of your favorite sources of inspiration for your space?

Hominess and coziness. We love creating spaces that feel warm and invite you to spend time in them, so the feeling we get from being in the space is our guiding principle. Looks are important, but balance and feng shui is key.

Did you furnish the home from scratch, or did you bring in pieces you loved from previous spaces?

We brought a selection of furniture from our previous apartment, most of our dark wood furniture for example, but for the big pieces, Sofa, dining-room, and bed we got all new. Putting the time and the money to make it just like we dreamed really paid off.

What's the one thing you’d rescue in a fire? (Other than family & pets, of course).

Our book library, we’ve been collecting it slowly for years now, it’s a really nice combination of philosophy, science and design.

Is there anything you think the space needs that you haven't yet added?

More art on the walls. We have a really hard time committing to pieces, but we’ve slowly been creating our collection.

What makes you feel most at home when you walk in the door?

The smell. We cook a lot and our home usually has that light aroma.

Is there anything you can’t feel at home without?

Gal - All of my books. Liron - All of my clothes, haha!

Shop The Sofa.

Tour the famous Van der Leeuw research house.
Built-in couch and low bookcases with modernist kidney-shaped coffee table

Inside Neutra's Living Laboratory

Richard Neutra's Van der Leeuw research house was a living experiment in sustainable building.

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Kate Connors

The exterior of the the mid century mod home in California

Glass walls open up to a small private room

a serene courtyard nook with comfortable patio chairs

View of the deck and garden from behind the glass walls

Ten thousand dollars doesn’t go very far in Los Angeles these days. But in 1932, it was a $10,000 loan from Dutch industrialist Cees H. Van der Leeuw that allowed the renowned architect Richard Neutra to build a home that would become a jewel of California Modernism.

Although the original home burned to the ground in 1963, leaving only the workshop and basement intact, Neutra and his son Dion rebuilt and used the tragedy as an opportunity to incorporate new technology into the structure.

Designing from the Ruins

They added a penthouse solarium and reflecting pool, and experimented with bio-responsive, sustainable features, like automatic louvered blinds that adjusted to the day’s changing sunlight. The result is a home that moves beyond a singular architectural vision, instead embodying a progression of technique and style that spans decades and generations.

Attention to Deatil for a Highly Efficient & Functional Space

Inside the home, the notoriously detail-oriented Neutra paid equal attention to the minutiae of furnishing. He used low-cost and durable materials, including plywood and formica to fit built-ins designed for functional daily use. Other furniture was chosen (or made) by the architect for durability in high-traffic settings or efficient use of space.

Glass walls, reflective surfaces, and an open floor plan make the home feel more spacious than its 2000 square feet. Even so, the space fosters a sense of privacy despite its airy feel.

Building Privacy

Neutra wrote, "I was convinced that high-density design could succeed in a fully human way, and I saw my new house as a concrete pilot project. I wanted to demonstrate that human beings, brought together in close proximity, can be accommodated in very satisfying circumstances, taking in that precious amenity called privacy.”

The VDL Research House Today

Today, the VDL Research House is owned by Cal Poly Pomona, and is once again home to architects and students, who now study Neutra’s masterpiece and use the space as inspiration for their own work.

Nearly ninety years after its construction, and almost sixty after its rebirth, the home still shines in the California sun. It’s easy to imagine Neutra, whose ashes were scattered on the property after his death in 1970, feeling satisfied that his architectural experiment inspired as he intended. On a plaque in the courtyard, Neutra’s words set out his intention for each visitor: “...man’s survival depends on his design.”

Learn more about the VDL Research House and plan a visit.

Neutra sitting outside house next to reflecting pool

 

1. Header image: the sitting room at Neutra's Van der Leeuw Research House. / 2. The home is perched just above the Silver Lake Reservoir. Image via the Richard and Dion Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design. / 3. Small interior spaces open outward. / 4. Outdoor space furnished with boomerang chairs, designed by Neutra. / 5. The view invites the outdoors in. / 6. Neutra on his rooftop, overlooking one of three reflecting pools on the property. Image via the Richard and Dion Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design.

Connie Matisse on building a slow business in a digital world.
Connie Matisse leaning on wood dining table with her bowls and flower pots

The Width of a Mouse's Ear

Connie Matisse on Slow Design in a Digital World

12 17 19

Kate Connors

You’ve seen the mugs on your Instagram feed. East Fork Pottery’s earthy dishware has brought traditional craftsmanship into the social media age. Founded in 2010 by Alex & Connie Matisse, the last decade has seen the brand transform from a local Asheville favorite into a studio with two retail stores and its own 30,000 square foot office and manufacturing facility.

East Fork’s appeal is tangible. Each piece of pottery is heavy, glazed in the sort of colors you’d find in the Blue Ridge Mountains that surround its headquarters. Smooth curves and edges are modern but have a sense of timelessness. Thoughtful work is East Fork’s calling card (and its Instagram bio).

We spoke with Connie about slow design, bringing a traditional craft to the e-commerce world, and how she finds inspiration in the everyday.

Does East Fork have an overarching design philosophy?

Slow and steady. Our work is fundamentally rooted in a long-standing tradition of functional folk pottery. In this tradition, the student replicates a form in the master's line thousands of times over.

An 8 ounce, low-slung bowl, for instance, over and over and over again. And from that run of hundreds or thousands, there may be a handful that are just right. Where each curve is in a comprehensive conversation with every other. Slowly, the master might bring a rim half a centimeter up, or widen a foot by the width of a mouse's ear. This is how we approach design at East Fork.

I'm gonna go ahead and quote my business partner, John Vigeland, since I can't explain it any better than he can. He talks about back when we were making pots in the wood kiln and selling at craft fairs.

He says, "The quality and price of a pot was based solely on the maker's own intuitive judgment. And that judgement was informed by the inter-generational striving of Potter and Apprentice, going deep into human history and drawing on lofty abstract notions of beauty. Bigger storage pots (10 gallons and up) were meant to have a “commanding and majestic presence, occupying space the way a lone oak in full leaf dominates a meadow, … the same sense of volume and internal resonances as the nave of a Romanesque cathedral”.

Pots were understood to have “skeletons” and “flesh” and the right balance thereof. Certain styles of mugs needed to have expectant bellies. A good platter would emulate the fullness of the moon.

Our work is informed by that design sensibility. The rims of our plates should exhibit a generous but taut curve and a graceful quality of touch left by the person who trimmed and finished the piece. The low-slung profile of our footed bowls should give the appearance of being at rest the way well-worn river rocks do. The handles of our mugs should move with the fluidity of good calligraphy.

Our pots shouldn’t ever exhibit any ‘meanness’ like scuffed bottoms, or rough debris around handle attachments, sharp rims or glaze flaws, but rather should resonate with the loving care of a freshly-swept floor.

So much has changed since we started this business, of course, but our rubric for a pot’s goodness has stayed steady at its core—our work should be beautiful and functional. It should be made for daily, life-long use.

Cups, mugs, and dishes on 6-tier open shelves for kitchen

"Pots were understood to have “skeletons” and “flesh” and the right balance thereof. Certain styles of mugs needed to have expectant bellies. A good platter would emulate the fullness of the moon."

Do you pay attention to trends when you design new pieces?

We really don't. I don't mean that in a pretentious way. I love trendy stuff. But our colors take 6-9 months to develop and another 3 months to build inventory for, so I have to think about color palette at least a year and a half prior to launch. If a color is already trending, I've missed the boat. I like that this pushes us to release colors that we love for reasons 100% other than that we think they might be popular at the time of release.

I'm also just in the weeds all the time (working on it) and lately I haven't been reading, surfing the Internet, or doing anything that might make me have a better understanding of what's happening out there. I don't think this is a positive!! I'd love to have my on the pulse finger better. But not paying attention to trends has been a by-product of my tunnel vision. It has its pros and cons.

East Fork makes such high quality pieces. They’re weighty and solid, and feel like they’ll last forever. But how do you educate your customers on the way handcrafted pottery is worth the extra expense? (This is something we wrestle with at Floyd, too!)

We kinda hate that our pots cost as much as they do. In our ten year vision, we have several lines of thoughtfully produced pottery at several price points. Alas, right now, we sell the pots for the price it costs for us to make them, or thereabouts.

I don't have to tell y'all that it costs a lot of money to make and sell something without exploiting a bunch of people and the environment in your wake. And so we spend so much time on community education.

We see a lot of companies trying to use the concept of transparency as a marketing and brand-building tool, and it falls so flat for us. We want to use transparency as a method of radically reorienting how business owners run their companies and relate to their communities.

It's not enough to just make your information available to your customers. You have to make it available, accessible, and then actively invite your community to engage in a conversation about that information. We do that a lot at East Fork and we find that it's a great tool for educating our consumer on why it's important to prioritize purchasing well-made objects from trustworthy manufacturers if you have the means.

What do you think is most important to successfully bridge the gap between a traditional craft and the fast-paced e-commerce world?

Being a traditional craft company interacting with the fast-paced d2c ecomm bonanza is an incredible differentiator. It also means you have to try to grow an audience with way less money dedicated to digital ad blasts and way more money dedicated to making your craft and supporting your people. It means that when you stock out of something you can't just call a factory overseas and order more.

It is HARD to compete in this market. The single most important thing you can do is be in constant communication with your customer and community about why your business is different, why you're trying to do things differently in the first place, and what they should expect from that difference and

(Editor’s note: East Fork has a particularly candid approach to its external communications. Take one look at the captions—often written by Connie—and you’ll understand what she means with her answer).

East Fork has grown so quickly! Has growth changed the way you (& your team) feel connected to your product?

It's made us more obsessed with making it perfect.

You are known for your delicious (sometimes instantly sold-out) colors. Do you have a favorite?

My favorite is the humble Morel. Always will be. It's a perfect color

Where do you find inspiration for new pieces or variations?

We have a lot of traditional pottery in our home. Everything we need to be inspired by is already accounted for in the objects we're in constant contact with every day. We're not trying to reinvent the dinner plate. But the rim of one pot might be combined with the base of another to make something new to us.

Is there anything exciting coming up in the next few months that we should know about?

We'll be rolling out several very limited runs of forms from our Small Batch Studio, where Amanda makes small runs of pots on a wheel. It's a place for us to explore and play and test pots that might enter the line in the future.

This winter we'll be making sweet little creamers, 18 ounce mugs, tiny bud vases in a grab-bag of forms, and simple, perfect utensil crocks.

East Fork Pottery is available online, at their retail locations in Asheville, NC and Atlanta, GA, and in the Floyd Shop!

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