An Outsize Influence

The expansion of the Cranbrook Art Museum will immerse students and visitors in its extraordinary history.


Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

Talk about quality over quantity. “We’re 150 people split into ten disciplines, with one person teaching in each—tiny in relation to the overall design world,” says Reed Kroloff, the director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Yet since its establishment in 1932 under the leadership of the architect Eliel Saarinen, Cranbrook has exerted an outsize influence on architecture and design, most famously via midcentury modernism. “It was invented here,” brags Kroloff, “by Florence Knoll, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen [Eliel’s son], and Harry Bertoia, who were students or teachers.”

From the start, a dialogue between research, exhibition, and production has been key—which is why the reopening of the Cranbrook Art Museum, following a $22 million renovation and expansion, is so significant. “Eliel’s ideal was, you’d study art in a library, look at it in a museum, and make it in a studio,” says Kroloff, describing a methodology embodied by the architect’s 1942 centerpiece for Cranbrook—a T-shaped building with galleries on one side, a library on the other, and a peristyle linking them in the middle.

Elaborating upon this idea, the new 20,000-square-foot Collections Wing, appended to the north end of the T’s crossing member, will give students and visitors unprecedented access to the institution’s extraordinary permanent holdings: more than 6,000 objects and artworks by illustrious alumni and others.

“The symbolic heart of the Collections Wing is a second-floor classroom,” Kroloff explains. “One wall is completely glass and overlooks our collection, so when you’re in that space you’re at one with the work. We wanted to be able to teach all over the building.”

Though SmithGroup’s Paul Urbanek jokingly refers to the warehouse-like wing as “a Wal-Mart for art,” it is, in fact, an elegantly detailed structure that connects to both “the grandeur that was Saarinen,” in Urbanek’s formulation, and Rafael Moneo’s 2002 New Studio Building on the museum’s opposite end. In front, glazed brown brick complements the historic “Cranbrook Buckskin” masonry; in the back, hot-dipped galvanized steel panels respond to the New Studio Building’s lead-coated copper cladding.

The museum’s first exhibition after reopening, No Object Is an Island: New Dialogues with the Cranbrook Collection, showcases 50 pieces from Cranbrook’s holdings and 50 new works created as contemporary responses to them. “We’ve been handed this incredibly valuable set of things,” Kroloff says, “and given an opportunity to bring them to another generation.”

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