I thought it would be easy, on a Friday afternoon in August, to hop on a tour of Saarinen House, the eclectic 1930 masterwork by Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen on the grounds of Cranbrook, an educational community in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Wrong. When my son and I arrived, the Friday and Saturday tours were sold out. Others had wisely booked tickets to see the celebrated house that mixes elements from two design movements, Arts and Crafts and art deco, with dabs of midcentury modern and Finnish touches.
Once a hidden gem serving as Saarinen’s private home and studio from 1930 to 1950 — and not open to the public until decades later, after a major restoration — Saarinen House is a hot ticket.
But thanks to two no-shows, Noah and I joined 10 other visitors eager to enter the two-story, four-bedroom, brick-and-stone house, with garden, that Saarinen began designing in 1928 and moved into in 1930 with his wife, Loja, a renowned textile designer. Their son Eero — who later designed such futuristic 20th-century landmarks as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis — visited during college breaks.
With the restoration came the return of original furnishings including Eliel’s decorative wood furniture, Loja’s textiles and the early furniture designs of Eero, who also became known for his midcentury modern chairs and tables.
The 75-minute tour turned out to be a great introduction to the history and highlights of the 319-acre Cranbrook campus, which includes a graduate art academy, prep school and museums — most designed by Eliel Saarinen. The lushly landscaped campus also is a magnet for architecture and design enthusiasts, with style-blending buildings, sculpture, gardens, green lawns, fountains and lakes.
Our engaging guide explained how Cranbrook’s founders recruited Eliel Saarinen, then a rising star, to be Cranbrook’s chief architect.
Saarinen also became the first president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, opened in 1932. Its faculty and students became postwar design superstars, producing work with crisp lines inspired by modern technology. Big names include Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia and Florence Knoll.
I did not fully grasp Cranbrook’s reputation when I was a high school student there during the 1970s. But I did after going to a 1984 exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Design in America: The Cranbrook Vision 1925-1950.’’ I saw anew the places I had hung out in as a kid as works of design. Cranbrook did not become a National Historic Landmark until 1989.
As for Saarinen House, I often walked past it as a kid but had no idea it was a big deal. This was understandable, because during the 1970s the house was a private residence for a succession of art academy presidents, and many Saarinen-designed furnishings were removed.
The house finally opened to the public in 1994, following a long restoration that returned it to its mid-1930s glory, after the Saarinens added final details. It mixes an Arts and Crafts enthusiasm for handcrafted objects (glazed tiles from Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery, bronze peacock-shaped fireplace log-holders); art deco touches (sleek lines, indirect lighting fixtures) and a nod to Finnish custom (a rug draped over a bench for use as a blanket).
The tour began at the imposing Cranbrook Art Museum, the last campus building Saarinen designed, in 1942. Standing outside in the museum’s striking square-columned colonnade, we soaked up glorious views including a tiered reflecting pool with bronze sculptures by Swedish-born Carl Milles.
Our guide led us onto a quiet road lined with slate-roofed art academy buildings including, somewhat inconspicuously, Saarinen House. Each building’s buff-colored brickwork, windows and doors have unique details. At Saarinen House, we saw how the many design decisions produced a cohesive work of art. Details on the outside — patterns, shapes, colors — are repeated inside. The living room rug’s pattern and colors, for example, echo the outside masonry.
This harmonious effect continues inside, from room to room and within each room. In the small but stunning dining room, the same shapes (squares, circles, octagons) are found in the contour of the room and the dining table, the rug pattern and the gold-leafed dome ceiling.
We followed instructions designed to protect the house, including wearing booties, taking cellphone pictures only when permitted and standing on the living room’s floor (not the rug) and on the dining room’s rug (not the floor).
Much of the house was on view, including the living spaces and studio plus two upstairs bedrooms. The master bedroom had a different, more modern and sleek feel, because Eero Saarinen, as a college kid, designed the furniture.
Small by modern-day standards, with soothing colors (moss green, gray, russet, gold, off-white), Saarinen House felt alternately cozy and airy. We left feeling like we had stepped in and out of a rare and remarkable place.
Also worth visiting
• Cranbrook Art Museum showcases contemporary art, design and architecture.
• Cranbrook Institute of Science has natural history objects and a planetarium.
• Cranbrook House and Gardens is a 1908 English Arts and Crafts-inspired manor home designed by noted Detroit architect Albert Kahn.
• Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House is near the campus. Tours are available May through November.
Saarinen House: Guided tours are available Friday through Sunday, May through November. Online reservations are recommended (1-248-645-3307; cranbrookartmuseum.org/tours/saarinen-house).
Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog Take Betsy With You.