The Cranbrook Years: Rapson & the Saarinens

Share this post Twitter Facebook Tumblr Email Posted May 14, 2012 in Cranbrook, Eero Saarinen, Eliel Saarinen, modern architecture, Ralph Rapson, The Rapson Line, WWII

By the time Ralph Rapson was starting to study architecture at the University of Michigan in the late 1930s, he had already begun researching the emerging modern works of European architects and adopted the clean sketching style of Le Corbusier.  But it was the two years Rapson spent under the tutorage of Eliel Saarinen in the graduate program at Cranbrook were the most influential to his designs and method.

Rapson had arrived early the summer of 1939, before classes started, so that he could get a work space close to Saarinen’s studio. "It was an enormous studio, with six or eight big tables. It was on the corner, and my windows looked right out over the next building. Twenty feet away was “Pappy” Saarinen’s studio, so every morning I could wave and pop over there and talk to him.” (King Hession, Rapson, & Wright, 13)

Saarinen was soon calling on Ralph Rapson to help with projects in his the office of his architecture firm as well. Saarinen was a well-respected architect and urban designer in Finland before moving to the US, and much praised for his ability to portray the Finnish national identity through a more modern, symbolic form

Though Rapson cherished his apprenticeship under Saarinen, he, like other students in the studio, regarded the elder Saarinen's designs as increasingly dated:

"...I really didn’t appreciate Pappy [Eliel Saarinen] at the time. We thought of him as not necessarily out of style but as a regional traditionalist. And because I was just beginning to discover Le Corbusier and others, I felt Pappy represented more of a Scandinavian arts and crafts approach to design. It wasn’t until years later that I, and others, recognized what he was truly contributing to the field of modern design. Perhaps the most important lesson he imparted was the careful, patient search – that to ignore the question of the style was the most sincere way of achieving an architecture of our time."         (King Hession, Rapson, & Wright, 15)


Ralph Rapson (left), Eero Saarinen & Fred James discussing plans for the College of William and Mary, February 1939
[Cranbrook Historic Photograph Collection, #4832]

Rapson developed a strong working relationship and friendship with the son of Eliel, Eero Saarinen, who had graduated from Yale and joined his father’s office at Cranbrook two years before Rapson’s arrival. Eero is known to have worked feverishly on projects, often working into the wee hours of the night. Rapson had no choice but to follow suit, though he incorporated a few antics of his own to lighten the studio mood. 

Among other things, Rapson was known to instigate a game of touch football on warm autumn afternoons. (Yes, Ralph only had one arm, but he loved football.)  Thinking of the work to be done, Eero neither condoned playing football nor understood Rapson’s motivation. When Eero confronted Rapson about it, Rapson just smiled and pointed out that football helped the architects to vent frustrations and return to their desks revived and ready to work.


Ralph Rapson running down sideline during touch football game at Cranbrook, 1939.
[Cranbrook Historic Photograph Collection, #284]


Some time later, Rapson pushed his luck and half carried, half dragged Eero from his office to the field.

Before long, Eero had taken command of plays and made himself permanent quarterback for all future games.

Read the full story in: King Hession, J., Rapson, R., & Wright, B. N. (1999). Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design. Afton: Afton Historical Society Press.

 Caroline Engel for Rapson-Inc.

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Ralph Rapson Design: The Early Years

Share this post Twitter Facebook Tumblr Email Posted May 14, 2012 in Cranbrook, Equipment for Living, Florence Schust Knoll, Hans Knoll, Jens Risom, Knoll, Ralph Rapson, The Rapson Line, WWII

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, while working in the inspiring surroundings of Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, Ralph Rapson produced volumes of sketches of furnishings for modern homes. The Cranbrook ethos demanded a broad-based design education, and Rapson was not unique in designing furniture as well as buildings. Only a few Rapson designs were realized in studio production, including Rapson’s Highback Rocker submission for the 1940 Organic Design in Home Furnishings Competition sponsored by MoMA (see below).

It was Rapson’s friendship with Florence Schust, the talented designer and future wife of Hans Knoll, that brought Rapson designs to the mass market and out of studio production.  The Hans G. Knoll Furniture Company had been established in New York City in 1938. In 1941, the first Knoll modern furniture line was released - the “600 Series”, most of which was designed by Jens Risom, but would later include all the pieces of the Rapson Line for Knoll as well.


[photo credit: Rapson Architects, all rights reserved]

Many people note the similarity in materials and upholstery between these early Risom pieces and Rapson pieces for Knoll. In fact, the use of webbed upholstery was common among the early Modernists because it allowed for clean lines and met the materials restrictions of the times - including wartime, when there were strict limits on the length of wood pieces available as well as metal for springs and upholstery materials. Rapson’s Highback Rocker for the 1940 Organic Design competition used hardwood and webbed cotton and predated the Risom pieces for H.G. Knoll in the same materials, but both designers followed in the footsteps of Alvar Alto, who pioneered the use of webbing to enable a clean form using simple, natural materials.


[photo credit: Rapson Architects, all rights reserved]

In 1944, Knoll and his wife, Florence Schust Knoll, established the Knoll Planning Unit to lead the research/design project he called “Equipment for Living” which was to prepare for a dramatic change in furnishing style and material after the end of World War II. Knoll believed a closer collaboration between stream-lined production and the talented designers was needed to successfully bring quality, affordable modern furniture to the masses. To set the project off on the right foot, Florence looked to Cranbrook for cutting-edge designers. Rapson was the first selected for the Planning Unit, followed by Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen and six others who together designed many of the modern classics associated with Knoll’s dominant role in defining Modern furniture.

Hans Knoll contacted wartime manufacturers in hopes of enticing them to partner for postwar production of modern furniture. Kellet AirCraft Corporation was the first to sign on to the Equipment for Living line but specified that the furniture be constructed of aluminum. In May 1944, Knoll asked Rapson to design a line of outdoor furniture for production at Kellet. Three weeks later, Rapson flew to New York with sketches of an outdoor chair, a side table, a tea wagon, and others in tow. To be constructed of tubular steel, the designs were light and playful. Knoll was reportedly delighted and wasn’t expecting something so exciting. Walter Baermann, the firm’s Head of Design, said Rapson’s furniture had a “personality, a quality that must be kept and not lost, even in the smallest detail.” 

In the end, the financial details derailed the project and Kellet never produced these Rapson designs, but Knoll and Rapson were not deterred. “The Rapson Line” for Knoll had its first footings. Check back for articles following the development and marketing of the Rapson Line for Knoll.

Further reading: King Hession, J., Rapson, R., & Wright, B. N. (1999). Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design. Afton: Afton Historical Society Press.


Caroline Engel for Rapson-Inc.

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