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The Schools that Shaped the Designers

Schools that shaped legendary designers

Much has been said about the renowned Bauhaus School and its immense impact on both designers and design. There are two other schools worthy of highlighting – both with an incredible history and a list of celebrated and illustrious alumni: Cranbrook College in Michigan and the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen.

Cranbrook College

Known for decades as the “incubator” of mid-century modernism, Cranbrook continues to produce exceptional graduates in numbers that far outweigh its size.

Cranbrook College.
Cranbrook College.

The Cranbrook Academy of Art has had a significant impact on the world of art, architecture, and design – the work coming from Cranbrook in the 20th century changed the way people live.

The school was founded by George and Ellen Booth, with the American Academy of Art in Rome as their inspiration. The Booths were encouraged by the vision of the Arts and Crafts movement, and they hoped its influence would banish what they saw as tasteless, mass-produced goods that could be found in American homes. The Finnish architect, Eliel Saarinen, was tasked with helping to design the master plan and design of the campus, he also created the Academy’s curriculum, served as its first president from 1932 to 1946 and headed its Department of Architecture and Urban Design from 1932 to 1950. Today, the campus is a National Historic Landmark, and is considered the most complete example of Saarinen’s genius.

Eliel Saarinen’s original studio at Cranbrook, which was known as the Department of Architecture and Cities.

Saarinen wanted students to be able to envision, create, and understand all aspects of design, from architecture to furniture to metalworking, and to engage in experimentation. Thus the campus and curriculum were created as a massive laboratory for the graduate students, giving them free rein to work as they pleased.

Curbed Magazine

The buildings, finished over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, were also celebrated for being total works of art. Eliel, his wife Loja and his son, Eero, designed and furnished the interiors – from furniture to tapestries and textiles. In 1932 the Times praised Saarinen’s creation, calling it an “educational and cultural centre of unusual beauty,” an “artistic achievement” that seems “almost part of the landscape.”

The Cranbrook Academy of Art was not just a school, it was a way of thinking and it inspired a cross-disciplinary, experimental, and collaborative approach to design.

Alumni include Eero Saarinen, the school director’s son, Charles and Ray Eames and Harry Bertoia. A chance meeting at the Cranbrook Academy of Art resulted in a partnership between Charles and Eero that produced the first designs for furniture made from moulded plywood. Each would be individually successful and impactful in the field of design, but this brief collaboration resulted in innovative and powerful creations that are still much sought after today.

Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames.

Of course, Charles would also go on to collaborate extensively with his wife, Ray, and the husband-and-wife team were one of the defining creators of the last century.

Charles and Ray Eames.

Harry Bertoia received a scholarship to study at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he first encountered Charles and Ray Eames, and later taught jewellery design and metalsmithing there from 1939 until 1943. This encounter would result in another future collaboration – Bertoia went on to work for Charles and Ray Eames at the Molded Plywood Division of the Evans Product Company.

Harry Bertoia.

American architect, Harry Weese, called Cranbrook school a Scandinavian Bauhaus. It may not be able to single out a single aesthetic tradition, but it must be recognized for encouraging a way of thinking that made the later work of designers like Bertoia, the Eames’ and Eero Saarinen so unique and exciting.

Royal Danish Academy

The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts has provided education in the arts for more than 250 years

Royal Danish Academy.

The Royal Danish Academy was inaugurated on the 31 March 1754, and given as a gift to the King Frederik V on his 31st birthday. Its name has changed many times – in 2020 settling on the ‘Royal Danish Academy – Architecture, Design, Conservation’ to recognize that three schools have become one active and creative academy with focus on cooperation and interdisciplinarity.

The school is founded on the Nordic design tradition, where functionality and aesthetics go hand in hand with business sense. It is world renowned for creative and innovative graduates who dare to take an independent stand, mastering the complex, the artistic and the matter of fact.

The list of alumni from this institution is truly something to behold.

Arne Jacobsen.

Arne Jacobsen of the Swan and Egg chairs graduated in 1927, Hans Wegner is also an alumni and would go on to work for Jacobsen at Aauhus Hall in 1938. Wagner is considered a prolific designer – he designed over 500 chairs in his lifetime, 100 of which went into mass production and many of which have become iconic designs.

Hans Wegner.

Verner Panton studied architecture at the Royal Danish Academy, qualifying in 1951. He also worked with Arne Jacobsen and together they collaborated on a number of experimental furniture designs, including Jacobsen’s well-known Ant chair (1951-1952).

Verner Panton.

Børge Mogensen studied both furniture design and architecture at The Royal Danish Academy and would go on receive the Eckersberg Medal in 1950, as well as the highest architectural honours in Denmark, the C.F. Hansen medal, in 1972. Ib Kofod-Larsen is also a graduate and his passion for making Scandinavian Modernism an international trend saw his human-centred designs with comfort being the focus, embraced worldwide. Kai Kristiansen enrolled at the prestigious Royal Danish Academy in 1948. In 1955 he opened his own studio, at just 26 years old. It was here that he began creating striking furniture in what would soon become known as the Danish modern style.

Ib Kofod-Larsen.

Poul Kjærholm graduated in furniture design at The Royal Danish Academy and is a true icon of Danish design. He undoubtedly carved the way for future designers with his use of innovative materials and his works are touted as among the most innovative of mid-century Scandinavian design. Poul Volther originally trained as a cabinetmaker, but later attended the Royal Danish Academy where he studied furniture design. He is celebrated as an accomplished and prolific furniture designer whose works go well beyond his most famous Corona chair.

Thomas Bentzen

A more recent graduate from the Royal Danish Academy is Thomas Bentzen. Bentzen specialised in furniture and interior design and is considered to be a methodical designer, who seeks to create fine-tuned products that are both engaging and durable. He is undoubtedly one of the most exciting young designers in the world today.

Cranbrook College and the Royal Danish Academy can be celebrated for their long history of prestigious alumni – individuals and collaborators who helped shape the design world as we know it.

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