"The Cranbrook Connection"

Feb 21, 2023

he MillerKnoll story began nearly 90 years ago at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. It was there, at this prestigious Michigan school, where Florence Knoll, Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames and Harry Bertoia’s lives became intertwined. Not only did these design legends become lifelong friends, but they continued to inspire each other professionally and went on to change the face of furniture and office design as we know it today.

But let’s start at the beginning.

The origins of how the "Cranbrook Connection" actually came to be, date back to 1925. Finnish architect, Eliel Saarinen, who had recently immigrated from Europe to Illinois with his family in tow, was approached to design the campus of Cranbrook. He subsequently continued to teach there, as did his wife Louise, and he eventually became the president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1932.

Florence Knoll, who was orphaned at the young age of 12, entered the Cranbrook Education Community shortly thereafter, by way of the Kingswood School for Girls. It was there that she began studying architecture, quickly gained the attention of Eliel Saarinen and was essentially adopted into the Saarinen family. Florence traveled to Finland with the Saarinen’s in the summers and quickly became close friends with their son, Eero. She continued on to study architecture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1934-35, but left for a year to attend Columbia University. Alas, she eventually returned to Cranbrook again in 1936 and soon befriended Charles Eames. It was then that the trio - Eames, Saarinen, and Knoll - bonded over a passion for furniture and design.

That very next year, in 1937, Harry Bertoia accepted a scholarship to attend the Cranbrook Academy of Art and joined the company of these soon-to-be great architects and designers that would help launch his career.

In the late 1930s, Charles Eames became the head of the industrial design department at Cranbrook. It was around that time he was introduced to Ray Kaiser, a student a Cranbrook who assisted with the graphic design portion of he and Eero Saarinen’s entry into the MoMA’s “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition. The two fell in love and married in 1941 - Harry Bertoia even designed Ray’s wedding ring. They went on to become some of the most (if not the most) prominent designers of their time.

All of these great names – Saarinen, Knoll, Eames and Bertoia – gave the world beautiful and lasting design. Their careers and lives all came together throughout the years they spent collaborating, planning and daydreaming with each other.

“It’s almost inevitable that these two companies [Herman Miller and Knoll] have come together,” says Amy Auscherman, Director of Global Archives and Brand Heritage for MillerKnoll. “It’s also sort of the dream come true because we have all of these designers that truly are both the DNA of both of the companies, but also this tradition of risk-taking and truly shaping and guiding industry as a whole.”

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