Pipsan Saarinen Swanson: Making of a Modern Designer

Monday, March 21st 7:00pm - 8:15pm
Cranbrook Center Virtual Lecture
Bloomfield Hills, MI 48304


$20 per Viewer (includes a $10 tax-deductible donation to the Cranbrook Archives Endowment Fund)

Lecture will be Password-Protected
Advance Registration is Required

Free for Cranbrook Academy of Art and Cranbrook Schools Students (Cranbrook students must register by sending an email from their Cranbrook address to center@cranbrook.edu)

Presented by Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Guest Speaker Alison Kowalski
With Special Guest Karen Swanson

Moderated by Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Registration for this program has closed. 

Photograph of Pipsan Saarinen Swanson in front of drapes and a candelabra she designed.

The Saarinens have been called Cranbrook’s “first family of design.” While the designs of Eliel and Loja Saarinen, and their son Eero, are widely known and celebrated, the equally unique contributions of the Saarinens’ daughter Pipsan are only beginning to be examined and brought to the attention of the international design world. An interior designer and color consultant, who often partnered with her husband and architect J. Robert F. Swanson, Pipsan Saarinen Swanson’s remarkable practice included designs for costumes, textiles, decorative arts, and furniture, often marketed to the public as room ensembles—"total works of art” for the masses.

Join the Center for our latest Uncovering the Archives program, as we once again delve into the collections of Cranbrook Archives and bring to light new scholarship. This winter we will explore the largely untold story of Pipsan Saarinen Swanson and the work she did to bring Modern design into the homes of middle-class America.

Photograph of a Pipsan Saarinen Swanson designed rug

Our guide and expert will be design historian Alison Kowalski, a PhD student at Kingston University, London, England. As part of her research for her dissertation, Kowalski has spent more than five years examining materials in Cranbrook Archives, mining the complete papers of both Pipsan Saarinen Swanson and J. Robert F. Swanson, as well as the records of the couple’s joint architectural and design firm, Swanson Associates. Kowalski’s presentation will tell the story of Pipsan’s career and demonstrate how she gained insight into the life and work of this lesser-known member of the Saarinen family through the collections of Cranbrook Archives.
Kowalski’s work focuses on Pipsan’s mass-produced designs for furnishings, including textiles, glassware, metalware, and furniture. Like other women designers of her generation, Pipsan gravitated towards mass-production design after working as an interior designer. Her first foray into mass-produced furnishings was, in fact, inspired by her interior decorating needs. Kowalski’s dissertation, Pipsan Saarinen Swanson: From Interior Design to Mass-Produced Furnishings, 1929–1955, asks, in part, how Pipsan’s custom interior design work was translated into product lines aimed at national markets. Kowalski will show how she used a range of archival material—from photographs to accounting books—to answer her research question.

Photograph of a bank interior with Pipsan Saarinen Swanson designs

Joining Kowalski on this overdue investigation is Pipsan’s granddaughter, Karen Swanson. An award-winning architect based in Metro Detroit who worked for Pipsan later in her life, Swanson’s first-person accounts of the grandmother, artist, and businesswoman helped inform Kowalski’s work from the very beginning of her research process. Their conversation, following Kowalski’s presentation and moderated by Head Archivist Deborah Rice, will allow the audience to gain an understanding of how scholarly research combined with personal remembrances can lead to a fuller picture of the past.

Kowalski and Swanson will discuss their relationship to the research project and together illuminate the items in Pipsan’s collections in the Archives that have been central to Kowalski’s research. Through this weaving together of historical artifacts, family stories, and personal anecdotes, Pipsan Saarinen Swanson—the woman and artist—will come to life. 

Alison Kowalski is a PhD student at Kingston University, London, England, writing her dissertation on Eliel and Loja Saarinen’s daughter, Pipsan Saarinen Swanson. Prior to beginning her doctoral studies, Kowalski was a Research Assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In New York she also worked as a researcher at the Museum of Arts and Design, the Bard Graduate Center Gallery, and Phillips auction house. Her writing has been published in the Journal of Design History, Textile History, and Hyperallergic. Kowalski has also taught at Parsons School of Design in New York, Drexel University in Philadelphia, and the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, among other schools.

Photograph of archival objects in the Cranbrook Archives reading room

Karen Swanson is an architect who began her professional career working with the Chicago firms of Loebl, Schlossman & Hackl Architects; Environ Architects; and the world-renowned firm of Tigerman, McCurry Architects. In 1989 she relocated to Michigan and began working with Luckenbach/Ziegelman and Partners in Birmingham before forming a partnership with her father, Robert Saarinen Swanson, in 1992. Swanson/Swanson Architects, Inc., marked the fourth generation of architectural practice, a history that began in Finland with the work of her celebrated great-grandfather, Eliel Saarinen, in 1886. In 1999 she joined with Glenda Meads to form Swanson Meads Architects. Swanson also served as Adjunct Professor for the Master's of Architecture program at University of Detroit Mercy from September 2007 until May 2012, and as Director of Interior Architecture at Lawrence Technological University from August 2012 to May 2018.
Swanson was twice awarded the AIA Honor Award from the Detroit Chapter. She is a contributor to the Michigan Modern project, a member of the American Institute of Architects, and currently sits on the Board of Governors for Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum. Her work has been featured in Contract MagazineHour Detroit, the Detroit and Ann Arbor NewsDetroit Home, and Style Magazine. Most recently, she was profiled in the online publication, Detroit Make It Here.

Photograph of a woman with Pipsan Saarinen Swanson designed furniture in an interior.

House Party is the Center’s annual fundraiser benefitting Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, including Cranbrook Archives. This year’s gala, A House Party at Cranbrook Celebrating Loja Saarinen, highlights the life and work of Pipsan Saarinen Swanson’s mother Loja Saarinen as a Finnish immigrant, pioneering entrepreneur, and extraordinary designer. Guests of Honor include Karen Swanson and her father Robert Saarinen Swanson, as well as Eero Saarinen’s son and daughter, Eric Saarinen and Susan Saarinen. This hybrid event offers the opportunity to celebrate in person at the Saarinen family’s masterwork, Kingswood School, or virtually from the comfort of your home. Learn more about the event at the Center’s website.

Image of House Party Celebrating Loja Saarinen Logo

On the Friday prior to the program date, registered participants will receive an email with instructions on how to join this virtual experience; a reminder will be sent on the day of the program. As this program benefits the operation of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, including Cranbrook Archives, we ask that you do not share the login link with others. Registrations are non-refundable. The program will begin promptly at 7:00pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).
For additional information in advance of the program, please email center@cranbrook.edu or call the Center at 248.645.3307 and leave a message. The Center’s Administrative Office is open Monday through Friday, 9:00am to 4:30pm.


Color swatches, Saarinen Swanson Design Group, circa 1947; J. Robert F. Swanson and Pipsan Saarinen Swanson Papers. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Pipsan Saarinen Swanson, seated in front of decorative items created by the Saarinen Swanson Design Group, circa 1950s; J. Robert F. and Pipsan Saarinen Swanson Papers. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Rug design by Pipsan Saarinen Swanson, circa 1950s-1960s; J. Robert F. Swanson and Pipsan Saarinen Swanson Papers. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Interior of the Detroit Bank and Trust, Ferndale, Michigan by Swanson Associates, 1968; J. Robert F. Swanson and Pipsan Saarinen Swanson Papers. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Materials related to Alison Kowalski’s research of Pipsan Saarinen Swanson in Cranbrook Archives; Photograph by Deborah Rice. Courtesy of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Sol-Air furniture featured in interior design editorial, photographed by Herbert Matter for House and Garden, July 1950; J. Robert F. Swanson and Pipsan Saarinen Swanson Papers. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

House Party Logo: Designed by Ed Ryan, CAA '22.