Uncovering Cranbrook: Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House

Thursday, May 2nd 6:30pm - 7:45pm
Cranbrook Center Virtual Lecture
Bloomfield Hills, MI 48304


Presented by Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

$20 per viewer
Lecture will be Password-Protected 
Advance Registration is Required 

Presented by
Nina Blomfield, Former Decorative Arts Trust Marie Zimmermann Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research 

Join the Center on this deep dive into the art and architecture of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Smith House. Developed from the extensive research conducted during her two-and-a-half year Collections Fellowship at Cranbrook, art historian Nina Blomfield will present an intimate look at the fine art and decorative objects assembled by Melvyn and Sara Smith between 1950 and the 1980s. 

Of the many Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes that are now open to the public as house museums, Cranbrook’s Smith House is the only one to display an intact collection of objects assembled by the original client-owners. Nina will share her experience researching the house and collection, including work in Cranbrook Archives and Archives of American Art, and in numerous interviews with living artists whose work remains on view at Smith House. Taken together, the objects and the stories they share reveal the dedication and warmth that Melvyn and Sara brought to supporting their artistic community and decorating their beautiful home.

In 1950, Melvyn, Sara, and Bobby Smith moved into their dream home: a small but superb example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian architecture for the middle classes. Having exhausted their modest savings as public schoolteachers, the Smiths lived simply for their first years in the house. They decorated with pine boughs and rushes from the nearby pond and used folding chairs and card tables until their custom Frank Lloyd Wright-designed furniture was completed by Melvyn’s brother-in-law as a housewarming gift. 

But by the early 1980s, their home was overflowing with art and studio craft by leading makers. Major works by sculptor Glen Michaels, brutalist metalwork by Paul Evans and Silas Seandel, ceramics from Maija Grotell, Gertrud and Otto Natzler, John Glick, and J.T. Abernathy, handwoven textiles from Urban Jupena, Eleen Auvil, and Barbara Wittenberg, among others, still ornament the interiors. 

How did the Smiths acquire this astounding collection? For the 34 years they lived in the house together, Melvyn and Sara Smith paid forward the kindnesses that had helped them complete their dream home. They found their own ways of supporting artists, purchasing large works on lay-away and sending small but reliable monthly checks. They asked friends in need to come house-sit, clear brush, and refinish the house’s red cypress siding. They opened their home for exhibitions, allowing students to show their work and avoid gallery fees. They hosted concerts, lectures, weddings, and countless tour groups. As the studio craft movement gained momentum in national exhibitions and publications, Melvyn and Sara Smith showed how it could become an integral part of daily life.

During her 2021-2023 tenure as The Decorative Arts Trust Marie Zimmermann Collections Fellow, Nina Blomfield dusted off not only the objects themselves, but the stories they hold. In this Uncovering Cranbrook lecture, Nina will share how the experience of caring for the Smith House collection has shaped her research. By focusing not only on the works themselves, but on what they meant to Sara and Melvyn Smith and the community that they helped make, this lecture charts an intimate and interconnected history of art, architecture, and studio craft in twentieth-century Michigan.

The Uncovering Cranbrook Lecture Series gives audiences an inside look at the many stories of Cranbrook from the staff of the Center for Collections and Research. The series highlights the people and personalities who helped shape our community and form the rich legacy of art, architecture, science, and education that define Cranbrook.

Nina Blomfield is the Center’s former Decorative Arts Trust Marie Zimmermann Collections Fellow. During her tenure, July 2021 through December 2023, she assisted with the care and interpretation of Cranbrook’s Cultural Properties and researched the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Smith House and its rich collection of twentieth-century decorative arts. Nina received her BA from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and earned her MA in History of Art at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, where her thesis focused on the use of Japanese decorative arts by middle-class American women. Nina has worked at the National Library of New Zealand’s Alexander Turnbull Library and has held graduate internships in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in Bryn Mawr College's Special Collections, where she curated the exhibition “All-Over Design”: Lockwood de Forest between Ahmedabad and Bryn Mawr. Nina has returned to Bryn Mawr to complete her PhD with a dissertation that examines the material culture of domestic space and the global origins of Victorian home decorating.

On the Friday prior to the program date, registered participants will receive an email with instructions on how to join this virtual experience. As this program benefits the operations of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, we ask that you do not share the login link with others. Registrations are non-refundable. The program will begin promptly at 6:30pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).
For additional information in advance of the program, please send an email to center@cranbrook.edu or call the Center at 248.645.3307. The Center’s Administrative Office is open Monday through Friday, 9:00am to 5:00pm.

Smith House living room, 2023; Photography by James Haefner, Courtesy of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. 

Handwoven pillows by Andrea Arens, Smith House, 2023; Photography by James Haefner, Courtesy of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research. 

Melvyn and Sara Smith in the Smith House living room, circa 1964; Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers (2017-10), Courtesy of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Melvyn Smith invites Frank Lloyd Wright into the Smith House living room, 1954; Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers (2017-10), Courtesy of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Melvyn and Sara Smith relax with friends in the Smith House Garden room, circa 1973; Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Evelyn Smith Papers (2017-10), Courtesy of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Center Collections Fellow Nina Blomfield cleans a multimedia screen by artist Glen Michaels, October 2023; Photography by Kevin Adkisson, Courtesy of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Nina Blomfield discusses Smith House ceramics with artist J.T. Abernathy (Cranbrook MFA 1951), March 2023; Photography by Kevin Adkisson, Courtesy of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Registration for this event has closed.