Most people would probably prefer not to live where they work. But most people don’t work in a 1920s home designed by famed architect Eliel Saarinen. Kevin Adkisson, curator of the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, lives in the Saarinen House, the Art Deco home nestled in the midst of the Cranbrook Educational Community campus in Bloomfield Hills and for which he is also responsible for the preservation and programming of its possessions.
Saarinen House, and its vast collections, are open for public tours from the first weekend in May until the end of November. “The house,” says Adkisson, “is bigger than you would think.” The fully restored rooms are on view to the public, with Adkisson inhabiting the other three bedrooms.
“It is only through the Saarinen House front door that you come into this jewel box interior where everything is designed. Eliel Saarinen always said the architect’s responsibility was to design to the next smallest thing. Everything is harmonious – it’s a vision statement. It’s also just really beautiful to be in and to enjoy this painterly sense of composition,” he noted.
In many ways, Adkisson’s ascendance to the Center’s first curator was predestined. He recalls his grandmother giving him a book on Eero Saarinen, Eliel’s son, as a young teenager. As an undergraduate student at Yale studying architecture, he lived in an Eero Saarinen design. After graduating from Yale, he moved to New York City, where he worked as a ghostwriter for an architecture historian. When he was completing his master’s degree, he saw a posting for a job where he could live in a Saarinen home and also work with a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright – with whom he says he was “obsessed with” in elementary school.
A two-year fellowship became three at Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research before he was officially named the first curator in 2019.
“The architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Saarinens' still today, is so sweeping in its vision, so radical but also so beautiful. Both as a kid and then as a curator, talking about this architecture and design, it’s a really visionary way of living where the architecture is enhancing the beauty of the nature around it and the beauty of daily life,” Adkisson said. “It’s really kind of intoxicating or enchanting to see so much design that is also very different from how most of the world looks.”
Adkisson’s passion for Cranbrook, the Saarinen House and its cultural properties is palpable, as anyone who was fortunate to have caught his virtual social media tours during the COVID-19 pandemic know. With buildings closed to the public, he filmed detailed tours across the 319-acre Cranbrook campus, sharing “its treasures through the camera.”
This mix of education and access is integral to his role, where he leads tours for Oakland County residents, international visitors and K-12 students alike.
In early February, Adkisson will kick off his seventh annual “History of American Architecture” series, focusing on Detroit architecture. This five-week class, which started with “interested locals,” takes place both in-person at the Cranbrook Art Museum, as well as streamed online, with many of its participants attending from as far as the West Coast and Europe.
Ask Adkisson what is the enduring appeal of these buildings and objects.
“People crave this beautiful environment, these buildings where care and consideration of materials have been exploited to their maximum degree.”
Story: Hillary Brody Anchill
Photo: Laurie Tennent