New book tells the story of the Cranbrook Academy of Art
In 1957, Marianne Strengell, head of the weaving department of the Cranbrook Academy of the Arts, was giving a talk in Bombay when a young woman asked for a date. “I was very impressed with his personality,” Strengell recalled in an Archives of American Art interview years later. “She really wanted to come to Cranbrook, and I managed to get her a scholarship.” The young woman was Nelly Homi Sethna (née Mehta), who would go on to run the design studio of India’s largest textile brand and establish the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India, the country’s most influential textile design program. (This school, Asia’s first for design, was founded on the recommendation of two other Cranbrook alumni, Charles and Ray Eames.
Sethna is one of 200 Cranbrook students whose work is featured in the prodigious catalog of With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art Since 1932, an exhibition that opens at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., On June 18. . Among them are artists of all stripes and many heavyweights in American architecture and design, reiterating the influence the school has had on the culture of this country.
But through the accounts of revolutionary weaving alumni like Sethna in India or Olga de Amaral in Bogotá, Colombia, lies the story of how this Midwestern institution infused Scandinavian and American modernism into the cultures of the design elsewhere, resulting in hybrid expressions across the world.
These transnational meetings were not always easy, especially in the middle of the 20th century when the shadow of colonialism rubbed shoulders with the scarecrow of communism. Speaking of Sethna’s entry into Cranbrook, Strengell said, “She brought no Indian design; she would not have been allowed to do so. I started it like everyone else here. Yet Sethna quickly imbibed India’s rich artisan traditions and played a central role in safeguarding the livelihoods of weavers and other artisans. For her contributions, she received the Padma Shri Prize in 1985, one of India’s highest civilian honors.
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