Ask a Michigan native where he's from and he'll usually show you the palm of his right hand. Having grown up on the Lower Peninsula, the part of the state that looks like a raggedy mitten, I always point to the fleshy part under my thumb to indicate the Detroit suburb called Huntington Woods, a few traffic lights north of Eminem's storied 8 Mile Road.
When I came of age, in the 1960's, my civic pride revolved around Motor City's flashiest exports, Motown and the Mustang, while the more innovative artistry of Saarinen schools, Yamasaki office buildings, Frank Lloyd Wright houses, Rivera murals, and Eames furniture—all of them scattered around the city—barely registered in my consciousness.
Recently, my friend Katy, a self-described "garage archaeologist," and I mapped out an ellipse around the heel of our home state, from the Detroit River in the east to Lake Michigan in the west, to follow the trail of 20th-century Modernism. Finding the proper mid-century vehicle for this journey was essential. That's how we met Ruby.
Ruby was a red 1961 Oldsmobile Starfire with a white rag top, an enormous steering wheel, chrome switches and knobs, and all the ergonomic qualities and handling capabilities of a Great Lakes powerboat. Being of a certain age, Ruby required supplements: a new heating system that had two settings (Off and Blast Furnace) and a couple of bottles of artificial lead that had to be added to her capacious gas tank every other fill-up. She was still a real looker, though. As we navigated the infamous "Michigan lefts" (special turning lanes that spring up after you've already passed through the intersection), other cars waved and honked in appreciation.
Our first stop was Cranbrook, the prep school and graduate academy of art and science created in the twenties and thirties by two generations of Saarinens, Eliel and his son, Eero. At Saarinen House, where father and son lived, we were instructed to remove our shoes and don foam-rubber surgical booties before being led through the magnificent two-story structure, lest we put too much wear on the early 1920's rugs—designed by Eliel's wife, Loja. It was well worth untying a few shoelaces. Merging Arts and Crafts ingenuity (the built-ins!) with Deco-Moderne flourishes, Saarinen House evokes ocean liners and Park Avenue apartments from the Jazz Age.
By contrast, the Cranbrook Art Museum & Library is a synthesis of Neoclassical grandeur and Bauhaus simplicity. During the late 1930's and early 1940's, when the museum was being constructed, Cranbrook was arguably the nexus of modern design, home not only to the Saarinens but also to Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia, and Charles Eames (it's where Eames met and married his wife and design partner, Ray).