Marianne Strengell was a prominent twentieth-century Finnish-American Modernist textile designer. She pioneered the use of synthetic fibres and was able to convert hand-woven designs for mechanical manufacture. Strengell taught at Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1937 to 1942, and from 1942 to 1962, she was the department chair.
Strengell is the daughter of Finnish architect Gustaf Strengell and interior designer Anna Wegelius born in Helsinki, Finland. Her mother, Anna, was the director of Hemflit-Kotiahkeruus. She graduated from Helsingfors’ Central School of Industrial Design in 1929, then moved to Stockholm to help prepare for the Stockholm Exhibition in 1930. Strengell worked in Scandinavia for several years, designing rugs, textiles, and interiors. She worked as a designer and was responsible for developing a cottage business in weaving for the farmers’ wives. Strengell immigrated to the United States from Scandinavia in 1936.
Strengell was recruited to work at the Cranbrook Academy of Art by a family friend, Eliel Saarinen, in 1931 and began teaching there in 1937. Strengell took over as head of the Department of Weaving and Textile Design after Loja Saarinen retired in 1942. A power loom was built in the weaving workshops not long after. She devised a curriculum that stressed weave structure rather than Saarinen’s more graphic imagery. Throughout her 25 years at Cranbrook, she mentored several textile artists, including Jack Lenor Larsen, Robert Sailors, and Ed Rossbach. Her friends and coworkers were Harry Bertoia, Ben Baldwin, Ray and Charles Eames, Florence Knoll, and Eszter Haraszty. She remained the Department Head of Weaving and Textile Design at Cranbrook until 1961 when she retired.
Teaching at Cranbrook
Strengell worked as an outside consultant and on commissions for architects while teaching at Cranbrook, including the interior fabrics for Eero Saarinen’s General Motors Tech Center and work for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Her preference for texture over pattern in vehicle and interior design affected the American market. Her ability to create new yarns and fabrics contributed to the use of textiles as architectural elements.
For Ford Motor Company, General Motors Corporation, Chrysler, American Motors, and United Airlines, Strengell created distinctive textile patterns for automobile interiors. Her “Taj Mahal” upholstery design for the 1959 Lincoln Continental is legendary. On occasion, she collaborated with her husband, architect Olav Hammarström, on interiors and textiles for his projects. Most notably, they collaborated on the Vera and Laszlo Tisza House in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, where they purchased four of the five original lots that made up the Tisza property between August 1954 and September 1956 (Barnstable County Registry of Deeds 1954a, 1954b, 1955, 1956) and finished construction in 1960. The holiday home of Olav Hammarström and Marianne Strengell, which they developed for themselves in 1952, is about 400 feet west of the Tisza property across Gross Hill Road.
Strengell was dispatched to Japan and the Philippines by the International Cooperation Administration in 1951 as a weaving and textile adviser to assist in establishing cottage businesses. Simultaneously, she worked for the United Nations Technical Assistance Administration as a weaving and textile production consultant. She and her husband designed a new loom to allow more significant fabric widths. She used native fibres like coconut and grass in her textiles. Her initiatives aided in the improvement of both countries’ living standards. Strengell and Hammarstrom worked, lectured, and studied architecture, arts and crafts, and the use of indigenous materials all over the world.
Strengell did over 70 solo shows in the United States and around the world. She began contributing her textiles to museums in 1983, including the American Museum of Arts and Crafts, the Museum of Modern Art, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Montreal, and the Helsinki Museum of Applied Art.
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