Art History Class

Interior designer Lynda Charfoos channeled the talents of Cranbrook greats in her reinterpretation of the Carl Milles house


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When Reed Kroloff was named Director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, much like any transferee, he quickly needed a place to live.

But unlike other professionals navigating the unfamiliar real estate that comes with a career change, Kroloff’s move from New Orleans to Bloomfield Hills in 2007 included a rarefied housing option.

He chose to live on campus at Milles House, named for Carl Milles, the famed Swedish sculptor who lived there during his prolific 14 years at the private institution.

It’s an enviable address, to say the least, situated as it is in on Academy Way within the creative milieu and just steps away from Kroloff’s daily duties.

Milles House is no ordinary campus quarters. In addition to occupying a ’20s-era structure designed by the esteemed Eliel Saarinen, Milles House serves as a public/private space, which means its occupants must share the main floor with the occasional board meeting, art critique, cocktail party, or intimate wedding. The second floor is private.

Lovely as it was, the townhouse, which stands just north of the museum-quality Saarinen House, needed a makeover.

“We were mindful that we had to rise to the standards of Cranbrook’s design history,” says Lynda Charfoos, a Bloomfield Hills interior designer specializing in contemporary and 20th-century classics.

In accepting the job, Charfoos, who sits on the board of governors of the Art Academy and Art Museum, faced several challenges. First, the interior had to be flexible enough to accommodate private living and public gatherings of up to 70 people.

Lighting also was problematic because all of the electrical outlets were around the perimeter of the living room’s open expanse. “I thought, what kind of lamps would be powerful enough to light a space so large?” Charfoos says. “I spent a large portion of the design time trying to light the space.”

For furnishings, she wanted to reflect Cranbrook’s heritage and tradition. “We decided that it would showcase furniture that came out of Cranbrook: Florence Knoll and Harry Bertoia. Bertoia taught metalwork at Cranbrook beginning in 1939. And Knoll (née Schust) studied architecture there.

“Through a donation from Knoll, we were able to purchase Knoll furniture,” Charfoos says. “And through a donation by Arkitektura [the Birmingham furnishings retailer with a Saarinen connection to Cranbrook], we were able to do the lighting.”

Charfoos says she also thought it was important for the residence to work well as a backdrop for the works of Academy students and artists-in-residence. She kept the setting quiet by using fairly repetitious furniture and fixtures. “I knew the artwork would be very powerful,” she says. She used Flor tiles to create a graphite-colored carpet “platform” where art can be displayed during critiques.

Photograph by Justin Maconochie
The living room is often used for meetings and art critiques. Charfoos created a tight seating area around the original fireplace and mirror. The existing floor was her inspiration for the color scheme. Original art includes tall tables with knit “leggings” by Iris Eichenberg, multi-colored lines on metal by Beverly Fishman, short and tall Bertoia “sound” sculptures flanking the fireplace on loan from the Cranbrook Art Museum, and a black-and-gray horizontal work by Elliott Earls. The seating area beside Earls’ work is a grouping of Bertoia chairs and table.

During non-work hours, when the residence is quiet and has returned to private use, Kroloff and his business/life partner, Casey Jones, use the main rooms, not minding at all, Charfoos says, that the windows are devoid of coverings, which was done for a clean look.

Charfoos is now working on the second floor of the home, where she says she’s having fun throwing in the occasional “curve ball.”

“It has been the ultimate compliment for me,” she says. “Cranbrook is the birthplace of some great artisans and so many great design concepts. I feel extraordinarily flattered and honored to be part of the history of Cranbrook.”

More About Milles

Swedish sculptor Carl Milles (1875-1955) lived and worked at Cranbrook. But his talents are visible well beyond the 315-acre Bloomfield Hills campus.
There’s the imposing Hand of God sculpture, for example, outside Detroit’s Frank Murphy Hall of Justice.

After an illustrious career in Europe (he studied with Auguste Rodin in Paris), Milles came to Bloomfield Hills in 1931 and became resident sculptor and headed Cranbrook Academy of Art’s sculpture department. Molding clay and then casting the structure in bronze, Milles created classical and neo-classical sculptures depicting allegorical and mythical themes during his 14 years at the institution.

Milles’ sculptures and fountains can be seen around the world, from the American Midwest to his native Scandinavia. But metro Detroiters needn’t travel far to see Milles’ originals.

Cranbrook owns the second-largest collection of Milles sculptures and fountains — after the Millesgården in Sweden. Visitors to the Cranbrook grounds near Lone Pine Road and Woodward can view Milles’ first Cranbrook piece, Jonah and the Whale, as well as Orpheus Fountain, and others.

Locals and tourists flock to Cranbrook to view more than 70 Milles sculptures and fountains. In 1988, those visitors included Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Sylvia, who came to pay homage to their late countryman.

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