As seen on “Mad Men”

Hour Detroit, the magazine I work for most regularly these days, doesn’t put its content online, so I have to find other links to tell you about a short piece I have in the current issue, about this office at the GM Tech Center in Warren.

Go ahead, click. Marvel. Then come back.

It was designed by one legend, Eero Saarinen, for another, Harley Earl, GM’s first vice president of design, the man generally acknowledged to have brought real style to the product line for the first time. It was the crown jewel in the Tech Center campus, completed after World War II and also designed by Eero Saarinen, along with his father, Eliel. The press materials GM gave me described it as “the most luxurious and romantic office ever built,” and in 1956, it probably was. It has doubtless been usurped by some Nouveau Gilded Age bozo’s realm, but it still looks totally cool and utterly modern.

Partly it’s because mid-century modern is back in a big way, but also because someone had half a brain and declined to do any major modifications over the years. The furniture’s been reupholstered here and there and carpet and drapes replaced, but otherwise that’s the same undulating wall of cherry strips and aluminum extrusions, the same built-in sofas and credenzas, and perhaps best of all, the same high-tech gadgetry.

Note the dials and gizmos behind the desk. They can do everything from open the door remotely — a big power play when the big boss remains seated behind the desk, very “show yourself out, then” — to control the lights and sound system. Just behind the pen set in this picture is the desk lamp, tucked away flush in the desktop. Press a button and it rises, unfolds and turns on. The current occupant of the office, GM VP/design Ed Welburn, demonstrated it, and it’s so mechanical — it rises and descends on what looks like bicycle chain. There’s a TV across the room that can be revealed the same way.

Needless to say, it’s huge. Earl was a big man with a big job, and he needed a big space. Welburn’s more average-size, and said you can get a sense of his predecessor’s outlines from the scale of everything — even the concept cars that Earl showed off at car shows were made for a big man with big feet. Of course, everything was bigger, then, including the future. It’s hard not to pick up that sense of IGY-type optimism from just spending a little time in this way-cool space.

My story was pegged to a major Saarinen exhibit that opens next month at Cranbrook. The PR guys who showed me around the Tech Center said the place had recently had Pentagon-level security, but was easing up a bit (although employees are still forbidden to carry camera phones in certain parts of the complex). I felt lucky to see it — the VP’s office was only one of the many design delights of the place.

Oh, and back to the first link: Make sure you scroll down to see the black-and-white photo of the then-Masters of the Universe out on a hunting expedition in northern Michigan. The picture includes not only Earl and Bill Boyer, another GM heavyweight of the time, but also Arthur Godfrey and ol’ blood-and-guts Gen. Curtis LeMay. One look at this crew and you know that whatever their flaws, they probably got those two deer the old-fashioned way, and no one got shot in the face.

Now, if you can, buy the magazine. Old media supports new media, you know.


Attack of the giant turkeys. Really.

Posted at 12:11 am in Current events, Popculch |

18 responses to “As seen on “Mad Men””

  1. del said on October 25, 2007 at 9:00 am

    Last night I attended a lecture at the Grosse Pointe central library by Reed Kroloff, a former editor-in-chief of Architecture magazine, and he mentioned that Eero Saarinen and his dad both entered the architectural competition that led to the creation of the “St. Louis Arch” (Gateway to the West?) — Eero won the competition but the competition’s directors mistakenly sent the letter of congratulations to “Mr. Saarinen” at his father’s address.


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  2. MichaelG said on October 25, 2007 at 9:07 am

    That was back in the day when the guys who ran companies like GM were something other than parasites whose whole agenda is to screw as much money out of the company and the shareholders as possible. Contrast “Engine” Charlie Wilson and Roger Smith. Shoot, look at the contrast between George Romney and “Mitt” Romney. GM absolutely owed the design center palace to Earl after all he had done for the company for 30 years.

    When I lived in Auburn there were turkey gangs roving the area. Still are, I suppose. I had to cross a small single lane bridge to get to our place. There were occasions when a turkey gang would be just standing around on the bridge. Horn honking and creeping didn’t work. They’d just stare stupidly at you. I would have to get out of the car and physically shoo them off the bridge. Then the big daddy would stand by the side of the road and spread all his feathers at me to show me that his was bigger than mine. He was kind of cool. They mostly stayed off our place because they didn’t like the dogs, the goats or the chickens. They were funny because they would either come marching up the driveway en masse or they would fly in. You’d suddenly see these huge things dropping out of the sky onto your lawn. I always thought they were amusing and never felt threatened by them. A neighbor with a large lawn and no dogs didn’t like them because their scratching would tear up the lawn.

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  3. nancy said on October 25, 2007 at 9:20 am

    Word, Michael.

    While I don’t usually hotlink to images, note the Teacup Desk from the design center:


    The copy under this picture — which you can see on the “design delights” link in the main text — notes, “In the early 1970s, the teacup shown along with the beautiful hand painted stainless steel sculpture that the artist Buell Mullen had so meticulously created were literally sawed up into small pieces inside the main lobby of the first floor Administration building and then carried out and put in a garbage dumpster! Naturally, a lot of people inside GM Styling/Design were shocked. But, back in the seventies if you worked for GM and dared voice an opinion on this atrocity you’d get demoted or simply canned.”

    It has since been reproduced. Still.

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  4. Julie Robinson said on October 25, 2007 at 9:37 am

    All those photos remind me of Tomorrowland at Disney. The cherry wood is beautiful but the rest leaves me a little cold. Of course, Saarinen was also the designer of the Concordia Seminary campus here in the Fort. I believe he designed it to be like a Danish (?) village. I’ve attended a lot of concerts in the chapel, which is quite large. Again, it’s impressive, but there are no curved lines and all the brick is stark. Give me some curlicues and textiles please.

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  5. brian stouder said on October 25, 2007 at 9:44 am

    Word, Julie!

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  6. MichaelG said on October 25, 2007 at 9:52 am

    The total design package, buildings, furniture etc. reminds me of Wright’s work. Like the Johnson’s Wax place in Racine. Also see the John Deere HQ in Moline IL. Another Saarinen design. I’ve always liked his stuff a lot including IIT and those two apt buildings on Lake Shore Drive that I know Alex doesn’t like.

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  7. jcburns said on October 25, 2007 at 10:07 am

    The phrase I love (one one of those linked pages) is that GM’s Design Center is ‘The Versailles of Industry.’

    Well, of course. What a glorious time to be free.

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  8. nancy said on October 25, 2007 at 10:10 am

    More leisure time for artists everywhere…

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  9. alex said on October 25, 2007 at 11:12 am

    Are you referring to the Mies buildings, Michael? I love those. My former residence was actually a knockoff of those. Mies van der Rohe designed IIT as well.

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  10. Adrianne said on October 25, 2007 at 12:28 pm

    And now for something completely different…

    Nance, I’ve walked down that section of Beacon Street in Brookline that Tom Turkey has decided to make his own. Wild turkeys are definitely coming back in New York – my in-laws had a couple of turkeys peering into their basement last fall, coming from the nearby woods. It’s really weird to see these birds in suburbia, let alone the big city.

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  11. Julie Robinson said on October 25, 2007 at 12:49 pm

    Did you hear the story on NPR? The animal control officers are prohibited by law to do anything except give avoidance advice. They cannot move them, touch them, or harm them in anyway. It might be time to reevaluate that law. It’s not quite as bad, but the geese we have around our office can be aggressive and they leave their droppings on our sidewalk. We have GPP–Goose Poop Patrol.

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  12. MichaelG said on October 25, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    Sorry, Alex. I thought I remembered you saying you didn’t like the buildings. My mistake. Also I don’t know how I confused Saarinen and Van Der rohe. That is also totally my screw up. I know better. Really. I am embarrassed. Best I can say is that I was starting my first cup of coffee. I retract the post. Everybody forget you read it.

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  13. nancy said on October 25, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    Sorry, Michael. This one is FOLLOWING YOU to your GRAVE. Mmm-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

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  14. MichaelG said on October 25, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    Gawd, that’s what I’m afraid of. Oh well. It’s not the first time I’ve embarrassed myself. Won’t be the last either.

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  15. Mouse said on October 25, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    Love the link to Donald Fagan.Steely Dan rules.

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  16. alex said on October 25, 2007 at 7:16 pm

    Actually, Michael, you might have recalled me being pissed at my old building if only because the philistines on the condo board didn’t know how to decorate it appropriately. They’d throw tons of money at it to put Victorian chair rails and floral carpets in the corridors and at one point threatened to paint over some wonderful mahogany panels in the lobbies until someone talked some sense into their fool heads.

    If I hated anything about living there, it was that it was led by what was tantamount to a small local government that tried to pander to the stupidest minds and the basest of tastes as a starting point and most people were too disinterested to step in and help guide them to do things the right way. They’d complain about travesties, but only after it was too late. Kind of like living in a small city, which is where I’m at now, and the media keep indulging the idea that the right-wing stick-up-the-butt repressed homosexual wackjob on the Republican ticket, whom even the establishment Republicans don’t support, stands a chance in hell. We really didn’t expect him to win the GOP primary. But he has managed to make abortion and homosexuality the issues du jour — in a small-town mayoral race — and has devoted followers who don’t even care that he’s under criminal indictment for lying to a grand jury about where his campaign contributions came from. They probably wouldn’t be dissuaded in their loyalty if he got busted sucking cock in a public washroom. “It’s this sex-crazed society that drove me to it,” I can hear him saying right now and the faithful would buy into it.

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  17. brian stouder said on October 26, 2007 at 7:30 am

    the media keep indulging the idea that the right-wing stick-up-the-butt repressed homosexual wackjob on the Republican ticket, whom even the establishment Republicans don’t support, stands a chance in hell.

    Agreed about media indulgence. Issue(s) A1A (through A9A, inclusive!) is (are) Kelty’s criminal indictments, and yet the press offers forums and debates and interviews – wherein the subject is specifically forbidden! I understand that the guy cannot speak about his pending court case – but that does not and should not preclude the general media from talking about it!

    Lately, the trend is for media outlets to accept viewer/listener questions for debates (which I suspect amounts to waiting for public questions that match what you wanted to ask in the first place), and here is the one I submitted:

    I would sincerely ask Matt Kelty how any voter is supposed to disregard his 9-count criminal indictment. At a minimum, and granting his innocence unless or until he is ever found guilty in a court of law, it raises the question –

    Can we trust his judgement?

    Presumeably he cannot and will not address anything to do with this issue, and as a voter I find that to be simply unacceptable….


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  18. MichaelG said on October 26, 2007 at 8:11 am

    Sounds like a typical homeowners assn, Alex.

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