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.