Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Ford Family

Edsel and Eleanor Ford designed a life together that allowed them to share common activities, interests and values. These extraordinary people were generous during a time of economic depression; true connoisseurs when the art world was experimenting in new directions; and accomplished business people, helping to shape the auto industry as it is known today. But most importantly, they created a home for their children, grandchildren, and friends.

Edsel Ford

Born in 1893, Edsel Bryant Ford was the only child of Clara Bryant and Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company. Edsel became involved in his father's company at an early age. Many after-school hours were spent at Ford Motor Company stamping letters, delivering memos and performing other tasks. Following high school, Henry gave Edsel an office next to his at the Highland Park, Michigan plant.

By the time he was appointed president of Ford Motor Company in 1919 at the age of 25, Edsel had already established himself as a person worthy of respect and was considered a fine executive. While his father was interested in the mechanical aspects of building cars, Edsel exhibited his penchant for art by designing cars that have been widely regarded as displaying the finest in automotive styling. Perhaps Edsel's greatest design accomplishment was the Lincoln Continental Cabriolet, said to be, "The most admired and beautiful car ever produced in America." (visit the garage exhibit, "Edsel Ford's Dream Car -- the Lincoln Continental," for more information on Edsel Ford as an automotive designer.)

Eleanor Clay

Eleanor Lowthian Clay was born in 1896 to William and Eliza Clay. When Eleanor was twelve, her father died, and she, her mother, and sister Josephine moved in with her uncle, J.L. Hudson, the founder of Hudson's Department Store in Detroit.

From an early age, Eleanor showed an appreciation for the arts and charitable activities, directing much effort towards different causes. As a young woman, Eleanor taught dance lessons to underprivileged children. It was at this time she met Edsel Ford. The young couple courted for five years before they were married in 1916. Clara Ford once confided to a friend that she and Henry, "could not love Edsel's wife more if we had picked her out ourselves."

The couple's first child, Henry II, was born in 1917 followed by Benson in 1919, Josephine in 1923 and William in 1925. The Fords began building their dream home in 1926 at Gaukler Pointe in Grosse Pointe Shores, a fashionable new suburb on Detroit's eastern boundary. The family moved in at Christmas 1929.

Family life for the Fords was comfortable and privacy was cherished. While the children enjoyed various activities, Eleanor paid careful attention to instill in them a sense of social responsibility. As adults, each of Edsel and Eleanor's three sons held important positions with Ford Motor Company. Josephine, the Ford's only daughter inherited her parents' love of art, becoming an accomplished collector in her own right.

The names Edsel and Eleanor Ford became synonymous with contributions to numerous charitable and art organizations. They personally provided funding for the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) from 1924 to 1945 to make the DIA an internationally recognized museum. The Detroit Industry murals painted at the DIA by renowned Mexican artist Diego Rivera were a gift from Edsel Ford to the City of Detroit. Over the years, many pieces of their personal collection were also donated to the DIA.

The philanthropic endeavors of the Fords went well beyond the art world. A sampling of their contributions reveals the diversity and nature of their interests. Edsel was an early director and supporter of the Lincoln Highway Association. The Fords provided funding for a glass-enclosed pool at the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, which was used by victims of infantile paralysis, including Franklin D. Roosevelt. They supported the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Both Eleanor and Edsel served as trustees of their high schools, now merged and known as the University Liggett School in Grosse Pointe. In Detroit, they donated to the Franklin Settlement, a social service agency, and were long-time benefactors of Henry Ford Hospital. Edsel was one of three founders of an important cancer research center in Bar Harbor, Maine, today called the Jackson Laboratory. His longest lasting and most significant philanthropy was the establishment, with Henry and Clara Ford, of the Ford Foundation.

The Fords also supported the sciences. An aviation enthusiast, Edsel backed Admiral Richard Byrd's first flight to the North Pole in 1926. In 1929, Admiral Byrd flew a 1925 Fokker VIIa tri-motor, named the Josephine Ford, on his South Pole expedition.

When Eleanor died in 1976 at the age of 80, the Detroit Free Press noted, "Mrs. Ford's greatest gift to the public, indeed, her greatest legacy, is her home, which she had transferred to a trust with the request that it be used for the benefit of the public." With this final act of generosity, which Eleanor Ford included in her will, this home and furnishings remain intact, as a window to the past, and to enrich the lives of future generations.

The Designing of a Home

Edsel and Eleanor Ford had a personal commitment to and passion for quality design. The couple's personal taste, as well as their work with design leaders such as architect Albert Kahn, landscape architect Jens Jensen, industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague, visionary artist Diego Rivera, among others, are wonderful examples of the quality design that was very much a part of their daily lives.

Edsel had an eye for design, whether it was in architecture, automobile design, or even fashion. He and Eleanor studied the arts, and their trips abroad included visits to galleries and art museums. Eleanor's flair for design could be seen in everything from her support of and participation in Edsel's work, to her choices in holiday and party decorations, and her carefully selected silver, china and crystal.

Edsel & Eleanor Ford House is an excellent example of how this commitment to design excellence touched every aspect of their lives.

This section provides a brief look at four designers with whom the Fords collaborated in creating their home.

Albert Kahn, Designing an architectural masterpiece

In 1926, Edsel Ford commissioned Albert Kahn, Detroit's most prominent architect, to create their home. Ford Motor Company had been working with Kahn since the early 1900s on creating vast industrial complexes. His work with Henry Ford in creating a continuously moving assembly line and a factory that could accommodate all production stages helped make mass production of affordable automobiles a reality. Kahn's combination of artistic achievement of beautiful buildings and the functional innovations in industrial design helped contribute to Detroit's emergence as an industrial giant.

A master of commercial, civic, institutional, domestic and modern industrial architecture, Kahn became America's foremost industrial architect. In fact, Architectural Record Magazine once wrote, "No other architectural firm had a greater influence on the development of industrial architecture than Albert Kahn's. But there is evidence that the architect's work had a wider influence, too, affecting the development of Modernism itself."

Kahn's immense influence on the art and architecture of this time even influenced other visual artists, such as Diego Rivera, with his industrial vision.

Other Albert Kahn Resources

- W. Hawkins Ferry, The Legacy of Albert Kahn, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987.

- Albert Kahn & Associates architectural firm. Visit the web site - www.albertkahn.com

Jens Jensen, Designing a modern landscape

Danish-born Jens Jensen (1860 - 1951) studied at Tune Agricultural School, outside Copenhagen, and in 1884 immigrated to the United States. He found a job as a laborer for the Chicago West Parks, where he created the "American Garden," a unique prairie wildflower garden that revealed the beauties of the local region to park visitors. Jensen's long, sometimes stormy American career built firmly on this early experiment. He continued to advocate for the appreciation and conservation of the natural landscape, creating parks and gardens that utilized primarily native plants in spatial arrangements that evoked native landscapes. His enthusiasm for the mystery and power of nature was unbridled.

Jensen came to know Edsel Ford through his mother, Clara and his father, Henry, founder of Ford Motor Company. At Fair Lane, the Fords' Dearborn, Michigan estate, Jensen had created huge tree- and flower-lined meadows aligned to the path of the setting sun. Artistic differences eventually separated the senior Fords and Jensen, but Edsel (an inspired automotive designer and avid art patron) so admired Jensen's talent that he and Eleanor commissioned him to design four residential landscapes for their family, the last of which was begun in 1927, on Lake St. Clair.

None of Jensen's other gardens so focused on the poetry of water and its effects on changing light and mist. Along the northern edge of the point on which the 65-acre estate was sited, Jensen created an island bird sanctuary that increased the shoreline total to more than 3,000 feet; on the south, he developed a lagoon and naturalistic swimming pool surrounded by plants from the Michigan woods. A great meadow stretching from the house toward the sunset is the centerpiece of Jensen's design. Untroubled by the art/nature dichotomy that preoccupied many American landscape architects of the day, Jensen, like his Danish forebears, regarded the spirit of nature as the enlivening force behind all artistic expression.

From the exhibit A Genius for Place:

American Landscapes of the Country Place Era, Robin Karson, curator and writer.

Jens Jensen Legacy Project, Chicago Parks District. Visit the web site - www.jensjensen.org

Walter Dorwin Teague, Designing the streamline

One of the most visible examples of the Fords' broad tastes and dedication to contemporary design came with the addition of the Modern rooms to their home.

Throughout the 1930s, Edsel Ford retained Walter Dorwin Teague to design Ford Motor Company's pavilions and new-product exhibits at world's fairs, auto shows and dealer showrooms. As an industrial designer, Teague's forte was office interiors, buildings, cars, trains and planes. The field of industrial design developed throughout the 1920s was a potent influence in American marketing as consumer goods were modernized for a new mass market. Streamlining, or smoothing the lines, of everything from toasters to automobiles for the illusion - if not the fact - of increased speed was everywhere.

In the mid 1930s, Teague redesigned four rooms in the house in his dramatically modern style of sleek, custom-made furnishings in exotic hardwoods, recessed lighting reflected in mirrored surfaces and leather-paneled walls. These rooms - the boys' bedrooms and sitting room and a game room on the main floor - were intended primarily for use by the Ford's teenaged children. Teague's signature streamlined seating, radios built-in to plastic topped tables, and industrial metallic finishes in copper and brass provided comfortable contemporary rooms for the family.

The fact that these interiors were built into Ford House in the 1930s makes a strong statement about Edsel Ford's vision of the 20th century design and his courage in embracing the work of the most contemporary of the creative geniuses who entered his world.

Diego Rivera, Designing a piece of history

The Fords had a long association with the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), Detroit's major art museum, where Edsel served on the Board of Trustees. The Fords' hope was that art would enrich the lives of others, as well as their own. During the Depression, they helped to pay the salaries of the professional staff of the Detroit Institute of Arts to avoid a shutdown.

When William Valentiner, long-time director of the DIA, conceived the project of having artist Diego Rivera transform the DIA's inner court with fresco murals, Edsel Ford underwrote the costs. Edsel and Rivera formed a curious patron-artist relationship, with the communist Mexican artist finding a genuine admiration for Edsel's commitment to esthetics and design in his automotive industry. Rivera not only immortalized Edsel as patron in the murals, but his canvas portrait of Edsel shows him, then president of Ford Motor Company, before a triptych of the long blackboards used in the automotive design process. Upon these blackboards appears a sketch of the current design project, reminiscent of a 1932 Ford Coupe, which seems to spring from Edsel's mind. According to Valentiner's biographer, Rivera came to feel that Edsel, as a car designer, was fully qualified to be considered an artist in his own right.

Though controversial in their day, the frescos, entitled "Detroit Industry," stimulated a large increase in attendance at the DIA, which pleased Eleanor and Edsel. Although many influential citizens wanted them destroyed, Edsel quietly stood firm in his defense of the murals as they were Rivera's artistic tribute to the quality of Detroit's automotive labor force. Most historians and art historians look upon Edsel Ford's determined stand as a major statement in the defense of politically controversial art.

Henry Ford II

1917 - 1987

Henry was a natural leader. As the oldest, he was often compared to his famous grandfather. But he denied the similarity, saying "I'm like my mother." Henry became president of Ford Motor Company in 1943 at the age of 25.

Benson Ford

1919 - 1978

Benson was once called the family's "ambassador of goodwill." Friendly and relaxed, he inherited his father's love of boating and photography. Benson was named head of the Lincoln-Mercury Division, and was also chairman of Henry Ford Hospital.

Josephine Ford

b. 1923 - 2005

Benson once described Josephine as "a very lively character, the kind of kid who was always up to something." Known among her family as "Dodie," she loved horses, dogs and art. Like her mother, Josephine became a patron of the arts other philanthropic organizations.

William Clay Ford

b. 1925

"Bill" was the natural athlete of the family, an excellent tennis player, swimmer and golfer. He inherited his father's talent for design. He went on to hold executive positions at Ford Motor Company, and to become prominent locally as the owner of the Detroit Lions.

Visit: Ford House Website

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