Building a reputation
Q&A: Karen Swanson
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Karen Swanson, co-owner of Swanson Meads Architects, comes from a family of internationally renowned architects, but she has proved to be more than a mere legacy.
Photo: Dustin Walsh
It can't be easy following in the footsteps of Eliel Saarinen, the internationally renowned architect who gained fame for such projects as the Finnish pavilion for the 1900 World's Fair and the Cranbrook Educational Community, and for being a teacher to architects Charles and Ray Eames and Florence Knoll.
But that didn't deter Karen Swanson, co-owner of Swanson Meads Architects in Birmingham, who is the great-granddaughter of Saarinen, a Finnish architect, as well as the great-niece of his son, Eero Saarinen, whose Tulip Chair is part of the Museum of Modern Art's collection.
That is, at least, it didn't deter her for long.
While she is proud to be a Saarinen — her father, Robert Saarinen Swanson, is also an architect and designed the Cranbrook Academy of Art lecture hall — it did add some pressure early on.
“That is why I did not go directly to architecture school,” says Swanson, 53, who first worked as an interior designer for five years.
Swanson has co-owned Swanson Meads since 1999 with partner Glenda Meads, whom she met while teaching at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture.
Among their projects (75 percent are residential and 25 percent commercial) is a “green” house on the North Dakota prairie for a couple, a guitar maker and a weaver that will be energy- and resource-efficient according to National Green Building Standards. They also have proposals out for a French bakery and a photographer's studio.
Their largest project, currently on hold due to lack of funds, is the Fenton Community and Cultural Center. The original building was designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen in 1938 as their first collaboration outside of Cranbrook. Swanson's firm was hired to design a 300-seat auditorium, classrooms, offices, gallery space and a bookstore, as an addition to the existing center.
Swanson, who grew up in Bloomfield Hills, got her bachelor of fine arts degree in 1980 from the University of Michigan and master's degree in architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1989.
After beginning her career in Chicago — at Loebl, Schlossman and Hackl, Environ Architecture, and later Tigerman, McCurry Architects — she returned to Michigan in 1989 to work at Luckenbach Ziegelman Architects. By 1992, she joined her father, marking the fourth generation of an architectural practice founded with Eliel.
Over the years, Swanson has proved to be more than a mere legacy. She has two Honor Awards from the American Institute of Architects Detroit chapter.
Today she shares her Bloomfield Township home with her daughter, Julia, 15, and their two pets, an 11-year-old lab named Soleil and a guinea pig, while keeping busy teaching a master's thesis studio at UD Mercy and serving on the board of directors for the Cranbrook Academy of Art.
What was your dream job as a kid?
I wanted to be a veterinarian.
How do you recognize great architecture?
It has the proper scale, no matter the style.
What is your favorite Eliel Saarinen design?
The National Museum in Finland or his former home and studio, “Hvittrask.”
Who is your favorite architect?
Santiago Calatrava. He is both an architect and an engineer, so the incorporation of structure and the space created by that structure are seamless. I also like Renzo Piano's work.
Can you tell us about some unusual projects?
The North Dakota house is interesting because we have to incorporate a guitar-making workshop, space for multiple looms, space for a jam session with up to 50 guests, a raised area for a stage (which will also double as loom space and a dining area), space for the family to play instruments and room for fencing. All in 3,000 square feet. Another residential client wanted to incorporate a chef's kitchen with space for cooking classes and a product display.
How would you say your field has changed over the years?
The green movement has always been important to architecture; we're trained to think that way. But we have to remember only a small percentage of buildings in this country are actually designed by architects. In Europe — Germany, in particular — architects are more highly revered and hence, more money is spent on architecture.
What is your dream assignment?
A space for public events. I am interested in what draws people to a particular place.
What is hanging above your sofa?
A print by Roy Slade, the former director of Cranbrook Academy of Art. It is an abstraction of the Saarinen House window design.
What is your most treasured possession?
Two original molded plywood chairs designed by Charles Eames. One was given to me by my grandmother and the other is from a client. I also have the pink cap that was on my daughter's head the first time I laid eyes on her.
What do you do when you need to get creative?
Read or look at works of other architects and artists.
What achievement are you most proud of?
My child, although she deserves her own credit.
Best advice you ever got?
Advice I did not listen to: Architecture is a difficult path.
What would you do if you had to change careers?
I would be a banker. Nobody bailed out the architects.
What's your 10-year goal?
I like having my own practice and I like to teach. I hope to still have the opportunity to continue both.
Find out more at swansonmeadsarchitects.net.