An Eye to the Future • Michigan Modern

Marshall Fredericks Sculpture Museum Reopens to the Public with Exhibition Showcasing Michigan’s Modern Architecture

    icon Apr 22, 2021
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When the topic of Modern Architecture comes to mind we often think of such iconic structures such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s FallingWater House or Guggenheim Museum, both located on the East Coast; or  structures such as the Capitol Records Building in L.A or the Seattle Space Needle on the West Coast; but few often realize the impact of Michigan’s own architectural treasures in terms of significance and standards when it comes defining Mid-Century Modern architecture.

With the Marshall Fredericks Sculpture Museum now open to the general public, an exciting new exhibition is now on display (both virtually and in-person within the gallery) titled Michigan Modern: An Architectural Legacy, which will be on view until June 26th.

Featuring nearly 50 photographs by James Haefner that celebrate Michigan’s remarkable architectural design history from 1928 through 2012, the photographs were produced for and featured in the book Michigan Modern: An Architectural Legacy written by Brian D. Conway, which was part of the Michigan Modern Project initiated by Conway at the State Historic Preservation Office that revealed and documented the significant role Michigan played in the development of modern design.

Indeed, it was the unique confluence of industry, design education, and architecture in the early twentieth century that put Michigan at the center of the development of Modernism. Detroit automakers styled the cars that became part of the American dream; West Michigan furniture companies produced furniture that transformed America’s homes and offices; creative and influential Michigan architects drew talented designers to work in their offices; Michigan’s architecture and design schools were among the first to teach Modern theory; and savvy clients engaged well-known architects. This intertwining of industry, education and architecture is reflected in the selection of photographs for this exhibition.

As a noted photographer, Haefner’s career spans four decades. An accomplished automobile advertising photographer, his love of modern design drew him into architectural photography about twenty years ago. His fine arts degree allowed him to capture the designer’s intentions. “It is our hope this exhibition of the beautiful color photographs found in Michigan Modern: An Architectural Legacy will continue to inform and inspire those that value great design in their lives and communities,” says Haefner explains. 

Brian D. Conway was Michigan’s State Historic Preservation Officer from 1977 until his retirement in 2020. With a degree in architecture, Brian’s work in historic preservation and promoting Michigan’s unique and significant contribution to modern design through books and lectures has received national attention and awards.

According to Marshall Fredericks Sculpture Museum Director Megan McAdow, Conway truly felt that Michigan’s contribution to Modernism in general, from architecture to furniture to auto design - was an important part of our state’s history and wanted to do justice to enlightening peoples’ appreciation of it.

“Conway did a first book on the topic followed by an exhibition,” she explains, “and then wrote this second book that the Michigan Modern exhibition is centered around. This is when he enlisted the talents of Haefner, who although he had focused on automotive photography, also majored in art, so he appreciated the convergence of art and architecture. Because of his passion to do architectural photography, when this opportunity presented itself, he was like a kid in a candy store.”

“In this exhibition we have 53 really enlarged photos that we feature, whereas in the book there are over 227 photos represented,” she continues. “We worked with Haefner to select these 53 large images and then in the label next to the image, we’ve had him add another view of that very same house or structure, so the viewer actually gets multiple perspectives with each house that we feature.”

“Most of the period this exhibition covers is 1950s-60s Mid-Century Modern, but actually Modernism starts in 1928 and goes through 2012,” notes McAdow. “In Midland alone the influence of Alden B. Dow was substantial and we have three of his homes from the Midland area alone that we are featuring.”

In addition to Dow, the exhibition includes images of Michigan masterworks by modern architects such as Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen, Minoru Yamasaki, Alexander Girard, George Nelson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breuer.  The tradition of architectural innovation and excellence continuing into the twenty-first century is represented by photographs of buildings designed by Anderson and Anderson, Steven Sivak and Zaha Hadid.

Apart from Dow, who are some of the other designers out of this impressive roster that Megan feels are notable?  “Definitely the Saarinens are interesting because they designed Cranbrook school and Marshall Fredericks liked to talk about Cranbrook for multiple reasons. First, he taught there and this was his first professional job; from there his art career was launched and on-campus you can find many of his amazing sculptures.”

“Yamasaki is the architect who designed the World Trade Center and he was actually a Michigan architect,” she continues. “Some of his designs of homes and structures within Michigan are featured in this exhibit; and Girard is also fascinating to me because he was most known for textile design, which was integral to the whole Modernism movement. Not only would he design structures he would also design the furniture that should accompany it. We feature the architectural design he did for a home in Grosse Pointe in this exhibition.   Another fascinating structure is the Broad Museum in East Lansing because to me, it looks like sharks-teeth coming out at you from the façade. We’ll be doing one of our virtual artist programs by taking of tour of that art museum. Structurally it is pretty wild.”

Additionally, an ancillary exhibition titled  Marshall Fredericks: The Architects’ Artist will accompany and compliment the Michigan Modern gallery run.   Because of his workmanship and work ethic, Fredericks was hired numerous times for projects by well-known modernist architects and firms, which will highlight his many connections and contributions to the modern architecture movement.

“Furniture and setting combined with structural design and architects were thinking about this totality as part of the process,” reflects McAdow. “This wasn’t an afterthought. While designing buildings architects also thought about what type of art they wanted to integrate into it. And in Michigan, Marshall Fredericks was one of the top artists called upon to incorporate his sculpture into projects.”

“He earned awards from the American Institute of Architects and we pulled out five examples of modern architecture he was involved with,” she continues. “Fredericks did some interesting work with The Detroit Zoo and he also was commissioned to design furniture and play equipment for the apes in the Ape House, which was very modern.  We also talk about the Ford Rotunda that was an iconic structure in Dearborn that Buckminister Fuller designed the dome for, which sadly burned in a tragic fire. While his sculptures did not survive, we do have images of them before the fire.”

“People also forget about the shopping centers across America, which was a total modern revolution.  There’s some really great letters from the archives talking about these bold modern structures aren’t necessarily appealing to shoppers, so they brought Marshall in and said ‘can you add some whimsey to this design?’  He made the Lion and the Mouse for the Eastland Center and we’ve pulled these things from our archives for people to view.”

The accompanying virtual online exhibition will include a 360-degree virtual tour and a section where viewers can learn about Marshall Fredericks’s many connections and contributions to the modern architecture movement. The virtual exhibition also features additional photographs not included in the physical exhibition as well as images captured behind the scenes while on location during one of the photo shoots. To access this virtual exhibition please visit

A Virtual Artist Talk will also be held Thursday, April 29 at 7 pm with photographer James Haefner and author Brian D. Conway who will give a brief overview of the Michigan Modern book, how the text came to be, and stories behind the photographs in the exhibition. More programming will be announced later in the month. To register for the talk, and for up-to-date listings of programs and events, please visit the Museum’s calendar at

Virtual field trips and private guided tours of the exhibition are also available free of charge and can be scheduled by contacting the museum at 989-964-7125.

The Museum’s open hours will be Monday – Saturday, 11 am – 3 pm with Mondays and Tuesdays from 9:30 – 11 am reserved for our guests who are in the increased risk category. Visitors will be required to wear face masks, social distance, and provide contact information for contact tracing. Guests are also welcome to tour the Sculpture Garden at any time or schedule a private guided tour. Only groups of six or less from the same household can gather together in the Museum. A complete Museum Reopening Guide can be found at

To view the virtual exhibition, register for events, schedule a tour, and for a full up-to-date list of programming, visit the museum website at






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