The Henry & Edsel Ford Diorama

Henry & Edsel Ford / On Occasion of the 15th Million Model T Sold

Miles Davis / In A Silent Way (1969)


John Fraim

Those followers of Midnight Oil Studios know that the last two posts were related to our visit to the home of Edsel & Eleanor Ford and the relationship of Edsel with his famous father Henry. (See links in Notes at the end of this article). Our first post explored how the two men represented two Americas. There was the emergence of the first great mass production system in the world with Henry Ford’s creation of the Model T Ford. But there was also the emergence of branding and segmented production in the creation of cars Edsel created.

I read much about the two men when we got home. I read about the great production plant on the River Rouge in Detroit where Henry created the largest industrial plant the world had ever seen. I studied drawings of old photos of it from various historical archives. I thought of perhaps making a diorama of it but the plant was so immense and detailed it seemed an impossible project and I abandoned the idea.

Perhaps a diorama expressing the opposition of symbols in the relationship of this famous father and son? I was very moved by our visit to Edsel Ford’s home. I could feel a spirit in the home and it was strong the day we visited it although the last of Edsel Ford’s family (his wife Eleanor) had died in the 70s so the family was long gone from it.

The Rouge Industrial City on The River Rouge (A few miles downriver from Henry Ford’s home)

I researched Henry Ford’s home named Fairlane in Dearborn. Unlike the warmth of the English cottage-like home of Edsel, Henry and his wife Clara’s home was all stone and looked like a castle. Henry never saw a home as some a family lived in. He once said that a home should be a place which gives one strength. Maybe a worthy purpose for a home but somewhat of a strange quote. In Edsel’s home, I could feel a strong presence in the home the day of our visit. We were almost the only ones in the home except for a few docents. I could almost hear their three sons and daughter running in the home. Although it was a large home, it was also a warm home. There were no wings where family members could retreat to and hide from the family. The entire family was on one hallway on the second floor of the home.

It seemed so evident that Edsel was trying to create the family that he never had with his father and mother. Maybe it was rebellion but it seemed more likely to me that it was one of the few ways to go in order for him to become his own person. One of the most admirable thing about Edsel is that while his father wanted to create the next mass produced car, Edsel wanted to create a family. Henry had little conception family as his family was contained in the massive Rouge industrial plant.

Edsel Fords’ Study (A bottle of Cutty Sark on the Desk)

The home of Edsel and Eleanor was a warm home filled with love and art. Not surprisingly since it was the home of two artists: Edsel and Eleanor Ford. Henry Ford believed in function more than anything else while Edsel believed in form. Henry was the great inventor and his son was really an artist. An artist who became President of Ford Motor Company in the 1930s and someone who brought new ideas of design and styling into autos. The Model A was Edsel’s first divergence from his father’s Model T. It was a battle to get his father to accept the new design. His father put him in charge of the new Lincoln Division of Ford so “the boy would have something to do” as some observer once commented. Edsel created the stunning Lincoln Zepher that is still recognized for its brilliant design.

Edsel & Eleanor Ford’s Home

I wondered if a diorama might be created that would visually express the difference in the two men. I originally thought of placing a Model T on one side of the diorama and the Lincoln Zepher on the other side to represent the difference in the two men. But the symbolism of seemed more of a opposition of places father and son chose to live in. Henry lived just up the Rogue River from his famous Rouge manufacturing plant. There was something interesting about this to me. In ways, he was attached to his creation by this river. One could have gotten in a canoe and floated downriver to the great industrial plant. Perhaps Henry did this?

On the other hand, Edsel lived on the opposite side of Detroit from Henry. Rather than living a little east of downtown Detroit in Dearborn, Edsel and Eleanor lived on a point on the shore of Lake St. Claire called Gauklers Pointe. It was the furthest point in the various versions of Grosse Pointe along the short of Lake St. Claire just northeast of downtown Detroit. Edsel and Eleanor had travelled to Europe with a famous architect to gather ideas for building the home.

The idea of making a diorama with the two homes set at opposite angles in the diorama seemed appealing. I searched the Google map of Detroit and narrowed it in until Henry’s home and the Rouge plant was on the bottom front left of the diorama with Edsel’s home at Gaukler Pointe at the top right of the diorama. In between the father and son was the downtown area of Detroit.

Henry Ford’s Home

I took a photo of the Google map on the computer screen with my iPhone and went to Staples to buy a piece of foam core board and to have my iPhone photo blown up. I had it enlarged to 11″ x 17′ and then 20″ x 30″. But the larger one was simply too large and it seemed like the two opposition symbols would be too far separated to make any type of dramatic point: Henry’s home and factory on the bottom front left of the diorama and Edsel’s home 30″ inches away on the back right of the diorama. It was simply too great of a distance. I decided on modeling it on an 11″ x 17″ board and called Blick Art and reserved one of their artist boards. I drove out and picked it up and then stopped at Easton Shopping Center and visited my friend at the Lego store. I have come there to get some small Lego pieces for my donut diorama and realized that Lego could be a very creative supplier of objects for the content of objects in the context of the overall place of a diorama.

My friend at the Lego store is helps me find the right Legos for the diorama. I told him I was back to get more small Legos from the various buckets of them on the back wall of the store. I told him a little about what I was doing and he pointed me towards some of buckets containing the tiny Legos in them. My major idea was to express a symbolic opposition between father and son by contrasting grey and black colors associated with Henry (the front left of the diorama), with bright colors of yellow, orange, red on the back right of the diorama. The colors for downtown Detroit needed to be some color in between then two colors. I left the Lego store with a large cup full of mini-Legos that represented the mix of colors above.

* * *

That night, I layed the 20″ x 30″ copy of the Detroit map over the white foam-core board and with a pencil traced the outlines of the shore of against Lake St. Caire and then the Detroit River. I also traced the outline of the Rouge River and its winding upstream to the home of Henry Ford. His home sat right on the banks of the river.

I played with the mini-Legos I had bought by placing them in various positions on the white 20″ x 30″ board I had bought at Staples. I dumped them all into the top of a shoe box where the little pieces became somewhat like the colors of paint on an easel. I placed just a few Legos on the board making downtown Detroit’s buildings a mixture of brown Legos with grey tops. I made Henry’s home grey and Edsel’s home red and yellow and placed them on opposite sides of the white board.

First Draft of the Diorama of a Foam Board

It looked interesting and I pondered the layout for awhile. I wondered if I should add more detail or would detail simply distract from the basic opposition symbols I was trying to create? I decided to simply start on the diorama and let all of these questions work themselves out in the process of creating the diorama. These questions always seemed to work themselves in pursuing the process rather than pondering the process. Somewhat like jazz improvisation or that strange phenomenon of synchronicity. The techniques of creating an artform via improvisation had been a long time interest to me.

I traced my 11″ x 17″ map copy of Detroit on the Blick Art board. I used a pencil and pushed it hard over the lines of the shore of Detroit at well as the Rouge River and the plant and then home of Henry Ford. I lifted the map when I had traced these outlines and then used a pencil to follow along the groves in the art board.

* * *

Over a glass of wine, I looked at the outlines I had created on the Blick Board. I would use mini-grey and black Legos to represent Henry Ford’s side of the diorama and orange, yellow and red mini-Legos to represent Edsel’s side of the diorama. But still, a sense of the place of Detroit seemed missing. I decided to put in th major freeways of the city into the diorama. After all, the major freeway through Detroit is 94 or The Edsel Ford Expressway. How could I not put this into the diorama.

For the next hour or so, I traced through the 11″ x 17″ map of Detroit the major arteries coming into Detroit. Then, I took one of my grey acrylic pens and colored in the outlines of the various major roads. There was 75, 94 12 and certainly Jefferson in these major highways and roads I outlined in grey over my pencil marks. After all the roads were put in I looked at it and was depressed. It seemed to distract from the drama of the color and place symbolism between Henry and Edsel I was attempting to show.

But I started to detail the diorama and things didn’t seem all that bad. I made some small freighters for Lake St. Claire and the Detroit River. Of course, the freighters were symbols of bringing “food” to feed the Rouge manufacturing facility. I decided to change the color of the water from the blue of Lake St. Claire to a blueish grey of the Detroit River and the brown color of the river in its tributary – the Rouge River – that connected it to the great Ford Rogue plant. I glued the mini-Lego pieces to the board and put caps on them to hide the Lego hole. This is a good feature of mini-Legos as it allows them to go somewhat unrecognized as Legos in various settings. It also saves a lot of time from contracting objects or models to place in a diorama.

* * *

An interesting question, it seems to me, still not resolved. It relates to the question of the purpose and focus of dioramas. Are they meant to focus on objects or models in them? Or, are they meant to express the sense the context that contains these object and models? Part of the question – it seems to me – is whether there can exist drama in the object/person themselves without the relationship to the context they live their life within. Marshall McLuhan once observed “Medium is the message.” In a similar manner, “Context is the content.”

It’s an interesting to consider if a new type of diorama might emerge that will start a new art form. A new art form is drastically needed these days. For most, the ideas of dioramas do not extend much beyond those little shadow boxes most of us created in grad school. Inside a shoe box we might use to take home that little lizard we forced our parents to buy at the Shriners Circus in town.

Questions that need pondering. In the meantime, my completed diorama below. Photographed tonight in our studio playing with lighting, In this new art of dioramas, yes, there is the creation of the diorama. But there is also the creation of the image of this diorama to share with others. The creation of a particular context. And, the sharing of this context with others.

* * *

Below are a few photos taken of the Henry & Edsel Diorama. We’re playing around with our lights in the studio. The first below emphasizes a change in light from a darker greenish color in the left of the diorama to the full light in the right of the diorama. A spotlight is turned on the right side to emphasize this. The second shot below has an equality of light distribution throughout the photo and is a good representation of what we’re trying to do with this symbolism of color and place. The last shot is one taken as we take the camera above the diorama and shoot down on it. Focus is easier here as it is not so difficult to capture focus and depth of field. The entire model is – relatively – in focus.

First Photo of the Diorama / An Aputure LS Mini 20cSpotlight Directs Light to the Right Side

A Straight On Shot of the Diorama

Shot Looking Down on the Diorama

Diorama at Night with Lights (Two Godox SL60 Lights Turned Down to 10%)

With the Two Iconic Cars from Henry and Edsel (Model T and Edsel)

* * *

So, what is the next step in all of this? Or, have we already taken this next step but don’t know it? Isn’t this one of those questions that never really gets answered? And, what happens to these symbols living in my head for the past week? Do they just fade away or do they express themselves in other ways? Are they already doing this?



Two Fords & Two Americas (Midnight Oil Post on 4/30/23)

The Symbolism of Place (Midnight Oil Post on 5/3/23)

Documentary on Henry Ford

The American Road (1953)

(The American Road was a 1953 film produced to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Model T Ford. It highlights the role of automobiles, highway construction, and Ford Motor’s leadership in the development of transportation in the United States. The production mixes archival footage with reenactments and has a contemporary ending in color.)

The Edsel Story (1957)

(Film produced in 1957 for Ford management when the Edsel was first introduced. As one viewer notes, “A lot of good things came out of Edsel that people don’t know about..They sold well the first year at 70 thousand which was very respectable in a recession year for a new car. The real grabber tho is,the Edsel plants were turned into the Ford Falcon plants which was the best selling car in the sub compact class and then,that developed into the Mustang,the most successful car of all time next to the VW Beatle and the Model T. So the project turned out great in the end for Ford.)

A Trip Through The River Rouge Ford Plant

(As people have observed, River Rouge was not just a factory, it was a complete one-stop industry. They shipped in coal and generated their own electricity. They shipped in iron ore and smelted their own steel. This is unheard of today. In the modern global economy everything is pieced up and specialized. They don’t even make a whole car in one place, there is an engine plant, a tire plant, an assembly plant for finished vehicles, and so on, scattered all over the world.)

Henry Ford Creator of the First Car (1994)

(Newsreels and Ford family home movies, capturing the man who changed the world. A full documentary)

Edsel Ford Home Tour

Henry Ford Home Tour

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