Skip to main content

Ralph Rapson Papers

Identifier: 2012-01

Collection Scope

The Biographical series (1937-1980) is very small and does not contain much material relative to Rapson’s early life, however, materials relative to his education are contained here.

The Teaching series (1941-1954) contains correspondence, coursework materials and publications relevant to Rapson’s experiences in Boston and Chicago. They are arranged alphabetically, then chronologically.

Competitions (1935-1954) is a series which primarily contains materials about the various competitions that Rapson entered from 1935-1954. The bulk of this series is secondary source materials – pre-competition announcements and post-competition publications. The series is arranged chronologically.

The Projects (1938-1955) series includes residences, institutional projects and embassies. It is also alphabetically and covers 1938-1954. Of note is the correspondence with various clients, especially for projects that were not built and are heretofore unknown.

The Research (1935-1954) series has been artificially arranged alphabetically by subject. While most of these secondary source materials can be found in original publications in research/university libraries (including Cranbrook Academy of Art Library), they remain part of this collection as they reflect Rapson’s interests and thought processes regarding architecture, materials use, and design. The researcher will find distinct connections by utilizing this series in conjunction with project files, photographs, and architectural drawings.

Photographs (undated) includes reproduction photographs of architectural drawings – most of which are in the collection; some of which were retained by family members.

The bulk of the Negatives (undated) series are copy negatives which were made by Rapson and others, in large part to illustrate the publication Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design.

The Oversize (undated) series contains a copy of arts and architecture from August 1945, comprising the pages relating to the Case Study House #4 project, and oversize prints of drawings.

The Architectural Drawing series (1939-1954) contains drawings related to embassies, competitions, and residential projects.


  • 1935 - 1954



Access to the collection is, for the most part, unrestricted. However, there are restrictions for access of the U.S. Embassy materials. This includes specifications, interior photographs, and architectural drawings, particularly floor plans and mechanical/electrical drawings. Permission must be obtained from the U.S. Government to allow access to these materials.


There are restrictions for use and publication (particularly via social media) of the U.S. Embassy materials. This includes specifications, interior photographs, and architectural drawings, particularly floor plans and mechanical/electrical drawings. Permission must be obtained from the U.S. Government to allow use of these materials. Permission to use embassy-related collection materials must be requested in writing.


Ralph Rapson was born on September 13, 1914, in Alma, Michigan, son of Mabel Nickel Rapson, a homemaker and civic volunteer, and Frank Thomas Rapson, an electrical engineer. Studying mechanical drawing in high school to prepare himself as an artist, he entered Alma College, a liberal arts institution, in 1933.

In 1935, he won a scholarship to the University of Michigan’s College of Architecture. The night before graduation, in 1938, a fire destroyed his work and that of his two colleagues – John Van der Meulen and Pollard. On refusing to reconstruct the material, the dean withheld Rapson’s diploma, which he eventually received ten years later from the new dean, Wells Bennett. The day after graduating, Rapson and John Van der Meulen entered a small project (the 4/16 House) into a competition organized by Architectural Forum magazine, which received an honorable mention and a $50 prize. After being admitted to the Phi Kappa Phi honor society in 1938, Rapson was encouraged to apply for a two-year George G. Booth Traveling Fellowship in Architecture. Although he was not awarded the fellowship, his drawing impressed Eliel Saarinen, who offered Rapson a scholarship to attend Cranbrook Academy of Art that fall. There he pursued graduate studies in architecture and urban planning for two years.

Prior to commencing the semester, Rapson set up his studio and was invited to help Saarinen with a planning project, which was to provide an analysis of the site for a new State Capitol complex in Lansing, Michigan. Following this experience, Rapson decided to focus more on architecture than planning. Between 1938 and 1942, as part of his study, Rapson contributed designs and drawings and built models for various projects and competitions with which Saarinen and his associates were engaged.

As part of the training philosophy at Cranbrook, Rapson was exposed to many diverse disciplines including weaving, sculpture, metalwork, painting, photography, and graphics. One of Rapson’s submissions to the Museum of Modern Art’s Competition for Organic Design later became known as the Rapson Rapid Rocker, and lead to a new phase in his career. Hans Knoll asked Rapson to send some designs for outdoor chairs and Rapson became the first Cranbrook-trained designer to design for Knoll.

Between 1940 and 1942, Rapson practiced with the firms ‘Saarinen and Saarinen’ and ‘Saarinen, Swanson, and Saarinen’ before moving to Chicago for a teaching position as Head of the Architectural Curriculum at the Institute of Design. Simultaneously, he practiced architecture with two Chicago firms before establishing the ‘Ralph Rapson Architect’ firm between 1942-1954. He and his firm relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1946 and he became Assistant Professor at the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, teaching alongside Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.

In 1951, Rapson was hired by the U.S. State Department to design a series of American embassies in Western Europe with architect John Van der Meulen. Rapson served as the Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota from 1954-1984. He continued to work in private practice in Minneapolis until his death in 2008.


20.3 Linear Feet (8 MS, 1 OS, 84 OS folders)

Language of Materials



Ralph Rapson, born on September 13, 1914, in Alma, Michigan, won a scholarship to the University of Michigan's College of Architecture in 1935. Admitted to the Phi Kappa Phi Society in 1938, he was encouraged to apply for the George G. Booth Travelling Fellowship in Architecture. He did not receive the fellowship but his submission impressed Eliel Saarinen, who offered Rapson a scholarship to attend the Academy of Art, where he helped Saarinen on a planning project for the State Capitol Building in Lansing. Trained in diverse disciplines, Rapson submitted a design for the 'Rapson Rapid Rocker' chair to the MOMA Organic Design competition, after which, Hans Knoll invited him to design outdoor chairs for Knoll. After working for Saarinen and Saarinen, and Saarinen, Swanson, and Saarinen, Rapson taught at the Chicago Institute of Design before relocating to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he taught at the MIT alongside his private practice, Ralph Rapson Architect. In 1951, he was invited to design American embassies in Western Europe for the U.S. State Department. He served as Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota between 1954-1984. He continued in private practice until his death in 2008. This collection contains a small amount of biographical and teaching materials. It documents competitions that Rapson entered, and his projects are well documented. There are research materials covering many architects but also aspects of architecture and design. The photographic materials document his projects. The collection also contains architectural drawings for projects (both built and unbuilt) undertaken between 1936 and 1954.


The Ralph Rapson Papers are organized into the following series: Biographical (box 1), Teaching (box 1), Competitions (box 2), Projects (boxes 3-4), Research (box 5), Photographs (boxes 6-7), Negatives (box 8), Oversize (box 9) and Architectural Drawings, which are arranged by project.

Additional Access

An index to the collection is available.

Architectural drawings are cataloged chronologically in Horizon, Cranbrook's online library catalog.


Gift of Rip Rapson.

Related Materials

Architectural Drawing Series 26

Benjamin Baldwin Papers (2006-02)


Architectural drawings are housed separately in flat file drawers.

Processing History

Leslie S. Edwards, Laura MacNewman, and Gina Tecos; architectural drawings – Cheri Gay, Gina Tecos, and Laura MacNewman.

Guide to the Ralph Rapson Papers
Leslie S. Edwards, Laura MacNewman, and Gina Tecos
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Edition statement
Resource record created by Laura MacNewman

Repository Details

Part of the Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research Repository