Eero Saarinen

by Branka Bozic

Eero Saarinen

He didn’t write books nor did he comment on them. Many people criticized him for not having a clear attitude. He thought that his works didn’t belong to any movement and that each one is adjusted to a problem. He listened to his clients carefully and considered them to be “co-creators”. Eero Saarinen moved boundaries of Modernism and turned it into an exciting game of materials. He changed an already established pattern and started a period of another Modernism generation. 

Growing Up in a Respectable Family 

Eero Saarinen was born in 1910 as a son of a famous architect Eliel Saarinen. He grew up with the projects of Art Nouveau Artists on which his father worked. As a teenager he helped his father with designing furniture for different objects. His mother was a textile artist and a sculptor so he drew his inspiration from artistic circles as well. When Eero was only 13, this Finnish family moved to the USA. They lived in Michigan where his parents were reputable lecturers at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. His father was a dean for some time and his mother founded a weaving department. 

Eero returned to Europe in 1929 and entered the studies of sculpture within Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. After two years he decided to attend theYale School of Architecture as well, where he graduated in 1934. At the end of his studies, Eero Saarinen received an award from Yale University that enabled him to travel the countries of Europe and Africa which affected his work to a certain extent. Regardless of his decision to become a USA citizen at the age of 30, he often returned to Finland, his homeland, searching for inspiration. Eero started his career joining his father at Cranbrook Academy. He met Florence Knoll, Charles and Ray Eames there while they still weren’t famous in the world of design. 

Recognizing Audacity  

The Museum of Modern Art in New York organized a competition “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” in 1940, where the collaboration between Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames won the first prize. The wish to examine rarely used materials and to experiment turned to a design of a new spirit. This prestigious recognition brought a lifelong glory to these young furniture designers. Presenting their Organic Chair they gained audience’s attention with simple and compact design. Eames commented: “In the three-way curve laminated shell construction and the rubber weld Eero Saarinen and I felt that we had found processes that would go a long way toward filling our ideas of the chair need.

The fact that in those times there wasn’t a technology which would enable serial production of this piece represents the proof how ahead of its time this chair was. Fortunately, since 2006 Vitra has vitalized the chair thanks to modern methods. Even two variations of the chair were introduced: Organic Conference and Organic Highback made in different colors. 

Just after the Second World War, Eero himself designed two more leisure chairs. The first one was Grasshopper Chair or Model 61, made in collaboration with Knoll. Upholstered chair made of laminated wood refreshed interiors of the mid-20th century. With a higher backrest tilt, it enabled a complete comfort. The next in line was Womb Chair from 1946, which was offered for purchase with an additional ottoman. It was made on Florence Knoll’s request, who imagined this piece of furniture as: “…a chair that was like a basket full of pillows…something I could really curl up in.” The chair was really spacious which shows that Eero gave an excellent solution to the given problem. In this particular period of his creation, he slowly freed himself from laminated wood and started to use more modern materials like fiberglass and steel. 

Nature Patterns

Sculptural approach towards furniture design is best seen in a series which overshadowed the previous ones. Popular Pedestal collection was unsurpassed idea of that time. “We have chairs with four legs, with three and even with two, but no one has made one with just one leg, so that’s what we’ll do.” – was something that inspired Eero. Oval tables and Tulip chairs look like a liquid which drains in one elegant move and touches the floor. This is the example of how successfully he manipulated with materials in favor of total design.

Although the initial goal was to make an entire chair out of fiberglass, this material could not hold the weight on its own.  Wisely, Eero concealed the stable aluminum stand thus enabling this iconic piece appear on the market. Characterized as a futuristic one, the chair was actually made to complete the already existing series of tables. Contemporary tables were made in several combinations: with wooden or marble panel. The stand with its shape implied that they belonged to the same collection as Tulip chairs.

Eero Saarinen was prone to making great number of models in order to check if all elements were consistent and proportional. He was examining how pleasing they would be to the eye, if they were curved under a certain angle. It is believed that he was one of the people who should have taken credit for the fame that mega company Knoll gained in time. 

Eero Saarinen the Architect

 “My father always used to say that from an ashtray to a city plan, everything is architecture.” Led by his father’s famous statement, Eero indulged in architectural projects. “In working out a design, you always have to keep thinking of the next largest thing – the ashtray in relation to the tabletop; the chair in its relation to the room; the building in relation to the city.” He believed furniture design, architecture and urbanism to be an unbreakable joint, which really was a way that guided him through the career. One of the projects that once again put him on the top was the first award for Gateway Arch National Park’s design. This monument, 192 m high, made of stainless steel was finished only in 1965. Curious character of talented man led to brave and original solution that still decorates the panorama of St. Louis.

General Motors Technical Center, Crow Island School, central part of Bell Labs Holmdel Complex, Miller House etc. are just some of the objects that belong to his large opus. Some of these structures reminded of Bauhaus architecture because of their strict rhythm, while others were true miracles of tenuous, rounded concrete. Curvy or wavy moves drew more attention with their daring manners. Among them was also one of Eero’s most famous works: TWA Flight Center within John F. Kennedy International Airport. The object, according to its function, reminds of bird’s wings and seems like it has liven up

The Design of Future

Eero Saarinen brought seductive and dramatic forms into existing, monotonous Modernism. Established, tucked away scene received original suggestions. The majority of projects represented a symbol of future times and technologies with their gracefulness and ease. It was his mother that was considered to be responsible for the plasticity he brought into projects. At the very peak of his career he suddenly died in 1961. Kevin Roche, one of the key people in his bureau, took over the company and finished several ongoing projects. 

Eero was an initiator of searching and experimenting with the undiscovered in all areas in which he worked. Undoubtedly, he is a role model for generations of today as well. Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava, also finds an inspiration in nature and in problem. By observing his work, we could identify him with Eero who continued to live in the 21st century and who uses all the potentials of time in which we live in. 

Featured image: Saarinen office staff at Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Archive at the Library of Congress. According to the library, there are no known copyright restrictions on the use of this work.

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