Eero Saarinen with a Gateway Arch Model

In the life and design career of Eero Saarinen, his surroundings are important. He was born in Finland, but he later moved to the United States. So, his work reflects his influences and the sources of inspiration. While he was a modernist, Saarinen mixed Scandinavian style with the industrial style of the US to create unique designs. First, an architect and then a furniture creator, he didn’t fit in one category.

He took inspiration from his parents, his life, and his fellow creators, making a name for himself in the international landscape. The Finnish designer chose his projects carefully, just like he did with his collaborators. Inspired by his own father first and then by figures like Charles Eames and Florence Knoll, Saarinen didn’t work on countless projects. Just the opposite. He chose carefully what he wanted to do.

A Short Bio of Eero Saarinen

He was born in 1910 in the town of Kirkkonummi in Finland. Saarinen was born surrounded by nature with windmills, canals, and forests. Both his mother and his father were creators and artists. His mother, Loja Saarinen, was a textile artist, while his father, Eliel Saarinen, was an architect and later the director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Without a doubt, the father was a source of inspiration for the young Eero since he designed the Helsinki Railway Station. A lover of Art Nouveau, Eliel was an example to follow.

In 1923, the family moved to the United States, where their fortune and fame blossomed. Eero Saarinen studied at Yale, and, after his graduation, he joined his father at the Cranbrook Academy. There, he began his career as an architect and designer. He also met Charles Eames, an American creator who loved experimenting with a modernist twist. Eero became a teacher and a builder at the institute, working on architecture and furniture projects.

He spent the following decades working at the Cranbrook Academy and experimenting with new technologies. This was the industrial era of mass-production and innovation after the World Wars and the era of traditional design. From the 30s and on, designers started looking for alternatives, and Eero Saarinen was one of them. He followed the aesthetics and ideas of rationalism and modernism, as it’s evident in his work for the General Motors factory at Warren, in Michigan. Saarinen’s work was unique, a mix between his Scandinavian roots and the American industrial influences.

Thanks to its uniqueness, the style of the Finnish designer brought him fame. He died in 1960 due to a tumor in Michigan, his adopted home.

Between Scandinavia and the United States

While he built a life in Michigan, Eero Saarinen never forgot where he came from, the tiny village in Finland. His style reflects this trend. The Nordic modern movement, one ocean away, developed according to its needs and surroundings. It’s dark and cold in Scandinavia, where days are short and the night can be long.

So, a crucial element in this aesthetic movement is natural light. Both the architecture and design of the Nordic creators wanted to exploit every inch of natural light, reflecting it on the surface and using big glass surfaces to enhance it. Other characteristics of the Scandinavian style are the clean lines, the neutral palettes, and functionality. There is room for creativity but not for excessive frills. One exemplary representative of this movement is Alvar Aalto, another designer, and architect from Finland.

Nature found its rightful place in this aesthetic thanks to the indoors/outdoors dialogue. The American aesthetic from the 30s and on was different. American modernists were more rational, always looking for industrial lines, uses, and aesthetics. A leader of second-generation modernists, Eero Saarinen, worked with curvilinear and organically-inspired forms, a true novelty for this design movement. He was almost like a sculptor who focused on architecture and furniture projects. Curves, clean lines, and pleasing proportions: Saarinen included them all.

These were the influences of American rationalism, with less classical forms and a focus on functionality. The Finnish creator’s work was a mix of his Scandinavian roots and American life. What do they have in common? The love for experimentation. From the use of light to the use of innovative materials and techniques, the Finnish creator looked at design as a puzzle. A puzzle only he could solve.

The Architectural Designs of Eero Saarinen

The Cranbook Academy of Art

Both worlds meet and match in his architecture and furniture projects. His beginning as a professional architect was at Cranbrook Academy of Art with his father. The institute is a hub for modernism in all its forms, shapes, and derivations. Eliel Saarinen joined the academy as a developer and designer, helping to create the campus. In every step of the way and in every detail of the drawings, his son Eero helped.

But the designers’ mother, Loja, was also fruitful at Cranbrook. In fact, she was a textile designer and teacher. And a successful one. So, the academy was a family business for the Saarinens. The campus and the curriculum reflected the Finnish’s love for experimentation, and it became a hub where ideas were welcomed. A true laboratory for the students of art, architecture, and design. Thanks to this freedom, aesthetics could develop.

The Cranbook Academy of Art by Eliel and Eero Saarinen

The Crow Island School

Eero Saarinen developed his technique and style in projects like the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois, which dates back to 1940. This architectural design represents Saarinen’s progressive ideas, like the child-centered design approach. The Finnish creator used innovative materials as a true American modernist. But he also took the indoor/outdoor approach like his Scandinavian colleagues. This is a modern school without any high ceilings and obvious lines.

Crow Island School by Eero Saarinen

The General Motors Technical Center

In 1955-56, Eero went back to collaborating with his father for the General Motors Technical Center in Michigan. The two architects chose steel and glass, truly modern and rational materials for this project. Definitely, an innovation compared to traditional designs made of wood or leather. This is an industrial design made with modern materials. It’s also a Scandinavian design, made to maximize the use of light through glass.

The General Motors Technical Center

TWA Flight Center

Before death, his last work was the Yale Hockey Rink in New Haven, which he built in 1958, completely made of concrete. After he died in 1962, developers finished the TWA Flight Center terminal at the JFK. The airport in New York. It’s a thin-shell construction made of reinforced concrete and a shell roof. Despite the weight of the materials, it looks light as a feather, the perfect design for an airport. Each of these elements is visible in Saarinen’s furniture designs.

TWA Terminal by Eero Saarinen

Eero Saarinen’s Furniture Design Career

Crucial in his furniture work was the influence of Charles Eames, a curious and innovative designer. They both shared a love for experimentation, especially with new materials like plywood and fiberglass. Together, Eero Saarinen and Eames produced the molded plywood collection of chairs, functional and elegant. They designed them for the MoMA-sponsored 1940 Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition, and these chairs were an instant success in the United States.

“Every object, whether small or big, relates to its surroundings,” said the Finnish designer, “each project has to find a solution to the biggest issues. If it’s a chair, then the solution must be found in the space and the rooms.”

So, Eero Saarinen believed in the connection between objects and the space around them. He didn’t create anything just for the sake of it. Instead, he wanted to solve problems and enigmas. If something bothered him, the Finnish creator tried to solve it. This attitude is true for all of his furniture design projects. Especially for his two most famous collections. That’s how he created two of his most famous collections of furniture:

  • Tulip collection of chairs and tables
  • The Womb Chair

He designed all of these projects for the company Knoll, which Saarinen joined in the 40s. He worked with them for over 15 years, producing different collections. At Knoll, Saarinen found fertile ground, and he met people who shared his beliefs and aesthetics. Let’s take a look at these two collections signed by Saarinen, both in production decades after the first drawings.

Eero Saarinen and Florence Knoll

The Tulip (or Pedestal) Collection by Eero Saarinen

The Tulip chairs and tables is a collection that dates back to the end of the 50s. Its centerpiece is the chair, which posed a challenge to the Finnish creator. In fact, Saarinen wanted to create a one-leg piece of furniture. And he did it. Instead of confusion about legs, the Finnish creator chose order and clean lines.

Tulip Table by Eero Saarinen for Knoll

As the designer said, his goal was to create a seating without legs which, according to him, makes the world ugly and confusing. He wanted the piece of furniture to be one, complete, and full entity. A continuous line, uninterrupted. That’s exactly what the Tulip chair is. The base is made of metal casting since plastic can’t hold a person’s weight. The chair soon became an icon of its time, and it was even featured in popular shows like the TV series Star Trek and the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The Tulip was part of the Pedestal collection, which also featured a minimalist coffee table with a base of heavy molded cast aluminum and a smooth top.

So, where does the name “Tulip” come from? The single and curvy pedestal looks like the stem of a flower, like the stem of a high and elegant tulip. It was so successful that Knoll still created the Tulip chair, although in different variations. Some of them have armrests, while other models are covered in leather or fabric. Another contemporary version of this chair looks like a bar stool, comfortable and glamorous.

Vintage Tulip chair by Eero Saarinen for Knolladvertising

The Womb Chair and Collection by Eero Saarinen

On the other hand, the Womb chair (1947-48) had a different premise and goal. In fact, Florence Knoll asked the Finnish designer to create ” a chair that was like a basket full of pillows.” She wanted something that she could curl up in, comfortable and ergonomic. The result is this mid-century classic chair, supportive and cozy.

Once again, this piece of furniture represents Saarinen’s desire to experiment and try new technologies and materials. The Womb chair features a seat shell made of foam-covered molded fiberglass. While the legs are made of seamless tubular steel, polished in chrome to look elegant. This collection also features a set with an ottoman that Knoll still produces nowadays. It features foam lining, an upholstery of high-quality wool fabric, and a fiberglass frame for perfect support. It’s flexible and ideal for any body shape.

Where does its name come from? From a woman’s womb, welcoming and ergonomic. It almost looks like a sculpture, but a sculpture that breathes. Perhaps the Finnish designers said it best: “It was designed on the theory that a great number of people have never really felt comfortable and secure since they left the womb.”

Womb Chair by Eero Saarinen for Knoll

Modernist But With a Twist

Without a doubt, Eero Saarinen falls into a later generation of modernists. At least, he falls into this category for design historians. Everything matches. The time, the use of innovative materials, and the functionality of both his architectural and furniture projects. But there was a twist. In fact, he never forgot his Finnish roots, dipped into the Scandinavian design. Thanks to his parents’ creative souls, Saarinen was always a creator. His move abroad, his childhood in Finland, and his family: all of these elements helped in creating his style and aesthetic.

70 Series by Eero Saarinen for Knoll

In fact, he wasn’t afraid to collaborate and take inspiration from the people around him. From Eames to Florence Knoll and the rumors of Alvar Aalto’s works, Eero Saarinen was like a sponge. Curious, modern, and with a love of experimentation, the Finnish designer left a legacy of practical and industrial designs, from his buildings to furniture. And he was so inspiring that the buildings still stand nowadays. He was so creative; his chairs and tables fill contemporary living rooms and offices. Even fifty decades later.

Gateway Arch and Tulip Side Table

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