Designer Focus: Eero Saarinen

Designer Focus: Eero Saarinen

Oscar White/Corbis/VCG, via Getty Images

Most Acclaimed Designs

Womb Chair and Ottoman, 1948

Womb Chair and Ottoman (1948)

Womb Settee (1950)

Side and Arm Chairs (1948-1950)

Tulip Chair (1956)

Tulip Chairs, 1956

Crow Island School (Winnetka, Illinois, 1940)

General Motors Technical Center (Warren, Michigan, 1956)

Roots

On August 20th, 1910, Saarinen was born in Hvitträsk, Finland. Eliel Saarinen and his second wife, Louise, were the new parents to Eero, who would soon immigrate to the United States in 1923. Eero was thirteen at the time, and continued his teen years in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. 

The company his father founded, Saarinen, Swanson and Associates, was run by Eliel Saarinen and Robert Swanson from the late 1930s until Eliel’s passing in 1950. Up until 1961, the business operated out of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Then, it relocated to Hamden, Connecticut.

Education

Eliel Saarinen, Eero’s father, was the dean of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and naturally, Eero took up courses in sculpture and furniture design. As he studied, his peer group included fellow artists, such as Charles and Ray Eames and Florence Knoll. 

To have that many design legends under one roof, all studying alongside each other, is quite an extraordinary happenstance. 

Eero did not stay in the United States to continue his higher education, however. At the age of 18, he ventured to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, France, in September 1929. There, he pursued studies in sculpture. After spending some time in Paris, he returned to the United States to complete his studies at the Yale School of Architecture in 1934. 

When Eero’s education was completed, he went on to travel Europe for two years, and soon returned to the United States to pursue work under his father’s practice in architecture.

Career

Saarinen came right back to his roots post-travel time.

At Cranbrook Academy of Art, he worked for his father and explored a newfound love for teaching. When Saarinen worked on a special chair that would soon receive critical recognition, his career in furniture design made way. 

The Tulip chair, designed by both Saarinen and Charles Eames, received recognition under the Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition in 1940, and this was where they received their first prize. It was soon fully implemented and produced by the Hans Knoll-founded Knoll furniture firm. 

When Saarinen achieved first place in the 1948 competition for the design of the Gateway Arch National Park (then titled as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial) in St. Louis, further attention was also received while he was still working for his father. Finalization of the memorial took place in the 1960s. 

General Motors Technical Center, 1956

Because he and his father both joined the competition independently, the prize was inadvertently sent to his father. The letter notifying Saarinen of his victory in the competition was sent out by the committee in error and was addressed to his father.

When Saarinen completed the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois, he received international praise, which was a celebratory matter considering this was one of his earliest works. 

Saarinen was no stranger to collaborative projects, as seen with the Tulip chair designed alongside Charles Eames. Saarinen and his father worked on a major project together, which now stands as the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. This style displays what’s known as rationalist Miesian style design. This is when steel and glass are incorporated within accent panels. Here, the accent panels hold two shades of blue.

Constructed in 1956, the General Motors Technical Center project itself allowed Saarinen to use models, which permitted ideas between other architectural professionals to be exchanged for inspiration. 

This project was one to lead them to other architectural opportunities across the Nation. Other major American corporations such as John Deere, IBS, and CBS commissioned Saarinen to design their headquarters or other corporate buildings. These buildings include design elements that were notorious of Saarinen’s signature style. Sweeping staircases occupy the buildings’ spaces and his furniture scattered within their walls. 

Commissions from American universities soon came about as well. Examples of universities include Antioch College, University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, MIT, and the University of Chicago Law School.

Eero Saarinen, 1910 - 1961