Eero Saarinen's Organic Modernism

Retrospect

Eero Saarinen's mid-century designs are icons of Modernism. You can hardly sneeze in this country without falling over some landmark he's designed, and that doesn't even include his furniture, still popular after all these years.

Saarinen studied architecture at Yale, following in the footsteps of his father, the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. Eero's dad was the director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, an art and design school in Michigan, from its inception in 1932. Eero studied and taught there, and became close with Charles and Ray Eames, and Florence Schust Knoll, when she was still a student.

At Cranbrook, Eero Saarinen collaborated with Charles Eames and won MoMA's 1940 Organic Design Competition. MoMA meant "organic" in the sense of furniture that fits the way people live, that makes sense in its domestic surroundings, and whose parts are "harmonious" with the whole. Although the winning designs were never ultimately produced, Eames and Saarinen had presented a new, warm side of functionalism. Influenced by Scandinavian design, they used wood and light upholstery to create practical but human-centric furniture. The two designers were good friends — Saarinen would later name his son Eames — and went on to collaborate on a molded fiberglass chair for a 1946 competition. But while Eames was focused on materials and construction, Saarinen was interested in the sculptural aspect of furniture (he had studied sculpture in Paris as an undergraduate).

The furniture Saarinen designed after he and Eames parted ways was produced by Knoll Associates, now run by his old friend Florence. His Grasshopper Chair from 1946 (image 2) was reminiscent of Scandinavian precedents, with its bent laminated wood frame and comfortably curvaceous upholstered seat. Despite its sculptural and expressive lines (and cute name), the form is simple, almost stark.

More plush was his 1948 Womb Chair (images 3 & 4), again designed for Knoll, who had requested a really comfortable chair to curl up in. Saarinen delivered, used sculpted plywood on simple metal legs to create a new kind of armchair that he felt reflected the new postwar American culture of leisure.

In 1956, Knoll produced Saarinen's Pedestal collection, which included his famous table (image 5) and tulip chairs (images 5-7). Famously, Saarinen said that he designed the collection because he wanted to "clean up the slum of legs" under the table, but he also wanted to make the chair out of "one piece." The quest to sculpt furniture out of one single piece of material was common at the time, shared by the Eameses and Verner Panton, among others, perhaps indicative of a postwar push to master new industrial materials like plywood and plastics. Despite appearances, Saarinen's Tulip chair represents his privileging of sculpture over construction, since the fiberglass-reinforced plastic seat rests on a plastic-coated aluminum base.

Saarinen's famous architectural commissions include the St. Louis Gateway Arch (image 8), designed in 1947, Washington's Dulles International Airport (image 9), and the TWA terminal at JFK (image 1), both from the late 1950s (when JFK was still Idlewild.) In each of these structures, you can clearly see Saarinen's interest in sculptural and expressive forms.

Saarinen died at age 51 in 1961, and although he had been a respected and busy architect during his lifetime, his legacy was not immediately certain. Historians and critics like Vincent Scully saw Saarinen's work as too eclectic and quirky, and they complained that he didn't seem to have one auteur-ish personal style, instead shifting his designs to suit his clients and his individual projects. To be fair, his buildings at Yale, where Scully taught are not among his most celebrated: monolithic rubble masonry residential colleges with no right angles (image 10), and a whale-shaped hockey rink that may be a little too cute.

But what seemed like a betrayal of Modernist principles at the time might now be considered part of Saarinen's genius, a versatility and sense of constant formal experimentation that in some ways prefigured Post-Modernism.


Images: 1 Saarinen's TWA terminal at JFK (formerly Idlewild) Airport, via NYC-Architecture.com 2 Saarinen's Grasshopper chair, via iCollector.com; 3 Womb chair in an Apartment Therapy House Tour, "Lawrence's South Boston Light Box"; 4 Womb chair in a Robert Austin Gonzalez interior, via Desire to Inspire; 5 Saarinen's Pedestal Table, from an interior designed by Doug Meyer, photographed by Mark Roskams for Metropolitan Home; 6 Tulip chairs in a Marrakech home, photographed by Roger Davies for Elle Décor; 7 Tulip chairs in Carlo Mollino's Turin home, via Elle Decoration; 8 Gateway Arch in St. Louis, via Wikimedia Commons; 9 Washington's Dulles airport interior, beautiful photo by Feuillu on Flickr; 10 Morse College at Yale, via LightRestoration.com.

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