An Exploration of Eero Saarinen’s Enduring Designs

Saarinen Table & Tulip Chairs.  Photography Courtesy of Knoll, Inc.

One of the most recognized names in 20th century design and architecture, Eero Saarinen’s organic forms introduced an interesting aesthetic that was a breath of fresh air during the wave of International Style buildings and Modernist furnishings. Saarinen’s design work included institutional buildings for education and industry as well furniture. The information that follows explores Saarinen’s catalogue of influential contributions to design.

Early Inspirations

Eero Saarinen was born August 20, 1910 to acclaimed designers Eliel and Loja Saarinen in Finland. In 1923, the family emigrated to America where Eliel became the director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art while continuing to work as an architect. By the time he was in his teens, Eero was designing furniture and fixtures with Eliel for Cranbrook.

Eero Saarinen. Photography Courtesy of Knoll, Inc.

In 1929, Eero moved to Paris for a year to study sculpture at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. A year later he enrolled in the B.F.A. architecture program at Yale. From 1934 to 1936, he worked in Europe and with Finnish designer Jarl Eklund before returning to Michigan. There he taught at Cranbrook while practicing furniture design and architecture.

Influential Furnishings

After returning to Michigan, Eero met fellow designer Charles Eames and they formed a close friendship. Working together on their series of molded plywood chairs for the MoMA-sponsored 1940 Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition, the two won first prize in every category.

The Womb Settee. Photography Courtesy of Knoll, Inc.

Soon after, Eero was invited by Florence Knoll to work for Knoll in the furniture department. Florence was mentored by Eero’s mother, Loja, in textile design and built a brother-sister relationship with Eero that continued throughout their lives. During the 15 years that Eero worked at Knoll, he created some of his most famous furniture designs, including the Tulip chair and tables, the Womb chair, and the 70 series seating collection.

Broad Sweeping Arcs and Long Lines

Although known primarily for his later works in the post-war period, Eero began working in architecture when he returned from Europe in 1936. In 1938, he joined his father’s practice. Together, they won first prize in the Smithsonian Institution Gallery of Art competition which was intended to be built in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, ground was never broke on the project. Utilizing the same fluid shapes as he did with his furniture for Knoll, Eero’s architecture stepped outside the box of Modernist aesthetics at the time. Instead, his work has been characterized with broad sweeping arcs and long lines.

Saarinen Executive Chairs. Photography Courtesy of Knoll, Inc.

Throughout his career, Eero continued to work with a variety of designers and architects. His first independent work was the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, which opened in 1956. His most notable works were built in the 1960s, with three of his most famous structures being completed after his death in 1961: the Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC (1962), TWA Terminal at Kennedy International Airport (1962), and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri (1965).

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri (1965).

On September 1, 1961, Eero Saarinen died suddenly of a brain tumor in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He had just turned 51 years old. After his death, his colleagues and clients continued to work on and complete his active projects which became characteristic of mid-to-late 20th century architecture.

More to Learn