That Which Endures – Elizabeth Riggan

That Which Endures – Elizabeth Riggan

His father’s words of wisdom laid habitually at the back of his mind: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” Eero Saarinen, the prodigal son of a family of Finnish artists, is perhaps the least-known famous architect of the twentieth century [1], yet his work remains as relevant today as it was when it began to emerge in post-war America over fifty years ago. His father Eliel’s mantra rang true, for Eero revisited this concept as his most basic design principle throughout his career, in turn producing some of the most recognizable forms in furniture, interiors, and the built environment of the Modern movement.

The second of two children to Eliel and his wife Loja, Eero was born on August 20, 1910 in the lake district of Hvitträsk, just outside Helsinki, Finland. He and his elder sister, Eva-Lisa, took after their parents’ creative nature straight away, sketching, weaving, building, and painting from a very early age. In April 1923, Eliel won second place in an international competition to design the Chicago Tribune Tower [2], relocating the family to the United States and changing the course of their lives forever.

The Saarinens arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the autumn of 1923; where Eliel was invited to be a
visiting professor of architecture at 
the University of Michigan. During 
Eliel’s time teaching in Ann Arbor,
 the Saarinens were introduced to
the Booth family, the head of which, George Gough Booth, was a man of great power and wealth in metropolitan Detroit. Booth was impressed with Eliel’s architectural talents, and commissioned him to help turn the family’s Bloomfield Hills estate into a cultural compound of artistic institutions. [3] The site was called Cranbrook, after George Booth’s father’s birthplace in Kent, England. The Saarinens moved to Cranbrook in 1925, and Eliel’s position there afforded the family an unusual opportunity 
to establish an artistic colony on the campus to decorate the buildings. “Living at Cranbrook is quite a unique experience… It’s sort of like living in a small town, except all the residents are artists and designers and architects.” [4] Located in the heart of Midwestern America, this cultural campus was a special place. There were few other places in the world—the European counterpart Bauhaus being one of
 them—where every field of design, from textiles and metalwork to architecture and city planning, was encompassed in so comprehensive a curriculum. [5] Eliel and Loja had a strong desire to include their children in the design
and ornamentation of the Cranbrook buildings, and Eero went on to produce various creations from wrought-iron gates, tiles, and inserts for chairs in the dining halls, then moving on to design several pieces of furniture for his parents’ bedroom at the Saarinen House on campus when he was a mere teenager.

In 1929, Eero left to study sculpture for a short tour at the Académie de la Grand Chumière in Paris. He returned later that year, and was almost immediately commissioned by Booth to design most of the school’s furniture – chairs, tables, sofas, beds, and wardrobes, for the Cranbrook Kingswood School for Girls. Once again, Eero left Cranbrook for the Yale 
School of Architecture in
1931, completed his four-
year degree in just three
years, and went off to travel
through Europe. Upon 
his arrival back stateside 
in 1936, Eero found the
 academy he returned to very different than the 
one he left behind. The
 friendships he formed with
 other students over the
 next few years would last
 throughout his lifetime,
 and those students would
 also become his business 
partners, associates, and rivals over the course of his career. Some such individuals included Charles Eames, Ray Kaiser (later Ray Eames), Harry Bertoia, Ralph Rapson, and Harry Weese, to name a few. Perhaps the most significant relationship forged at Cranbrook was between Eero and Florence Schust, a bright young girl from Saginaw taken on by Eliel for her promising architectural talents. Almost familial, Eero and Florence regarded one another as siblings, and later when Florence Schust became Florence Knoll, her ties into the world of furniture manufacturing would one day advance Eero’s designs to iconic status via the powerhouse of modern design known as Knoll Associates, Inc.

A collaborative effort between Eero and Charles Eames awarded the designers two first place prizes in the “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Eero and Eames submitted entries for a side chair, armchair, lounge chair, sectional sofas and modular casework made of lightweight molded plywood shells. [6] The year was 1940, and at roughly thirty years old, Eero and Eames had received international recognition for their designs. Their molded plywood chair design, a prototype that would later be developed into Eero’s Womb chair, was an Internationalist piece of art, surpassing simple craftsmanship and transitioning to industrial design. [7] The significance of this competition for Eero, Eames, and modern design is clear. Contemporary seating design traces its style back to this point, the modern approach to comfort and ergonomics are drawn largely from the pioneering work in design and form done for these chairs. The aesthetic of interiors of both corporations and homes today shows evidence of this change in style and expression. Where Europe was once the source for modernist design, now it was America. [8]

Meanwhile, Florence Schust moved to New York City and began work as a freelance interior designer, one of her clients a young German immigrant named Hans Knoll, come to make it big by way of his small furniture manufacturing company. In 1946, Schust and Knoll were married and his company was renamed Knoll Associates. As the newly appointed Director of Design, Florence Knoll called upon her former Cranbrook peers to bring their talents to Knoll.[9] Taking advantage of the political, cultural, and financial strength of America post World War II, Eero was at the frontier bringing new ideas and using new materials in all his designs. The late1940s and the1950s gave rise to a new middle class, and cost-effective, mass-produced options were needed to fill the family homes in suburban America full of furniture and other such goods.

Eero’s first contribution to Knoll was the Grasshopper chair – Model 61- in 1946. Saarinen explained of his new design: “People sit differently today … They want to sit lower and they like to slouch. I have attempted to shape the slouch in an organized way, giving support for the back as well as the seat, shoulders and head.” [10] After the Grasshopper model was completed, he and Florence wasted no time in plans for his next installment. Florence expressed her frustrations to Eero about the ‘one-dimensionality’ of most lounge chairs…“I want a chair I can sit in sideways or any other way I want to sit in it.” To which Saarinen answered, in his design brief, “The ‘womb’ chair
… attempts to achieve a psychological comfort by providing a great big cup-like shell into which you can curl
up and pull up your legs, something women especially like to do.” [11] In 1948, Saarinen’s Womb chair was introduced, part of Saarinen’s 70 Series chairs, which were comprised of the Womb chair,
an armless side chair, and an armchair widely used in corporate America’s interiors. The final installment of the 70 Series was introduced in1950, and the entire collection was beyond innovative in its production. In keeping with advancing technologies, Eero wanted to leave behind his use of molded plywood in this new series, instead turning to a boat builder to produce single sheets
of reinforced polyester resin that could be molded into one organic form. The Model 72 side chair of this series was the first mass-produced plastic chair in America. Impressive as this may
be, nothing compares to the series of furniture Hans Knoll would personally request Saarinen begin work on four years later. Saarinen responded: “I am really very enthusiastic about the whole idea… I have come up with an idea that I think will wipe Herman Miller off the map!” [12] His concept was for a chair with one leg, explaining to his colleagues at the office: “I want to make the chair all one thing again. All the great furniture from the past… has always been a structural total. With our excitement over plastic and plywood shells, we grew away from this structural total.”[13] Saarinen’s Pedestal Series was a visionary advancement for post-war American design. It is hard to ignore Eero’s beginning as a sculptor when experiencing a Tulip chair; its sinuous and curvaceous form a timeless sample of modern design. While he originally intended the chairs be produced from a single material, he later discovered that the molded plastic he used for his 70 Series was not strong enough
to support the form of a one-legged chair. [14] He resorted to a base cast
of metal, while the chair shells were made of the originally intended plastic. Saarinen worked on what would be his last contribution to the Knoll furniture collection for three long years, with
the help of Knoll employee Don Petitt producing scale models of the chairs for him while Eero sketched away. Designed in 1957, first manufactured in1958, and still in continuous production in 2012, Saarinen’s Pedestal series, more commonly known as the Tulip tables and chairs, can be found dotted throughout the high streets in specialist design shops like The Conran Shop, Skandium, the Designer’s Guild, and other such places. A true icon of modern American design, the Pedestal series transcends style and remains some of the most widely recognized furniture to this day.

The combination of Saarinen’s collections placed Knoll Associates precisely where Hans Knoll imagined the company from the beginning, combining the art and sculpture of modernist masters with post-war technology and industrial production, achieving the objective of unifying art, industry, and craftsmanship. [15]

Meanwhile, back at family’s architectural firm, Saarinen, Saarinen and Associates, the father and son duo were focusing their efforts on building projects that took them outside of Michigan, such as the Berkshire Music Center in Massachusetts, The Tabernacle Church
 of Christ in Indiana, and Kleinhans
 Music Hall in New York. Back in Detroit, however, the firm was commissioned by General Motors Corporation to design and construct the General Motors Technical Center, an industrial research facility on the outskirts of Detroit. With
a budget of $100 million from a massive corporation like GM, this was easily the firm’s largest commission to date.[16] Eero inherited this project upon his father’s death in 1950, and the General Motors Technical Center was dedicated in May of 1956 and met with enthusiastic public reception. It was a busy year for Eero in 1956. Following the completion of the GM Technical Center, he won the London Chancellery competition to design the new U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square, and was also commissioned to design the Trans World Airlines Terminal in New York City, arguably one of his most famous architectural achievements. Ever a manipulator of form, the TWA Terminal is yet another sculptural success in which Eero captured the glamour and elegance of flying by use of agile line to convey movement.

Over the course of the following years, Saarinen traveled extensively with his wife and children throughout Asia and Europe, giving lectures and receiving countless awards for his architectural innovations. A return to Finland in the late fifties was a great media event, for the world-renowned architect was finally returning to his roots after so many years away in America. Eero Saarinen died on September 1, 1961 in Ann Arbor of complications following a surgical procedure to remove a brain tumor discovered mere weeks before. He was fifty one years old. His memorial service, fittingly held at the Kresge Chapel at MIT in Massachusetts, which Eero designed, was attended by a great number of his esteemed colleagues and partners in the architecture and design industries. Saarinen’s death was a particularly tragic one, given he was seemingly at the height of his career and his influence on modern America; one can only speculate at what might still have come to pass had he survived.

In 1961, the Yale Architectural 
Journal, Perspecta, published Eero’s final word on his definition of architecture, an appropriate echo of his father’s enduring words: “I think 
of architecture as the total of man’s man-made physical surroundings. The only thing I leave out is nature. You might say it is the man-made nature… It is the total of everything we have around us, starting with the largest city plan, includes the streets we drive on and the telephone poles and signs, down to the building and house we work and live in and does not end until we consider the chair we sit
in and the ash tray we dump our pipe in… So… what is the scope of architecture? I would answer it man’s total physical surroundings, outdoors and indoors.” [17] Although cut short, the life and work of Eero Saarinen was just that—a total canon that shaped our surroundings, formed our cultural context, and pointed toward a brighter future through good design. ◊



*This text was written in response to the “Catalogue Essay” brief at the Royal College of Art, London, which would appear in the catalogue accompanying a hypothetical retrospective exhibition featuring the work of architect and designer Eero Saarinen.


[1] Pelkonen and Albrecht, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future. Introduction. Pg. 4
[2] Allen Temko, Eero Saarinen. Pg. 14
[3] Mark Coir. “The Cranbrook Factor.” Pg. 30. Pelkonen and Albrecht, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future.
[4] “Roots: Celebrating Over 70 Years of Design Leadership.”
[5] Allan Temko. Eero Saarinen. Page 15.
[6] Mark Coir, “The Cranbrook Factor.” Pg. 36. Pelkonen and Albrecht, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future.
[7] Allan Temko. Eero Saarinen. Pg. 15.
[8] Brian Lutz. Knoll: A Modernist Universe. Pg. 23
[9] Brian Lutz. “Furniture.” Pg. 251. Pelkonen and Albrecht, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future.
[10] Eero Saarinen. Saarinen on His Work. Pg. 68
[11] Eero Saarinen. Saarinen on His Work. Pg. 68.
[12] Brian Lutz. “Furniture.” Pg. 255. Pelkonen and Albrecht, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future. Herman Miller was Knoll’s only competitor during this time, Eero’s friend Charles Eames designed furniture for Herman Miller, Inc.
[13] Eero Saarinen. Saarinen on His Work. Pg. 68.
[14] Brian Lutz. Knoll: A Modernist Universe. Pg. 146
[15] Brian Lutz. Knoll, A Modernist Universe. Pg. 47
[16] Mark Coir, “The Cranbrook Factor.” Pg 38. Pelkonen and Albrecht, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future.
[17] Vincent Scully. “Rethinking Saarinen.” Pg 14. Pelkonen and Albrecht, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future.


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Author: Jordan King