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ARCHITECTURE & URBAN DESIGN

Designer, then Architect: Eero Saarinen

Even if you've never heard of Eero Saarinen, you are bound be familiar with at least one of his works: The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. Chances are, you've seen more of his designs: That is, if you were alive during the 1960s or have ever watched the original Star Trek on television. The chairs on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise featured during the 1960s series were none other than "tulip chairs", designed by Saarinen for the Knoll company in 1955.

Gateway Arch

In fact, Saarinen blurred the lines between industrial designer and architect for most of his career, which was sadly cut short by his untimely death in 1961. As an architect, he was responsible for the Miller House and MIT's Kresge Auditorium, among others. As a furniture designer, he designed a number of trend-setting and very timely pieces, most built out of a fiberglass/polymer blend.

The Tulip Chair

Before becoming an architect, Eero had gained a reputation as a well-respected designer. According to the Cranbrook Archives, he designed the placemat on the left when he was only 10! Growing up in the Saarinen household meant being surrounded by design: the house was created by Eero’s father (an architect) and his mother (a sculptor and weaver). Some of the overlap between architecture and design in Eero Saarinen's work was influenced by his upbringing and education at Cranbrook Academy of Art. According to the elder Saarinen, Cranbrook was "not an art school in the ordinary sense," but rather "a working place for creative art".

If it was his upbringing at Cranbrook that allowed him an early start in furniture, it was a design competition that launched Eero Saarinen's architectural career. His literally monumental submission bested Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, Minoru Yamasaki (who would later design the World Trade Center), and Eero's own famous father, architect Eliel Saarinen.

Eero's design rapidly won over the jurors, who sent a telegraph on 1948 to the Saarinen's to inform him of his victory. The problem: they addressed it to Eliel, Eero's father, who had also penned a (non-winning) submission. The Saarinen family uncorked a bottle of champagne and to celebrate Eliel's victory when a nervous phone call came from St. Louis: the winning submission was actually from his son, Eero. If there was any question of the supportive nature of the Saarinens as parents (and design teachers), Eliel's reaction removes all doubt: the proud father opened a second bottle to toast his son. Eero's place in the history of architecture was secured.

 

All images subject to the fair use doctrine. Image 1: Source unknown, likely courtesy Jefferson National Park Archives. Image 2: Photo (c) Knoll. 
Image 3: Photo by Betty Truxell, (c) unknown. Image 4: Photo by Balthazar Korab, (c) Cranbrook Art Museum.