One of the most celebrated, prolific, and unorthodox architects and designers of the twentieth century, Eero Saarinen has become a beacon of American modernism.
While famous for his sculptural and bold architecture, such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri and the TWA Terminal at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Eero Saarinen: Furniture for Everyman is the first monograph to focus exclusively on his furniture designs. A self-declared “form-giver,” his furniture, like his architecture, is characterized by its sleek and expressive forms.
Saarinen furniture was for “everyman,” he said.
It is tempting to interpret this comment as an indication of the designer’s intent to rationalize the mass consumption of his furniture. Rather, it was his strongly held belief that mass production should never compromise the strict impersonal nature of furniture.
“As with the architectural shells,” he said, “it is essential, in fact, that mass-produced items must have (an) impersonal character. It must not be romantic; it must be classic, in the sense of responding to an often-recurring need, both practical and visual.”
Taken into production by the furniture company Knoll, which was co-owned by his friend Florence Knoll, Saarinen’s designs were trend-setting and revolutionary. As many of them continue to be produced today, such as the well-known and loved Womb chair and his Pedestal Collection, they are ubiquitous.
Featuring rare and never-before-seen archival photographs that span Saarinen’s technical work to his personal life, a preface by Florence Knoll, and a piece by designer and Saarinen protégé Niels Diffrient, Eero Saarinen: Furniture for Everyman is the authoritative and comprehensive guide to the furniture designs and legacy of the modern master.
A LIFE OF DESIGN
Eero Saarinen’s career as a modern furniture designer began when he was a teenager and spanned the remainder of his short life. His first furniture designs proceeded his earliest architecture by almost a decade, and his later furniture designs were received with widespread public and professional acclaim. In the period immediately following his death, in 1961, the influence of innovations in technique and form that he introduced in his architecture quickly receded, whereas the influence of his furniture innovations has continued uninterrupted to this day.
If there was a distinction for Saarinen between his architecture and his furniture designs it was one of invention, not inspiration.
“I believe very strongly that the whole field of design is all one thing,” he said, “hence my interest in furniture.”
“The way chromosomes multiply out of the original sperm and the thinking of the total concept is carried down to the smallest detail.”
Eero Saarinen had a theoretical view of the unity of design; nevertheless, his furniture was almost always the product of a creative exercise separate from his architecture, but not derivative of specific project-related needs. Saarinen approached the design of his furniture with an intensity and focus equal to his most monumental architectural projects, although it was almost always a more private creative matter.
Furniture, Saarinen thought, should make no individual dramatic statement, and above all else, it should never pander to consumers trends. It should “be to the structure is to architecture,” that is, purpose-built dependable and unselfconscious.
As unspectacular as Saarinen’s furniture designs might have been intended, the brilliance of their final realization was frequently overwhelming.
After World War II, Saarinen’s concentrated on his work in his father’s, Eliel Saarinen’s architecture firm, where he was a partner. Together they built a very successful practice, and in the next ten years Eero Saarinen came to be considered by many to be America’s foremost architect. He did not promote himself, privately or publicly, as a furniture designer. Instead, he relied on his close friend and professional collaborator, Florence Knoll, and her and her husband Hans Knoll’s company, Knoll Associates, to bring industry and public attention to his furniture.
Saarinen conceived of himself as a child of his time, a student and a descendent of modernism’s first generation. He was an extraordinarily gifted member of a postwar technological civilization that was forming just ahead of him, around him, and in his wake. Saarinen considered his furniture designs a set of solutions borne of a new aesthetic. Furniture always had to relate to its setting, he said, a setting which was inevitably a box. Early influential modernist designers, the likes of Marcel Breuer and Le Corbusier, whom he referred to as cubists, solved the relationship of their furniture to “the box” with their light designs using steel tubing, designs that Saarinen called beautiful. But Saarinen had new ideas about furniture and its spatial relationships. As the twentieth century unfolded, advances in technology increased at an exponential rate, and Saarinen voiced his delight; “New materials and new techniques have given us great opportunities,” he said.
SAARINEN AND EAMES
Most accounts of the earliest contact between Saarinen and Eames describes a period of standoffishness, mutual curiosity and reserve born of their creative and competitive natures. Except for this initial distance, out of respect more than anything else, Saarinen and Eames were the closest of friends for the rest of their lives. Saarinen and Eames were a formidable design partnership. Their matching competitive natures drove them past competitive boundaries of materials and form to new techniques and new ideas in seating comfort and mass production.
The art verses industry was a debate from the beginning of modernism, usually with the adherents to art staking the claim to purity as their exclusive province. Saarinen saw purity as the antidote to compromise, balancing the present with the past. As an artist, Saarinen had no limit to his vision and no compromise to his innovative exploration of form. He found industrial solutions as a secondary consequence of his art.
By 1940 the polish and luxury of the Moderne style had begun to give way to a modernist American style that was less urbane and more functional. American designers were accepting the stricter aesthetics regimen of European modernism, while gaining confidence in their own interpretations. Saarinen and Eames were leading examples of the emergent American modernist trend that was to dominate furniture design in the second half of the twentieth century.
This ethos came to a head by Saarinen and Eames when they entered ‘The Organic Design in Home Furnishings Competition.’ This competition was endorsed but the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They were interested in finding young designers who would design new objects for the home. The competition expanded on this idea to include the cooperation of manufacturers so that entrants to the competition could be assured that the objects they designed for the competition would actually be produced.
In the brief for the competition it stated, “In the field of home furnishings there have been no outstanding design developments in recent years. A new way of living is developing, however, and this requires a fresh approach to the design problems and the new expression.’ In the view of Saarinen and Eames, a chair of compounded-molded plywood provided the possibility for the new expression the Modern was looking for.
The two designers were confident that molded plywood would allow a seating-design approach consistent with the modernist notion of reduced mass and the increased practicality of comfort, weight, and construction. This time, however, they would create a form more closely configured to the shape of the human body. The chairs they conceived for the competition would use a one-piece shell of plywood molded in three dimensions. It was their intent to eliminate much of the internal structure of the traditional plush seating, making a thin compounded-molded shell that conformed to the curves of the body and providing sufficient with minimal materials.
On the 27th of January 1941 the competition’s Jury announced that they were pleased that the competition had not only brought out good design in all categories, but that it had uncovered one outstanding new development in furniture design in the entries of Saarinen and Eames, whose submission matched a reasonable and intelligent structural idea with a brilliant aesthetic expression. Their design for chairs, using their handling of unit furniture in a living room marks a definite advance over any now produced.
The Saarinen-Eames entry represented the watershed moment in the emergence of the American modernist furniture design. With the success of the exhibition, and the designers’ groundbreaking advancements in materials and technology, the global centre of modernist furniture design shifted from Europe to America.
FLORENCE SCHUST KNOLL
It was Florence Knoll who was instrumental in bringing architects to the company to design furniture. She had studied architecture under Saarinen’s father, the great Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, who himself had collaborated with and influenced American furniture makers Ray and Charles Eames. When Florence and her husband formed the furniture company, Knoll Associates, one of their signature pieces was Eero Saarinen’s famous Tulip Chair which he designed in 1940 and the relationship remains a perfect example of a creative meeting of designer and producer. The 1948 Womb Chair, above in a New Yorker advert, was another fruit of that collaboration.
“Eero Saarinen’s life was almost always about creative exploration.” Groomed by his father and surrounded by the brightest and most progressive colleagues, Saarinen made the most of his extraordinary set of opportunities. His personal and professional relationship with Florence Knoll is not the kind of opportunity most furniture designers enjoy; it is exceptional for a designer to be virtually family with a manufacturer, to move with familiarity through the channels of development and production. Saarinen and Knoll’s professional paths intersected frequently, providing complimentary opportunities. Together Florence Knoll and Eero Saarinen reshaped the American corporate landscape and gave authority to the American modernist furniture movement.”
The 70s SERIES
Saarinen and Florence Knoll’s first furniture collaboration was to be known as the Womb Chair. This iconic piece of furniture was the brain child of Saarinen and came about by Saarinen bringing a collection of small scale models he had been working on to Knoll for review. Florence Knoll recalled; “He brought three different designs in model form. There was an office-type chair and a middle-size chair and then the biggest one. And I said to Eero, “Why don’t we go for the biggest one?” and that’s what we did.” The biggest one was the lounge chair that became popularly known as the Womb Chair.
Knoll was looking for a new type of comfort in chair design. She told Saarinen, ” I was sick and tired of the one-dimensional lounge chair- long and narrow. I said, ‘I want a chair I can sit in sideways or any other way I want to sit in it.” It seemed that Saarinen had this emphatically clear design brief in mind when he explained the chair in the following way: “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.”
The challenge was to make this cup-like form with no compound curves. The designer found his solution in the geometric shape of a cone, realizing that every point on the surface of a cone is part of a straight line connected to a common vertex, the pointed end of the cone, so there are in fact no compounded curves. A chair in the shape of a cone would provide a curved surface that would completely encircle the chair’s occupant, a full wraparound curved surface, consisting of only single-plane bends.
Saarinen drew a cone, then by folding the cone inward on two opposing sides, he created two arms and a seat; by chopping off the pointed end of the folded cone, covering the hole with foam and upholstery and adding a small pillow, a very comfortable cup-shaped chair could be fashioned, completely avoiding the complications of compound molding. It would be the first fiberglass chair to be mass-produced in America.
The chair has a molded, reinforced plastic shell with foam rubber padding and fabric cover; a seat and back cushion were added for additional comfort. The base was of metal rod with a chrome or painted finish. Prototypes of the chair show Saarinen’s struggle to find a base for the powerful shell that would work structurally and aesthetically; the junction of the plastic or plywood shell with its base was, in fact, one of the major problems facing furniture designers at mid-century.
The Womb chair’s popularity exceeded subjective interest in aspects such as comfort and aesthetics, and overnight it became an icon of its era. The Womb chair conformed to the modernist dictum of volume over mass and it did so with the grace of Saarinen’s sculptural expression. It was an industrial breakthrough as well. Designed for mass production, the chair replaced labor-intensive overstuffed easy chairs, bringing lower costs and fresher style to modern interiors. The Womb chair was an artistic and technical triumph, and it launched a new era in furniture design.
The development of the Model 72 and the Model 73 chairs proceeded with a fresh sense of importance if not urgency. The Model 72 side chair was developed from the first work done on the Womb chair. Saarinen saw the Model 72 as the Womb’s deformed cone in a reduced form, without arms or the high-back third plane of support.
THE PEDESTAL COLLECTION
The creation of a one-legged chair was Eero Saarinen’s idea. He announced to his colleagues in his office; “we have four-legged chairs, we have three-legged chairs and we have two-legged chairs, but no one has done one-legged chairs, so we are going to do this.” Saarinen conceived the idea of a chair with a single leg made out of a single material. Advances in plastics technology, which allowed him to sculpt new shapes with the Model 70 Series seat shells, intrigued him, and he looked at new applications for this material as the means to apply his sculptural skills to the legs of his chairs as well. Contrary to his previous design efforts, in which the legs of his chairs were perhaps an afterthought added to the sculptured form of the seat, in the Pedestal Collection, the leg was the focal point of the design.
Eaarinen envisioned a pleasing and efficient way to divide the leg space of a room. Rather than blocking the space into boxes using straight stick legs, he imagined the space as a collection of round shapes, bounded by curves rather than straight lines. The room divided in this way, would be populated by fewer legs, sculpted from the the curved gaps between the spheres of the open space. The sculptured single leg solution also made practical sense: Putting the support of either a chair or a table at its vertical cerntreline cleared more space for the seated person’s feet and knees.
The original idea of the pedestal chair was to make it out of one material, so the original base design was plastic. In fact, the first prototypes were made using a plastic base, but it was never manufactured like that. It just wasn’t going to work. And so aluminum was the chosen alternative. In 1955, plastics, even the new reinforced ones, were not strong enough to support the weight of a person on the thin stem of Saarinen’s pedestal base. Therefore, the concept of using a single material was lost, once again due to the limitations in technology.
Three types of tables were designed for the Pedestal Collection: dining tables, coffee tables, and side tables. The size of each top, its materials, its potential use and weight load were all considered in determining the proportions of the pedestal shape of the base.
The pedestal chair patent described the chair as exhibiting ‘a single smooth continuous curve from the top of the back to the floor,’ displaying a ‘unity of form, quite different in contour from conventional chairs.’
On 1 September 1961 a four-sentence article with the headline “Saarinen Has Brain Surgery” appeared on page eight of the first section of The New York Times. The article reported that Saarinen had undergone a two hour operation for the removal of a brain tumor. His condition was listed as serious. Eero Saarinen died the next day.
Saarinen achieved two notable technical milestones during the course of his furniture design career; the ground breaking advances in the application of compound-molded plywood, done with Eames and the first use of plastic in a commercially produced chair. Saarinen changed the way people though about furniture and their lives with each new set of designs, reducing massive chairs to more light and mobile ones, loosing rigid conformity by making furniture more relaxed and breathing a fresh sense of style into corporate interiors.
While the architectural projects of Saarinen, the Finnish architect and industrial designer, have been covered, there is “only the occasional reference — often inaccurate — to his furniture,” said Brian Lutz, the author of “Eero Saarinen: Furniture for Everyman”. Mr. Lutz is well positioned to tell this story, having worked for the modern furniture companies Knoll in New York and Artek in Finland. His research took almost 10 years and involved numerous conversations with important figures in the production and development of Saarinen’s furniture, including Florence Knoll Bassett, Niels Diffrient and Don Albinson. The 224-page book, which will be officially released Oct. 16, features a preface by Ms. Knoll Bassett, a foreword by Mr. Diffrient and more than 200 photographs and illustrations.
A showcase of the work of one of the most celebrated, prolific, and unorthodox architects and designers of the twentieth century.
Rare and never-before-seen archival photographs of Saarinen and his circle and family, advertisements, patents, and design sketches, among others.
Featuring a preface by architect, furniture designer, and friend Florence Knoll, and a piece by designer and Saarinen protégé Niels Diffrient.
Eero Saarinen has become a beacon of American modernism. While famous for his sculptural and bold architecture, such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri and the TWA Terminal at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Eero Saarinen: Furniture for Everyman is the first monograph to focus exclusively on his furniture designs. A self-declared “form-giver,” his furniture, like his architecture, seemless and organic in shape and executed flawlessly, is characterized by its sleek and expressive forms.
Lutz goes into great detail about how Saarinen’s pieces were not only symbols of modern life but how they became the epitome of corporate office furniture. Supported by Knoll’s planning department, and avaunt-garde marketing, Saarinen’s furniture was successfully mass produced, and became ubiquitous. With the laborious means of creation and invention described by the author, these iconic pieces are to be appreciated that much more, and the reader finds agreement with Saarinen’s own words that “today, more than ever before, we need to relax.”
Born, 20 August, Kikkonummi, Finland, to Eliel and Loja Gesellius Saarinen
Emigrated to the United States
Designed master bedroom furniture, Saarinen House, Cranbook Academy
Studied sculpture, Grande Chaumiere, Paris
Designed furniture and furnishings for Kingsgrove School for Girls, Cranbrook Academy
Yale University, School of Architecture, Bachelor of Fine Arts
Charles O. Matchum Fellowship for European travel
Worked in office of architect Jarl Eklund, Helsinki, Finland
Worked in his father’s architectural practice, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
“A Combined living-Dinning Room-Study, Designed for The Architectural Forum” -project
Completed interior and furniture designs with Charles Eames for Saarinen Swanson and Saarinen projects: Crow Island School and Kleinhans Music Hall
Married Lillian Swann; children; Eric (1942), Susan (1945); divorced
Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition, Museum of Modern Art, new york, with Charles Eames; first prizes in seating and unit furniture
Case Study Houses, Number 8 and 9, with Charles Eames, Pacific Palisades, California
Model 61 “Grasshopper’ chair; Knoll Associates; chair discontinued in 1965
St. Louis Gateway Arch; part of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial; dedicated 1968
General Motors Technical Centre, Warren, Michigan
Model 70 “Womb’ chair and Model 72 side chair; Knoll Associates; still in production
Model 71 armchair; Knoll associates; still in production, Lounge seating for General Motors Technical Centre, Warren, Michigan; produced locally for general motors
Principal partner. Eeero Saarinen & Associates, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
Irwin and Xenia Miller house, Columbus, Indiana
Married Aline B. Louchheim; son: Eames (1954).
Models 76 secretarial chair and model 77 drafting stool; Knoll Assoicates; chair discontinued in 1970
David S. Ingalls Hockey Rink, Yale university, New haven, Connecticut
IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Centre, Yorktown, New York
Trans World Airlines Terminal, Idlewild Airport, New York
Deere & Company Headquarters, Moline, Illinois
Bell Telephone Corporation Laboratories, Holmdel, New Jersey
Pedestal Series, chairs and tables; Knoll Associates; still in production
Morse and Stiles Colleges, Yale University, New haven, Connecticut
Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Virginia
Columbia Broadcasting System headquarters, New York
Died, 1 September, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Furniture For Everyman- Eero Saarinen,
By Brian Lutz 2012
Number Of Pages: 224
Published: 24th October 2012
Dimensions (cm): 36.3 x 30.2 x 3.2
Weight (kg): 2.668
Pointed Leaf Press, $85