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Design Icon: Architect Eero Saarinen

Bold curves, colorful accents and technical vision: Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen’s body of work represents Modernism’s playful side in bloom. His iconic buildings, from the Gateway Arch to the Miller House, helped symbolize America’s buoyant post-Cold War period, and often looked as streamlined and glamourous as the jets taxiing in front of one of his greatest creations, D.C.’s Dulles International Airport.
Eero Saarinen in his Womb Chair Saarinen’s parents, Eliel Saarinen and textile designer Loja Saarinen, immigrated to the United States in 1923 and settled in Michigan, where Eliel helped found the Cranbrook Academy for the Arts. Eero, who worked there as a student apprentice, struck up a friendship with Charles Eames, whom he would collaborate with to develop molded plywood furniture. While Eero’s legacy mostly springs from his playful building designs, his furniture work, like the Womb chair (still in production by Knoll), were emblems of modern design, so much so, that the Coca-Cola company used the image of a tired Santa slumped on one of these curvaceous chairs. Photo courtesy Harvey Croze, Cranbrook.

Saarinen’s work stands taller when his relatively short career is taken into account (he died in 1961 at age 51 without seeing many of his major works completed). He developed a reputation for showmanship while creating a succession of glittering headquarters for industrial giants such as John Deere and IBM, airport terminals and university buildings. While critics at the time criticized his flexibility and lack of a definitive style, recent reappraisals have bolstered his reputation as a 20th-century icon, a tireless worker who would adapt every project to its own specific needs and environment.

“Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies and Corbu have given us the ABCs… it is up to us to develop a complete language of modern architecture. We have a long and terribly challenging and marvelous job ahead of us.“ -- Eero Saarinen

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