Design Icon: 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 glamorous as the jets taxiing in front of one of his greatest creations, D.C.’s Dulles International Airport.

"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

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.

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.

General Motors Technical Center (1955)

Warren, Michigan

Saarinen’s first significant solo commission was for the GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, which still serves at the nerve center for the company’s engineering wing and workspace for 16,000 employees. A campus of five buildings arranged around a 22-acre reflecting pool, the grand project was designated one of the "Most Outstanding Architectural Achievements of its Era" by the American Institute of Architects. Boasting an array of technical flourishes, like floating staircases in the lobby of the Research and Development and Design building and a fountain by Alexander Calder, it was called the "Versailles of Industry" and dedicated by President Eisenhower when it opened in 1956.

Dulles International Airport (1962)

Sterling, Virginia

"I think this terminal building is the best thing I have done," Saarinen said of this elliptical airport outside the capital, considered one of the most modern airports in the world when it debuted in 1962. "Maybe it will even explain what I believe about architecture." The shrewd introduction of mobile lounges—transport vehicles designed by Chrysler to ferry passengers to their plane—allowed the architect to focus on an uncluttered floor plan and the flow of the space, highlighted by the curved roof and aerodynamic pylons.

Gateway Arch (1965)

St. Louis, Missouri

"Relevant, beautiful, perhaps inspired would be the right word" was how one judge described Saarinen’s winning submission in 1948 to build the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the St. Louis Arch. Standing as the nation’s tallest man-made monument, the 630-foot-high curve of concrete and stainless steel stands as a focal point of the St. Louis riverfront and poignant symbol of national confidence and innovation. Both Eero and his father submitted designs, and a mix-up meant the family temporarily thought the elder Eliel had won.

John Deere Headquarters (1964)

Moline, Illinois

This acclaimed headquarters for the tractor manufacturer pioneered the use of weathering steel, which turned a distinctive, soil-like color (due to iron oxide) if left untreated. Company President William Hewitt was being pressured to move the company to the coast, but resisted, with the caveat that the new building represent the company and its employees. Saarinen delivered with what he called "a steel building that was really a steel building," a strong, dark structure that was more metal than glass.

Ingalls Rink at Yale University (1958)

New Haven, Connecticut

Known as the "Yale Whale," this iconic rink gets its double backbone design from a reinforced concrete arch, which supports a cable net that in turn supports the timber roof. The graceful curve, which supposedly represents the grace of players skating on the ice, and excellent sight lines has made the stadium a favorite, and earned it a place in AIA’s America’s Favorite Architecture list.

TWA Flight Center (1962)

New York, New York

Dubbed the "Grand Central of the Jet Age" by critic Robert A.M. Stern, Saarinen’s curvaceous terminal was a paean to the romance of flight. The sloped concrete roof recalls two flapping wings, while contours constantly bend and flow into each, creating a fluid collection of terminals, staircases and forms. "We wanted passengers passing through the building to experience a fully-designed environment, in which each part arises from another and everything belongs to the same formal world," said Saarinen. After being shuttered for years, the space has been turned into a luxury hotel.

Milwaukee War Memorial (1959)

Milwaukee Wisconsin

A project Saarinen picked up from his father, who passed away before completing, the memorial is built around a floating cruciform with cantilevered portions, referencing Le Corbusier’s concepts of lifting the building off the ground and eliminating load-bearing walls. This Lakefront building also boasts a 1.4 million-piece mosaic commemorating the dates of WWII and the Korean War.

Miller House (1957)

Columbus, Indiana

One of Saarinen’s few single-family homes, built for industrialist J. Irwin Miller and his wife Xenia, the Miller House features modern accents such as a cylindrical fireplace and is built around a central space with a conversation pit, a courtyard of sorts inside the building.

Kresge Auditorium at MIT (1955)

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Done in tandem with the MIT Chapel across the campus green as centerpieces of the center of campus, the auditorium boasts a copper-clad triangular roof supported by a thin shell of concrete. Saarinen was intimately involved in the setup of the concert hall interior, including acoustic "clouds," wavy structures that hang above the elegant seating area.

Shop Eero Saarinen's Designs
Knoll Womb Chair and Ottoman
When Florence Knoll challenged Eero Saarinen to create a chair that she could curl up in, she found the right candidate for the task. The Womb Chair and Ottoman (1946) feature enveloping forms that continue as one of the most iconic representations of midcentury organic modernism.
Knoll Saarinen Dining Table
Architect Eero Saarinen was a genius at creating expressive sculptural forms. From his TWA Terminal (now the TWA Hotel) at New York’s JFK Airport to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis to his Pedestal Table (1956), there’s a magic in everything he created.
Saarinen (Basic Art Series 2.0)
The creator of the ubiquitous Knoll “Tulip” chairs and tables, Eero Saarinen (1910–1961) was one of the 20th century’s most prominent space shapers, merging dynamic forms with a modernist sensibility across architecture and design.  Among Saarinen’s greatest accomplishments are Washington...


Last Updated

Get the Pro Newsletter

What’s new in the design world? Stay up to date with our essential dispatches for design professionals.