Design Icon: Architect Eero Saarinen

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By Patrick Sisson
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.

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.

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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.

"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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General Motors Technical Center -- Warren, Michigan (1955)

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. Photo Courtesy Michigan State Historic Preservation Office.

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Dulles International Airport -- Sterling, Virginia (1962)

“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. Photo courtesy Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority.

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Gateway Arch -- St. Louis, Missouri (1965)

"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. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

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