EERO SAARINEN: Designing the Future

Eero Saarinen seated in a prototype of his Womb Chair. 1947 - Photo by Harvey Croze | Knoll

Eero Saarinen was a Finnish American architect, industrial designer, and furniture designer who was active during the middle part of the 20th century. He was known for the use of neo-futuristic style in his works. He was the architect for the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri and the Washington Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., to name a few. He also designed furniture, sometimes alone, sometimes with a collaborator. The Womb Chair is one of his designs that is best known.

His Early Life and Education

Eero Saarinen – Photo by Dedece

Eero Saarinen was the son of Eliel Saarinen, an architect, and Louise Saarinen. He was born on August 20, 1910, in Finland. When Eero was 13, the Saarinens immigrated to the United States, where they settled in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He grew up in Bloomfield Hills and attended the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where his father was Dean. In Cranbrook Academy, he studied both sculpture and furniture design. It was also there where he first met fellow students Charles and Ray Eames, who became his close friends and he also befriended Florence Schust, who later became Florence Knoll after marrying Hans Knoll, the founder of the Knoll furniture company. Eames and Knoll would also become great architects and furniture designers in their own right.

After studying in Cranbrook Academy, he furthered his knowledge by studying abroad in Paris, France. In 1929, he entered the Académie de la Grande Chaumière to study sculpture. Saarinen then completed his education by attending the Yale School of Architecture in New Haven, Connecticut, studying there until 1934. With his studies complete, he took a year off to travel and toured both Europe and North Africa. He then took another year to live in Finland, his native land.

With his sabbatical over, he then returned to Cranbrook, where he taught at the academy. He also joined the firm Saarinen, Swansen and Associates, which was headed by his father, Eliel Saarinen, and Robert Swansen. Upon Eliel Saarinen’s death in 1950, the firm was renamed Eero Saarinen and Associates, with Eero being the principal partner. He would remain as the principal partner until his death in 1961.

1. Vitra Organic Chair, designed by Eero Saarinen & Charles Eames – Photo by

It was during the time he worked with his father did Eero start receiving critical recognition. In 1940, Eero and friend Charles Eames entered a contest entitled Organic Design in Home Furnishings. They won first prize for their collection of wood furniture designs, one of which was the Organic Chair.

In 1948, Eero won an architectural competition, this time to design the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, what is now known as the Gateway Arch National Park. Eero was still relatively unknown then, so the award was mistakenly sent to his father.

Architectural Achievements

One of Eero’s earliest works that gave him international acclaim was the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois, Eero and his father collaborated with the architectural firm Perkins, Wheeler & Will.

He also worked with his father on the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan where they employed a rationalist Meisian style. The design was mostly an incorporation of steel and glass with accent panels. The design for the GM Technical Center was so well regarded that other companies started asking them to design their new headquarters and their other major buildings. These companies include IBM, John Deere, and CBS, to name a few.

By the 1950s, Eero started to get more commissions to design for schools and campuses. Vassar asked him to design the Noyes Dormitory, at the University of Pennsylvania he worked on the Hill College House, at MIT, the MIT Chapel and Kresge Auditorium were his, and quite a few more.

The Gateway Arch – Photo by Architect Magazine

After the death of his father and the creation of his own firm, he started to get more commissions to design buildings. It was during this era that Eero would create his most important works: the Gateway Arch, the TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the Athens airport in Greece, and the old United States Embassy in London. These works are the ones that cemented him as one of the most significant designers in the 20th century.

Furniture Designs

Aside from his architectural and industrial design works, Eero Saarinen also designed furniture during his career. In fact, he sometimes included his furniture in his architectural designs of building interiors.

His earliest known furniture design was the one he collaborated on with Charles Eames in 1940 for which they won an award. Given the technology at the time, the furniture collection did not go into production since the cost would have been prohibitive. Fortunately, the Saarinen-Eames collaboration would be mass produced later in the 1950s.

Eero Saarinen Grasshopper Chair for Knoll – Photo by 1stDibs

Florence Knoll was an old family friend and schoolmate of Eero during his studies at the Cranbrook Academy. When Florence joined Knoll in the 1940s, it was a no-brainer to bring in Eero. Some of his most famous designs were for the Knoll brand.

During 1946 to 1947, he created the “Grasshopper” armchair, so named because it looked like its namesake. It had armrests made from bent laminated wood, and the chair was designed to look sleek and lean. Despite its appearance, it does offer solid support to whoever seats on it providing ample lumbar support.

From 1947 to 1948, Eero designed his “Womb” chair collection. Made from moulded fibre-glass covered by foam upholstery and with steel base, this collection was designed to make the user as at ease and as comfortable as possible, just like a fetus in a womb, and it succeeds.

Eero Saarinen Tulip chair dining chair – Photo by Dominidesign!

In 1956 to 1957, Eero introduced the “Pedestal” group. A collection of furniture, mostly tables and chairs, that only had one central leg that ended on a large round disc for support. This line may well be the most neo-futuristic in design that he had created. The “Tulip” chair is part of this collection.

In 1951, he designed a collection of office furniture consisting of several office chairs. This was known as the “Saarinen Collection”. This collection may have been one of the first lines of designer office furniture.

Death and Legacy

On September 1, 1961, Eero Saarinen passed away while undergoing an operation for a brain tumour. He was only 51. While his career may be considered short compared to other architects and designers, his work has left an indelible mark that persists to this day. He’s considered as one of the masters of American 20th-century architecture. His furniture designs are still popular and original pieces are highly sought after. When he created his works, Eero tried to envision what the future might look like. Decades later, the future he tried to envision is here, and his works have endured the test of time. Eero Saarinen truly did design the future.