Modern Designers

Eero Saarinen

Design Profession: Architect, Furniture Designer

Building Types: Civic, Commercial, Educational, Industrial, Residential, Social

Eero Saarinen was born in Kirkkonummi, Finland on August 20, 1910. His parents, architect Eliel Saarinen and sculptor Loja Gesellius Saarinen, moved to Michigan in 1923 after Eliel Saarinen took second place in the Chicago Tribune tower competition. The Saarinens worked with publisher and philanthropist George C. Booth to create the arts-focused educational community of Cranbrook, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Eero Saarinen attended the nearby Baldwin High School (now Seaholm High School) in Birmingham, while his family lived and taught and taught at Cranbrook.  While a student, Saarinen designed furniture, doors and doorknobs, bricks, and other sculpture for various Cranbrook buildings and their grounds. After graduating from high school, Saarinen moved to Paris in 1929 to study sculpture at the Grande Chaumière but returned to the United States to attend architecture school at Yale. He received his Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts in 1934 and briefly worked in the New York office of architect Norman Bel Geddes.

Upon his graduation from Yale, Saarinen was awarded the Charles O. Matcham Travelling Fellowship and traveled throughout Europe, taking photographs, painting watercolor sketches, and making detailed drawings of buildings. When he returned to the United States, he moved back to Michigan to teach alongside his father at Cranbrook and to become a partner, along with his brother-in-law J. Robert F. Swanson, at his firm, renamed Saarinen, Swanson, Saarinen and Associates. Saarinen married sculpture student Lilian Swann in 1939, and the couple became a fixture at Cranbrook, drawing to them a number of designers and artists who would become household names in the decades to come; Charles Eames, Ray Kaiser, Harry Bertoia, Harry Weese, and Ralph Rapson were all friends and collaborators with the Saarinens, and Florence Schust [later Florence Knoll Bassett], a close childhood friend, would commission furniture from both Eames and Saarinen in the coming years. In 1940, Eames' and Saarinen's designs for the Museum of Modern Art's "Organic Furniture" competition won first place and were later exhibited at the museum. In 1942, Eero and Lilian had their first child, Eric, and in 1945 their daughter Susan was born. At this time, Saarinen became a United States citizen, and from 1942 to 1945 he served in the Office of Strategic Services as a designer.

Until Eliel's death in 1950, Eero and his father continued to practice architecture together as Saarinen and Saarinen Associates (Swanson left the firm in 1947), despite Eero's securing his own commissions. Notably, he won the competition for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri — a competition that his father had also entered and, for a short period, believed he had won. Many of Eero Saarinen's earliest works were collaborations with his father, including the winning entry in the competition for the Smithsonian Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Des Moines Art Center/Edmundson Memorial Museum; the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois; Tabernacle Church of Christ in Columbus, Indiana; and the early designs for the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. After Eliel's death, Eero changed the name of the firm to Eero Saarinen and Associates and emerged as an extremely prolific architect with his own strong creative vision — one he described as "structural expressionism". He did not hesitate to push the boundaries of what was technologically possible with existing building materials; if a building component didn't exist, he would invent it. His humanistic approach to design and his philosophy of building in "the style for the job" set him apart from his more dogmatically Modernist contemporaries.

In the ten-year period between Eliel's death and Eero's own death, his firm embarked on more than forty projects, including such major works as the Trans World Air Lines Terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York; the John Deere Administrative Center in Moline, Illinois; the Bell Laboratories headquarters in Holmdel, New Jersey; Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.; and the Columbia Broadcasting System headquarters in New York. He also continued to work closely with the J. Irwin Miller family of Columbus, Indiana, whose company, the Cummins Engine Company, became one of the great corporate patrons of modern architecture in America. In 1949, A. Whitney Griswold, the president of Yale University, asked Saarinen to create a master plan for the university's anticipated expansion and later awarded him the commissions for Ezra Stiles and Samuel F. B. Morse Colleges and the David S. Ingalls Rink. Between 1948 and 1961 Saarinen served on the Yale University Council as Architecture chairman, as well as its Committees on the Yale Center for Fine Arts and on the Division of the Arts. In 1949 he was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Yale University.

In 1953 Eero and Lilian Saarinen divorced, and that same year Saarinen married Aline Bernstein Louchheim, the arts and architecture editor for the New York Times. Eero and Aline had one son, Eames, in 1954. In 1952, Saarinen was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and in 1960 became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Because most of Saarinen's late commissions were on the East Coast of the United States, Saarinen decided, in 1961, to relocate the firm from Bloomfield Hills to Hamden, Connecticut, just a few miles north of the Yale Campus. Tragically, on September 1, 1961, two weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, Saarinen died during surgery, just days before the move was to take place. Ten of his projects remained unfinished and were completed by the surviving members of the reorganized firm known as Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates. The American Institute of Architects posthumously awarded Saarinen its Gold Medal in 1962.

*Text written by Laura Tatum, Architectural Records Archivist, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.  Used with permission.

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