How Eero Saarinen fused sculpture, design, and architecture into timeless mid-century modern classics

By Nico Haven, Thomas Hart, and David Rosenwasser


"A room is like a piece of art; it is just one idea.”

- Eero Saarinen

In many ways, it is not surprising that Eero Saarinen was a designer—it ran in his family.

His father, Eliel, was a famous Finnish architect and dean of the Cranbrook Academy of Art; his mother, Loja, was an accomplished textile artist and sculptor who taught at the school; and his sister, Pipsan, was also a furniture and product designer.

Young Eero grew up in this creative setting, with the backdrop of Cranbrook’s “golden moment” fostering his passion and vision. He went on to further broaden his horizons and hone his critical design mind, studying sculpture in Paris and architecture at Yale before working as an architect with his father. He’s famous for designing the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the passenger terminals at Dulles and JFK international airports—which have been film locations used in famous movies such as Seven Days in May (1964), Marathon Man (1976), Catch Me If You Can (2002), and Vice (2018).

Eero Saarinen
Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal at JFK International Airport (image via the Library of Congress)
Eero Saarinen
Eero Saarinen's passenger terminal at Dulles International Airport (image via the Library of Congress)

Yet, he became one of the most important furniture designers of the 20th century because he drew upon this interdisciplinary background to create some of the most iconic and enduring icons of mid-century modern design.

Saarinen designed furniture for the human body

Though he was most famous for being an architect, Eero Saarinen was, at his core, a sculptor.

He developed a design vocabulary that drew heavily from the natural world—like a tulip—and from human shapes—like a womb.

Saarinen contoured his chairs to fit the human body in a way that hadn’t been done before, and he applied a sculptor’s focus on surface textures as he thought about how his furniture pieces would be experienced by real human beings.

Saarinen believed the simplest answer was usually the best

Eero Saarinen was drawn to furniture design because he believed that it “combines many of the challenges of architecture with the problem of mass production,” and he was fascinated with trying to solve these problems. Normally, his furniture answered these questions with the simplest solutions. He expressed his design philosophy, rather than the overblown maximalist ornamentation and intricacy of early 20th century design, as “one piece, one material.”

This was born from his background in sculpture, as he was always in search of the perfect curve, the right line, the perfect proportions.

But he was also distressed by clutter. He said that he wanted to “clear up the slum of legs” underneath tables and chairs that “[make] an ugly, confusing, unrestful world.”

I want to make the chair all one thing again,” he declared.

Eero Saarinen with Florence Knoll and a prototype of the Pedestal collection (image via the Encyclopedia of Design)
Eero Saarinen with Florence Knoll and a prototype of the Pedestal collection (image via the Encyclopedia of Design)

Saarinen's partnership with Florence Knoll defined mid-century modern design

Among other things he inherited from his father, Eero shared the “total design” philosophy—where an object was designed as a component piece of the larger vision for a space or building—that was prevalent at Cranbrook at the time that he studied there and was championed by other Cranbrook faculty and alumni like Mies van der Rohe and Florence Knoll.

It was at Cranbrook where Eero and Florence became like brother and sister, as they characterized it after Florence was “adopted” into the family after being orphaned, and it was where their lifelong partnership and collaboration started.

When Florence joined Knoll Associates in the 1940s, it was a given that Eero Saarinen would be one of the first designers she asked to produce now-iconic designs. And, aside from his 1940 Organic chair produced for Eames, Saarinen designed exclusively for Knoll.

His chairs were vehicles to showcase some of Knoll’s highly textured and brightly colored textiles, and many of them were the preferred pieces called for in the blueprints of the corporate office interiors that Florence’s Knoll Planning Unit designed in the post-WWII era.

This collaboration between kindred spirits led to the design revolution that redefined the second half of the 20th century, and its legacy still reverberates today.

"In working out a design, you always have to keep thinking of the next largest thing—the ashtray in relation to the tabletop; the chair in its relation to the room; the building in relation to the city.”

- Eero Saarinen

Eero Saarinen's Iconic Designs

Organic chair (with Eames) (1940)

Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames were lifelong friends and, in 1940, were both faculty members at Cranbrook when they submitted this winning design to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Organic Design in Home Furnishings Competition.

This was recognized at the time as revolutionary, as bending plywood in three directions had previously been impossible. Ultimately, this design move was characteristic of the Eames catalog of works to come—such as the Eames Lounge chair—and this Organic chair also exemplifies many of the features that would define Saarinen’s furniture design over the following two decades.

Organic Chair by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen (image via D Rose Mod)
Organic Chair by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen (image via D Rose Mod)

Grasshopper chair (1946)

Saarinen’s Grasshopper chair was one of the first pieces he designed for Knoll and was the only one that wasn’t widely popular.

However, it’s an important piece in Saarinen’s catalog because it shows how he was revising and experimenting with the Organic chair design, pitching the angle of the back and moving away from a traditional desk chair design to one that was more attuned for the natural bends and curves of the human body.

Eero Saarinen Knoll Grasshopper Lounge Chair (image via D Rose Mod)
Eero Saarinen Knoll Grasshopper Lounge Chair (image via D Rose Mod)

Womb chair and ottoman (1948)

This experimentation would eventually lead to the Womb chair, one of the most iconic furniture pieces designed in the 20th century.

At the time, Saarinen said that he believed “a great number of people have never really felt comfortable and secure since they left the womb,” and he wanted to design a chair that would bring us as close to that experience as possible.

“Today, more than ever before,” he asserted, “we need to relax.” The Womb Chair’s status as a timeless classic only reinforces how successfully his design addressed that human need, which seems to become more and more pressing as time goes on.

Saarinen Executive Arm Chair, Model 71A (image via Rarify)
Saarinen Executive Arm Chair, Model 71A (image via Rarify)
Saarinen Executive Side Chair, 72C (image via Rarify)
Saarinen Executive Side Chair, 72C (image via Rarify)

Executive Model 71 and 72 Armchair series (1950)

As Florence’s Knoll Planning Unit was designing large-scale corporate office interiors, Eero Saarinen was designing the 70 series to be the go-to chair that would populate those spaces.

The Model 72 and its armed version, the Model 71, built upon the same design moves and organic vocabulary that had come to define Saarinen’s work while also addressing that peculiar problem of mass production characteristic of furniture design. Whereas the structure of the Womb Chair was made from bent plywood, the 70 series armchairs were first made with plastic resin and later molded fiberglass, which allowed for a more dynamic form and easier mass production.

Over the years, the 70 series armchairs have perfectly completed such diverse spaces as the cafeteria of GM’s Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, in the 1960s and to dining rooms and sitting rooms in homes and offices today—a testament to its enduring prestige as a timeless classic.

Saarinen’s Pedestal Collection for Knoll (image via Knoll)
Saarinen’s Pedestal Collection for Knoll (image via Knoll)

Pedestal collection (1957)

The Pedestal collection was Saarinen’s ultimate solution to the question about the “slum of legs”—he said to Florence Knoll that, since there hadn’t been a chair built to that point with just one leg, that’s what he was going to do.

The pieces Saarinen designed for this collection are often called the “Tulip Chair,” the “Tulip table,” etc. because of the flower-like profile of the “stems” that supported them. The sleek curves also echo the sculptural figures Saarinen was obsessed with throughout his career. 

Eero Saarinen with a Tulip chair and a Womb chair (image via the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art)
Eero Saarinen with a Tulip chair and a Womb chair (image via the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art)

Eero Saarinen's Modernist vision continues to shape the contemporary design landscape

Eero Saarinen’s timeless designs are still as provocative and inspirational today as they were during his brief career—unfortunately, Saarinen died at the age of 51 of a brain tumor in 1961.

Many of his buildings—the most iconic of which weren’t fully realized until after his death—still seem ahead of their time and haven’t been altered or renovated since they were completed over sixty years ago. And his classic designs, which have never been out of production at Knoll, are still popular bestsellers today.

His pieces are also featured in the exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Cranbrook Art Museum.

Saarinen’s influence is still shaping contemporary design in the 21st century, and we are happy to include many of his classic furniture designs in our curated collection.

Rarify is an evolving collection of iconic, authentic-only furniture by history's most visionary designers. We curate collections of timeless classics and rare, authenticated vintage furniture pieces, as well as the collectible classics of the future.