This past September marked the 51st anniversary of Eero Saarinen’s premature passing. As a reminder of the achievements made during his abbreviated career, Brian Lutz’s forthcoming title Eero Saarinen: Furniture for Everyman by Pointed Leaf Press offers new insights into his contributions to industrial design.
The profusely illustrated volume generously uses candid stills, press imagery, patent sketches, and rich examples of Herbert Matter-designed advertisements from Knoll’s archives to accompany Saarinen’s career-long trajectory in furniture. The author begins with Saarinen as a pre-teen designing his parents’ bedroom furnishings at the Cranbrook Academy and carries through to his mature designs, some of the most iconic pieces in modern American furniture.
First hand accounts from Florence Schust Knoll, close contemporary and former Saarinen crush, along with Niels Diffrient, a model-maker for Saarinen, Saarinen and Associates, offer personal insight into working with the master. They recall a genius not so encumbered by patents and copyrights but, most importantly, ignited by the excitement of what new idea might be on the horizon, and finding new means of realizing modernist principles. Their personal accounts recall lifetime challenges, like the designer’s approach to chair design as akin to scientific research.
Each new finding seemingly brought further questions for Saarinen. Facile at drawing in “mechanical or illustrative” forms, he often tinkered in the various allied studios at Cranbrook alongside the seasoned craftsmen, and worked with them to find the proper means of lamination for just the right curvature or a stronger means of attachment for a support. As his designs grew more complex, so did the search for the latest technology, which only enhanced complication in production. This investigation would drive him from traditional furniture makers to Haskelite Plymold, (then being used in aircraft fuselage, wing, and tail construction), and on to techniques used by the Navy for ship hull construction to help realize his visions.
Constantly working between disciplines, Saarinen’s architecture informed his furniture, and both borrowed liberally from the manufacturing trades. A famous first of Saarinen’s architecture in later years was his reappropriation of the neoprene gaskets General Motors was using to hold their windshields in place for the curtain wall detailing in their Technical Center Headquarters which Saarinen designed in 1956. Similarly, Lutz explains how, in the 1940s, he borrowed from the car industry by applying Chrysler’s Cyclebond technology of holding rubber to break drums in an attempt to adhere leg supports to his thin-shelled chairs.
Once issues of process and technology were finally resolved, the interference of World War II brought additional hardships. Despite winning two first-prize awards for their Organic Design submissions to Elliott Noyes’ 1941 MoMA exhibition, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen faced material shortages and wartime manufacturing issues that stifled production. Saarinen’s concerns quickly shifted from whether his designs appeared like “a piece of plumbing or anatomy or something” to how he would realize his concept of efficient living without a means of production. While these designs met Saarinen’s goals of being purpose-built, dependable, and un-self-conscious, the failure of having these standardized pieces mass-produced inspired Saarinen’s next creation.
In response to its time, the Grasshopper Chair—once, a mainstay of Knoll, but quickly eclipsed by his own signature Womb Chair—was defined by its efficiency and support, accommodating the “modern sitter” into an “organized slouch” position. In response to shortages, the material-conscious design called for a cradle assembly of laminated wood and, originally, surplus parachute webbing.
Saarinen was keenly aware of human behavioral tendencies. The same considerations that scaled his furniture at the Crow Island School of Winnetka, Illinois to its elementary-school aged constituents shaped his adult furniture lines for Knoll. Saarinen spoke of a “cup-like shell into which you can curl up and pull up your legs, something women especially like to do” long before ergonomics entered the lexicon as a term.
Whereas today’s NERB modeling and multi-axis milling machines can quickly turn similar styles into digital and tactile realities, Saarinen’s forms were realized via repeated trial and error. The prototypes of simple paper, wood dowels, moist clay, and plaster with burlap, caustic resins, thin veneers, and fiberglass veils informed the design and his concepts pushed the material realities of production, thus earning him superlatives like the first use of plastic in a commercially molded chair.
Lutz goes into great detail about how Saarinen’s pieces were not only symbols of modern life but how they became the epitome of corporate office furniture. Supported by Knoll’s planning department, and avant-garde marketing, Saarinen’s furniture was successfully mass produced, and became ubiquitous. With the laborious means of creation and invention described by the author, these iconic pieces are to be appreciated that much more, and the reader finds agreement with Saarinen’s own words that “today, more than ever before, we need to relax.”