Eliel and Eero Eaarinen

By Jon-Claude Howd

The Saarinen Family from Finland includes two of the most well-known architects from the 1900’s.  Father and son team, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, were great architects who lived a large portion of their lives in Michigan.  Eliel Gottlieb Saarinen was born in 1873, in Rantasalmi, Finland, when it was still part of the Russian Empire.  Eero Saarinen was born to Louise (Loja) and Eliel Saarinen in Finland in August 1910.  The Saarinen’s moved to the United States in 1923.  For a brief time, Eliel taught college courses at the University of Michigan where he was a visiting professor.  By 1925, Eliel was employed at Cranbrook as an architect.  Eero became an architect and worked with his father.  Together, Eliel and Eero designed a lot of prominent structures together.  The Saarinen’s also designed beautiful furniture to match their buildings.  The Saarinen family left a huge architectural legacy in Michigan, the United States and parts of Europe.

Eliel Saarinen’s Tribune Tower design, (1922) tower was never built. {Public Domain Image} Image Source https://en.wikipedia.org


Eliel Saarinen was born and educated in Finland.  He attended Helsinki University of Technology.  Later on, Eliel partnered with Gesellius, Lindgren and Saarinen.  One of his biggest accomplishments was the Helsinki Central Railway Station, designed in 1904.  Coincidentally, this same year, Eliel divorced his first wife, Mathilde.  Herman Gesellius, his partner, married Mathilde.  Eliel later married Herman’s younger sister Louise (Loja) Gesellius.  Saarinen was a talented architect. His design for a new office building for the Chicago Tribune took second place in a 1923 architectural competition.  Eliel’s, “plan, with its bold approach to massing, had a profound influence on U.S. skyscraper design.”[1]  The architects for the Houston, Texas Gulf Building, built in 1929, utilized Eliel’s innovative design and the building closely resembles the competition blueprint.  In 1923, the Saarinen family moved to the United States and took up residency in Michigan.

The Saarinen house at Cranbrook. Image Source unknown

Eliel became a visiting professor for the University of Michigan in 1923. However, by 1925, he was fully employed at Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills.  At Cranbrook, Eliel designed many of the buildings, the School for Boys, the School for Girls, the Institute of Science and the Academy of Arts.  Eliel held many positions at Cranbrook, but his most notable position was his appointment to the presidency of Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1932 to 1946.  Eliel’s wife Louise, who was a talented textile artist, was the first head of Cranbrook Academy of Arts Weaving department.  The Saarinen house on the Cranbrook campus, designed by Eliel, features many of Louise’s textiles and rugs that are placed throughout the home.  The Saarinen family actually lived in the house between 1930 and 1950.  According to the Cranbrook webpage, the Saarinen house is considered to be their architectural treasure, an Art Deco masterpiece and a true art jewel.  The house contains many furniture pieces designed by Eliel and Eero, his son.

Eero Saarinen was born August 20, 1920 in Kirkkonummi, Finland.  From a very young age he showed great skill in design, “at the age of 12, Eero Saarinen took first place in a matchstick design contest. It was the first of many competitions he would win in his life, and foreshadowed his remarkable career as an architect.”[2] After moving to the United States in 1923 with his family and settling down in Michigan, Eero became a naturalized citizen.  Eero completed some studies at Cranbrook Academy where he took industrial art, sculpture and furniture design.  After high school, Eero briefly studied sculpture at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris.  He attended the Yale School of Architecture from 1930 to 1934.  Following Yale, he completed an architecture fellowship in Europe.  Afterwards, in 1936, Eero returned to Michigan and Cranbrook.  At Cranbrook, he taught design and became a partner at his father’s architectural business.  Eero and his father Eliel worked together and created the plans for famous buildings and structures throughout Michigan and the country.

Front of the Fenton community center. Image Source Jon-Claude Howd (I took this Photo)

Eliel and Eero were partners at the Saarinen and Associates architectural firm.  Together, they designed many noteworthy buildings in Michigan and around the nation. One of their earliest designs as a team, was the Fenton Community Center.  The structure was designed in 1937 and completed in 1938 with a gift from Rackham Family Trust fund.  The community center has many unique features including the Flowing Water Wall Fountain that is accented by Art Deco Lion water spouts, the fire place and the unique bricking style on the exterior of the center. An addition was added to the Fenton community center in 2015. This addition had a minimal impact on the original structure, the contractors even replicated the small square windows that were on that side of the building. One of the hallmarks of Saarinen design is how the structures fit seamlessly into the naturally existing landscape.  The buildings appear to flow into the ground.  Another outstanding plan, was the Koebel Family house built in 1939.  The Gross Pointe Farms house has a very modernistic style.  The Saarinen’s incorporated work and living space functionality with beautiful artistic elements such as fountains, sculpture and comfortable looking furniture.  The Saarinen’s designed the Kleinhans Music Hall in 1940 at Buffalo, New York.  According to Architectural Digest, the music hall is a landmark building, “The building is designed as if it were the body of a string instrument, complete with excellent acoustics, and the façade resembles a parquet floor.”[3]  In testament to Saarinen’s design skills and impact on American architecture, they received the American Institute of Architectures Gold Award.  Eliel received the award in 1947 and Eero was bequeathed the award posthumously in 1962.

Back of the Fenton community center. Image Source Jon-Claude Howd

Eero Saarinen created many landmark architectural masterpieces by himself.  In Michigan, one his most notable designs is the General Motors Technical Center built in 1956 in Warren, MI.  The building has many beautiful, and yet functional touches.  The Tech center features the Design Dome which is a brightly lit collaboration space for automotive engineers and technical design artists, suspended stair cases, a meeting area with unique lighting strips on the ceiling, and many other comfortable meeting spaces.  Eero’s architecture completely fit the purpose of how the buildings would be used.  The Milwaukee County War Memorial Center, completed in 1957 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, looks vaguely like a square floating bunker.  The David S. Ingalls Rink, completed in 1958 in New Haven, Connecticut, has the appearance of a giant sea stingray and even features a “Ray” tail.  Eero Saarinen’s noteworthy and genius architectural plans are still fresh, innovative and beautiful today.

Eero Saarinen sadly died in 1961, aged 51 years old, from surgery to remove a brain tumor.  Many of Saarinen’s works, were completed after his death.  All his architecture, displays an amazing amount of creative thought.  Eero must have left very detailed instructions on the how the buildings would be developed and finalized.  The Bell Labs Holmdel Complex, completed in 1962, looks like a football or an oval shaped circuit board with an implanted battery.  The design is very energetic.  The JFK terminal, the TWA Flight Center, completed in 1962 in New York, has the appearance of a bird or kite about to take flight.  The terminal exemplifies the era of classy airline travel and perfectly met the needs of the jet setting customers who used the facility specifically.  The CBS building completed in 1965 in New York, is a tall, 38 floors, skyscraper milestone.  Eero’s architecture, designed and built during his life and after his death, is still brilliant.


Photo taken of the Gateway Arch from air. {Public Domain Image} Image Source https://en.wikipedia.org

One of Eero’s most recognizable achievements is the Gateway Arch monument, completed in 1965 in St. Louis, Missouri.  The monument is a tribute to the western movement of settlers to the new homelands west of the Mississippi River.  Arches used in construction provide stability and strength that can bear great weight.  Many buildings from ancient times to the modern day, use arches for stability.  The word architecture contains an ‘arch’.  So, therefore, it is very fitting that a huge stainless steel Arch stands guard for the gateway to the western states.  The Gateway Arch, part of the National Park Service Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, is 630 feet tall with 630 feet spaced between the arch bases.  The structure is twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty.  The arch is the tallest monument in the western hemisphere.  Eero’s Arch is truly an historical achievement.

Eero Saarinen Pedestal Furniture Designs. Image Source Knoll, Inc. https://www.knoll.com/designer/Eero-Saarinen

Eliel and Eero Saarinen were highly skilled architects, and they also designed and produced furniture.  Even if one cannot afford a Saarinen building, you can still buy a chair.  The architect’s artistic ability translated well to furniture.  Eliel had a distinctly art deco style of furniture design, whereas Eero had a very modern style of furniture models.  While Eliel’s furniture was made of more natural materials like wood, leather and cloth, Eero’s chairs, couches, desks and tables were made of plastic and other manufactured materials.  The Saarinen’s planned the furniture models to be used in their buildings.  The Saarinen home at Cranbrook is filled with all kinds of different pieces of furniture that they designed.  Eero’s plans were originally manufactured by the Knoll furniture company.  Eero, having studied sculpture extensively, sculpted many of his furniture designs.  Eero designed the Tulip chair (plastic formed piece), the Womb chair (soft, comfortable and envelopes the sitter), and many other styles for the Knoll company.  Eero’s furniture, and architecture, featured curvy lines.  Curvilinear lines make for comfortable furniture and exciting architecture.  The Saarinen family was very creative and skilled with their furniture and architecture designs.

Trans World Airlines Terminal, John F. Kennedy Airport, New York, New York, 1956-62. Image Source Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/search/?q=Trans+World+Airlines+Terminal+&sp=1 Individual link for Photo http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/krb2008000596/


Eliel and Eero Saarinen left a lasting legacy and had huge impact on modern architecture and furniture.  Eero very obviously took after his father with his furniture designs and architecture.  The Saarinen’s appear to be have been inspired by nature.  Eliel’s Helsinki Railroad Station and quaint Finnish houses, and Eero’s Gateway Arch and Tulip chairs display remarkable influences from Nature.  Eliel appears to have buildings that fit the landscape and his furniture went well with architecture.  Eero’s furniture envelopes people comfortably and his architecture is magnificent and compliments nature.  In nature, true straight lines are almost non-existent.  Eero’s architecture featured good, strong bases that held buildings accented with curvy lines.  The Saarinen furniture is still be produced today by the Knoll furniture company.  The Saarinen’s impact on the field of architecture will be seen for generations to come.

Saarinen Family and the knoll Family. Image Source Knoll, Inc. https://www.knoll.com/designer/Eero-Saarinen Back row from left: Eero Saarinen, Lily Swann Saarinen and Florence Schust Knoll. Middle row: Eliel Saarinen, Loja Saarinen and Hans Knoll. Eric Saarinen seated on rocking horse. Copyright Cranbrook Archives, Saarinen Family Papers. CEC 496. Original Image Source Cranbrook Archives. https://center.cranbrook.edu/archives

Video Resource

Video of the inside and outside of the Fenton community center In Fenton, MI. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpGoQOsoVos    Video Source Electra Fox https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCr5GHDHWyyf4L5m2Vt5e4CQ/videos


[1]  “Eliel Saarinen”, Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Eliel-Saarinen

[2] Michael A. Capps. “Eero Saarinen – Architect With a Vision”, The National Park Service, (2017), https://www.nps.gov/jeff/planyourvisit/architect.htm.

[3] Beau Peregoy. “15 Landmark Buildings by Architect Eero Saarinen,” Architectural Digest, (2016), https://www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/architect-eero-saarinen-landmark-buildings/all