When Washington Dulles International Airport opened in Northern Virginia in 1962, the soaring design of its main terminal, a minimalist structure with a suspended catenary roof, was seen as a bold reflection of American aviation. That same year, the Jet Age-inflected Trans World Airlines Flight Center, with its concrete shells and curvy interior, opened at New York’s Idlewild Airport, which later became John F. Kennedy International Airport. In St. Louis, the Gateway Arch, a towering welcome to the Midwest, was completed in 1965.
The common denominator of these masterpieces is the architect Eero Saarinen, one of the most prolific designers of futuristic style in the 20th century.
I have had a longtime affinity for Saarinen’s work, beginning in my teenage years when his brand of modernism seemed unreal to me. The vaulted T.W.A. flight center and its Jetsons-like flight departures board seemed as if they would be more at home in my drawing pad than in real life.
While Saarinen’s groundbreaking works gave him international prominence, many people don’t realize that his earliest architectural and design laboratory was in Michigan. From the General Motors Technical Center in Warren to the Saarinen House on the grounds of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills to the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance in Ann Arbor, among other buildings in the region, Saarinen’s imprint was largely cultivated in the upper Midwest.
On a guided tour, the members of my group were incredibly excited to view the Saarinen House, named for Eliel. Walking through the main doors of the home, I was slightly awed to enter a space that was largely intact from the time when the Saarinens lived there. To avoid any damage to the floor and carpeting, everyone was required to remove their shoes and put on flat protective booties. In the living area, I was immediately drawn to the multitude of handcrafted objects in the room, including the patterned rugs on the floor and walls, designed by Loja Saarinen. The décor was heavily influenced by the Art and Crafts movement, which arose in 19th-century Britain in response to industrialization. The fireplace, composed of local glazed Pewabic tiles and fronted by bronze andirons, stood out for its unique intricacies.
“There is a lot of geometry here,” our guide said, referring to the living room. “This area was used frequently by the Saarinens.”
Virtually all of the artistic decisions were executed by Eliel and Loja Saarinen, something that became apparent as I walked through the rest of the Art Deco-influenced home. The large, round wooden table in the dining room correlated with the circular shape of the ceiling, enhanced by side chairs fitting for the regal space. The octagons and squares in the dining room rug exuded a strong sense of character, as did the nearby studio space.
Upstairs, Eero’s legacy was much more evident. He designed furniture for his parents’ bedroom area, including the bed and nightstand, as well as a sterling silver vanity collection. The lamps near the vanity collection emit light toward the ceiling, avoiding direct exposure to the face. The master bathroom, designed by Eliel, boasts additional Pewabic tiles. At Cranbrook, Eero Saarinen also created designs for several glass windows and crafted many of the beds, tables, and chairs for the Kingswood School for Girls.