October 1, 2005
Eero Saarinen Remembered
The midcentury architect profoundly influenced many lives, including two at this magazine.
“I first became aware of Saarinen when I went to boarding school at the age of fourteen,” Metropolis publisher Horace Havemeyer III recalls. Among his classmates was Eric Saarinen, Eero’s son with Lily Swann. I too remember the first time I became aware of Saarinen. As a fledgling editor at Interiors magazine in the 1970s, my job was to scour showrooms for the newest products. On one of those trips I was stopped by Saarinen’s 1948 Womb chair (shown above), at Knoll. At first sight I knew that this elegant yet unpretentious chair and ottoman—with its ample frame and thin cushions supported on slim metal legs—would have pride of place in my own home someday.
Horace remembers the Yale hockey rink with the special fondness of a young man who believed that with such buildings “the world was becoming a better place.” Midcentury America was the land of optimistic smiles. The future looked bright, and happiness was a virtue. Modern architecture and design would show the way to a progressive future. What better place to experience this fantasy taking flight than at Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK airport, in New York? Completed the year Horace graduated from college, the terminal was a transforming experience. “I never fell out of love with his work,” Horace says of the Finnish-born architect. “In fact, I now think that it was these buildings that inspired my interest in architecture.”
Unlike Horace, who is descended from one of America’s pioneering manufacturers, I was a poor immigrant kid from Communist Middle Europe, where remnants of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire were strewn around in recently impoverished homes, astringent offices, and dank bars. Optimism was not known there, except for the pseudo cheerfulness of socialist propaganda that only a few diehards could believe in. It took many years for me—from junior high to college—to fit in with my cheerful classmates. But by the time I was in grad school, Vietnam had wiped out America’s blind faith in a progressive future. Optimism—which took a later beating during Watergate—would soon become a rarity too.
Perhaps that’s precisely why we are so fascinated with midcentury America. (In addition to the many furniture revivals from those years, there is now a book on Saarinen by Jayne Merkel.) We yearn for that lost optimism and search incessantly for some signs of it. I get my fix each time I curl up in my Saarinen chair. As for Horace, who is a dedicated architectural tourist, his most recent dose came in Columbus, Indiana, where he visited Saarinen’s North Christian Church—and felt his youthful enthusiasms return. “To me his forms have always expressed the essence of architecture,” he says. And for me Saarinen’s forms will always represent the America I came to call my home.