Early Life and Education
Gottlieb Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) was one of the most outstanding architects and city planners of the 20th century. Born on 20 August 1873 in Rantasalmi, Finland, Saarinen completed his architecture studies at the Helsinki University of Technology, graduating in 1897 (National Biography of Finland, 2023).
“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”
Gottlieb Eliel Saarinen
Early Career and Major Achievements in Finland
After graduating, Saarinen had stints in various European architectural offices before launching his practice in 1904 (Jalkanen, P., 2020). His first major triumph came in 1907 when his design for the new Helsinki Central Railway Station was chosen. The station, completed in 1919, demonstrated Saarinen’s unique ability to fuse national Romanticism with emerging modernism (Pallasmaa, J., 2012).
Recognition and Move to the United States
In the 1920s, Saarinen’s work garnered international attention when his design for the Chicago Tribune Tower competition came second (Treib, M., 2005). In 1923, Saarinen moved to the United States and became president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (Cranbrook Academy of Art, 2023).
Contributions to American Modernism
Under Saarinen’s leadership, the Cranbrook Academy became an influential hub of American modernism. Saarinen designed much of the campus, demonstrating his forward-thinking approach to integrating art, architecture, and landscape (Cranbrook Academy of Art, 2023). His most significant American project was the campus plan for the University of Michigan, initiated in 1928 (University of Michigan, 2023).
A holistic approach to design characterises a Holistic Approach to Design Saarinen’s work.
His buildings often integrate sculpture, furniture, and interior design elements, creating a complete and cohesive aesthetic experience (Saarinen, E., 2013). His furniture designs, including collaborations with his son Eero Saarinen, are also highly regarded in the design world (Pevsner, N., 2014).
Influence on Architectural Theory and Education
Beyond his direct contributions to architecture and design, Saarinen significantly shaped architectural theory and education. His writings, lectures, and leadership at the Cranbrook Academy influenced a generation of architects and designers (Treib, M., 2005).
Innovations in Furniture Design
His furniture pieces reflect his dedication to holistic design principles, blending functionality with an aesthetic appeal (Pevsner, N., 2014). His designs are marked by clean, modern lines and an emphasis on comfort, reflecting his belief that design should serve the user’s needs.
One of his most famous furniture designs, the ‘Grasshopper’ lounge chair, was a collaboration with his son, Eero Saarinen. The chair, with its sculptural form and innovative use of materials, reflects the Saarinens’ ability to merge technology and artistry (Knoll, 2023). The ‘Grasshopper’ chair is emblematic of Eliel Saarinen’s contributions to furniture design; it highlights his capacity to rethink traditional design concepts and push the boundaries of what was considered possible in furniture design.
Beyond individual pieces, Saarinen’s design work for the Cranbrook Academy of Art and other architectural projects often involved the design of custom furniture. This integrated approach, where the design of the building and the objects within it are considered as a whole, further underscores Saarinen’s belief in the total work of art (Treib, M., 2005).
Pioneering Work in Textiles
n addition to his significant contributions to architecture and furniture design, Saarinen also demonstrated a keen interest in textile design. This passion was shared by his wife, Loja Saarinen, a noted textile artist in her own right (Parry, S., 2018). Under Saarinen’s guidance, the textile department at Cranbrook became a leading innovator in the field, known for its creative exploration of texture, pattern, and materiality (Cranbrook Academy of Art, 2023). Saarinen’s approach to textile design was influenced by the same principles that guided his architectural work — a focus on the holistic integration of form and function and a respect for the interplay between design and its environmental context. His textile designs often featured organic, abstract patterns, a nod to his love for the natural environment, and displayed a careful consideration of colour, texture, and material. While his contributions to textile design are less well-known than his architectural achievements, they represent an important facet of his multidisciplinary approach to design, further reinforcing his legacy as a comprehensive design thinker (Parry, S., 2018).
Saarinen passed away on 1 July 1950, but his legacy continues to resonate in architecture. His ability to blend different architectural styles, his sensitivity to the context and environment, and his holistic approach to design remain influential to architects worldwide (Pevsner, N., 2014).
Gottlieb Eliel Saarinen’s career spanned a major architectural transition from the traditionalism of the late 19th century to the modernist era of the mid-20th century. His works are a testament to his creative spirit, visionary insight, and ceaseless dedication to his craft (Pallasmaa, J., 2012).
Cranbrook Academy of Art. (2023). History. https://www.cranbrookart.edu/about/history
Jalkanen, P. (2020). Eliel Saarinen: Architect, Educator, Visionary. Architectural Review.
Knoll. (2023). Designers: Eero Saarinen. https://www.knoll.com/designer/Eero-Saarinen
National Biography of Finland. (2023). Eliel Saarinen. https://kansallisbiografia.fi
Parry, S. (2018). The Saarinens and the Cranbrook Textile Atelier. In M. Treib (Ed.), Saarinen House and Garden: A Total Work of Art (pp. 34-48). Norton.
Pevsner, N. (2014). Pioneers of modern design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius. Penguin.
Treib, M. (2005). Space Calculated in Seconds: The Philips Pavilion, Le Corbusier, Edgard Varèse. Princeton Architectural Press.