Some of the most iconic structures in the United States were designed by Eero Saarinen, who emigrated from Finland at age 13. His design work began not with buildings, but with furniture. In 1940, at the age of 30, his Tulip Chair earned him top honors at the “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition. Given his youth, and his other distractions, it’s remarkable that he could complete everything he did before his untimely death at age 51.
Inspired by the German architect Mies Van Der Rohe, a Modernist architect with a love of steel and glass, Saarinen’s first architectural work was a school in Winnetonka, Illinois. Unlike other architects who might think they know how a school works and that they hardly need help with design ideas, Saarinen, and his firm’s partners, sat in on classes, watched the way the students moved through the building, and designed a school that truly fit the needs of the students—Saarinen controlling everything down to the hexagonal layout of the sandbox. (He did all of this while helping the WWII war effort, drafting bomb diagrams for the Whitehouse situation room.)
Over the next decade, Saarinen’s genius led to commission after commission. He designed the headquarters of IBM, CBS, and John Deere, and despite his love for the straight-forward rationality of the Miesian aesthetic, his buildings often had flourishes like sweeping staircases or curved ceilings. In fact, he is best known for TWA Flight Center at JFK National Airport, which is reminiscent of a concrete moth, as well as the St. Louis Gateway Arch.
He died at age 51, of a brain tumor.