Eero Saarinen: Sleek streak

MODA exhibit displays an architect's midcentury modernism

The Finnish-born, American-bred architect Eero Saarinen gave America some exceptional architecture: Washington, D.C.'s Dulles International Airport, the St. Louis Gateway Arch, MIT's Kresge Auditorium. Though he was often disparaged in his day for varying his designs rather than adhering to a signature style, Saarinen's iconic billowing, animated forms have come back into favor, acknowledged by architecture scholars and renowned architects from Santiago Calatrava to Frank Gehry.

Saarinen could do steel and glass, as seen in his sleek, classically modernist design for the General Motors Technical Center. But he could also do lush and curvy, as in his TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The terminal's swooping concrete-shell exterior and melting interior invite every possible international jet-set, sci-fi allusion, to "The Jetsons" and the supergroovy architecture of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Eero immigrated to America with his family in 1923. His architect father Eliel directed the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, and it was at Cranbrook that Eero met many of his future collaborators, including Charles and Ray Eames and Florence (Schust) Knoll. He studied sculpture at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris and architecture at Yale, and his furniture designs suggest an artist-architect love child of form and function.

The Furniture of Eero Saarinen: Designs for Everyday Living at the Museum of Design Atlanta is a look at Saarinen the furniture designer, whose silhouettes have become synonymous with midcentury modernism.

The MODA exhibition features some of Saarinen's most iconic pieces. The 1948 Womb Chair was designed by Saarinen to accommodate a different approach to comfort: the modern tendency to slouch and fold one's body into furniture. With its wide, welcoming berth perched on whimsically spindly legs, the Womb Chair is like an inverted television: a bulky box supported on rabbit ears.

His first design for Knoll Associates was the 1946 Grasshopper Chair. Like many of his designs, the chair – which really does recall the hind legs of the hopping bug – is declarative in its aspirations to delight and comfort. His refined 1958 Pedestal series of "one-legged" tables and chairs was envisioned as an antidote to, in Saarinen's view, the "slum of legs." An extended rest on one of the Pedestal stools arranged in the MODA gallery illustrates the remarkable physical solidity and visual delicacy of his designs.

Saarinen's furniture is at once elegant (especially by today's overstuffed, king-sized standards) and blessedly sturdy, crafted from the polyester resin and molded plywood originally used in military aircraft and ships.

Like the virtually airborne roof of the TWA terminal, Saarinen's designs suggest movement and energy, forms ready and willing to spring into action and accommodate any human desire to recline, recreate or otherwise take a load off. Through his collaborations with Knoll Associates, helmed by family friend Florence Knoll and her husband, Hans, Saarinen was able to inject his modernism into daily life in the many corporate environments Knoll helped shape.

Most of Saarinen's legacy has been consolidated in one of two MODA gallery spaces. A white raised runway highlights some of Saarinen's iconic chair designs like divas on the catwalk. A number of the pieces flanking the runway and still in production by Knoll can be tested out.

Designs for Everyday Living tells Saarinen's story probably too tersely, in family and professional photographs and a timeline that sets his personal achievements against historical ones. For instance, the same year Saarinen graduated from high school, in 1929, the Museum of Modern Art opened, suggesting that 20th-century American modernity and this Finnish immigrant were on parallel courses.

Where things get hairy is in MODA's second downstairs gallery, a crass temple to Knoll. Entering the space feels like walking into a catalog in three dimensions. That showroom feeling is reaffirmed by a stack of Knoll catalogs – viewers are encouraged to take one – offering designs by Saarinen, Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe and other modernists that Knoll still manufactures.

Viewers can sit on one of Saarinen's Pedestal stools and watch a video of Florence Knoll preaching the Knoll philosophy in corporate koans such as "good design is good business."

Design has often had problems being accepted as an art form in its own right, because of its ties to the marketplace. This exhibition does no service to Saarinen's innovative designs by presenting the Saarinen exhibition as a soft-pedaled sales pitch. The entire exhibition feels, to use current parlance, "branded" in the extreme, a bright orange "Knoll" logo stamped on Saarinen's forehead.

The Museum of Design, of course, relies on sponsors to finance its exhibitions. But Designs for Everyday Living suggests MODA could stand to put some of them on a much shorter leash or risk turning the space into a high-end gift shop. What can result when the sponsor's presence is allowed to intrude unchecked is an undermining of the individual identity of the talent under consideration. There is the unpleasant sensation of being marketed to rather than enlightened.

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