Eero Saarinen was, along with Louis Kahn, one of the two great European emigres who would become titans of midcentury American architecture. Both were born in areas around the Baltic Sea that, at the time of their births, were technically part of Russia, though Saarinen's family was decidedly Finnish (Finland became independent of Russia during the 1917 Russian Revolution), and both immigrated to the United States as children.
Unlike Kahn, who was born into very modest circumstances, Eero Saarinen (whose first name translates to "Eric" in English) came from a very artistically-inclined and cultured family. His father Eliel Saarinen - with whom he shared his birthday, August 20 - was a highly accomplished Finnish architect, one of the masters of Art Nouveau in Finland, who had designed the central railway station in Helsinki and, along with two other architects, built a combination architects' house and studio complex called Hvittrask, in the woods east of Helsinki, in 1903.
Eliel's second wife Loja, Eero's mother and sister of Eliel's former partner, was herself an accomplished sculptor. The Saarinens were friends with many cultural luminaries of the period. Eliel was very close to the composer Jan Sibelius, and on at least one occasion the family welcomed the Marxist writer Maxim Gorky into their home to help him evade Russian authorities.
Eero grew up literally in his father's architectural office. Often as a very young child he would be sitting under his father's drafting table drawing while his father would be working on commissions right above his head. Reputedly, every day he would ask one of his father's draftsmen, named Otto, to draw him a horse. Later, when Eero interviewed potential employees in his own office, he would have them draw him a horse, claiming that he could tell how good a draftsmen anyone was from about two or three strokes of sketching the figure.
The Saarinens immigrated to the United States in 1923, after Eliel's entry in the famed Chicago Tribune Tower competition won second place. (The same week, Eero won a matchstick design contest sponsored by a Swedish newspaper, which netted him 30 Swedish kroner, the equivalent of about $8 at the time.) Two years later, Eliel accepted an invitation to design the campus for the Cranbrook Academy of Art, just outside of Detroit, Michigan; in 1932 he would later become head of the institution. Eero, predictably, matriculated to Cranbrook, where he made friends with Charles Eames, Ray Kaiser, and Florence Schust. (Kaiser would later marry Eames to form the famous design duo, and Schust would later marry Hans Knoll and become head of the Knoll furniture company, for which Saarinen would produce some of his most famous pieces.) In 1929, Eero entered the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris to study sculpture, his only real foray into anything besides architecture and interior design.
Between 1932-34, Eero studied at the Yale School of Architecture, where he won a small travel fellowship that allowed him to journey after finishing his studies to Europe and North Africa, where he became intimately acquainted with the architectural history of these various regions. He ended up in his native Finland, where he briefly got a job for a year in 1935 working in a local architecture firm.
In 1936 Eero returned to the United States and began to teach at Cranbrook and work in his father's architecture firm in Bloomfield Hills, where he would remain until 1950. In 1939 he married the sculptor Lilian Swann, with whom he eventually had two children, Eric and Susan. Eric later went on to become a filmmaker, producing the 2016 documentary for PBS about his father, Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw The Future. Lilian was, to be certain, a key influence on Eero, inspiring him to maintain a sculptural, plastic quality in his designs and sometimes contributing relief sculpture to Eliel and Eero's architectural projects. Their marriage, however, was not a particularly happy one. Eero's energies were completely focused on his work, and it was normal for him to spend virtually no time with his family, staying at the office until very late at night and leaving Lilian to look after the children and tend to domestic duties. Eric later recalled, "I always resented my father for literally abandoning my mother, my sister, and me. But I never saw it from his point of view." Eero and Lilian divorced in 1953.
1940 was a banner year for Saarinen. He officially became an American citizen, but even more importantly, he partnered with his friend Charles Eames in entering a competition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for an upcoming exhibition, Organic Design in Home Furnishings. Saarinen and Eames' entries won in the categories for both chair design (for the famed "Organic Chair") and the living room, for which they were awarded contracts for manufacture and distribution with major department stores (the first day of sales coincided with the exhibition's opening in 1941). This gave Saarinen his first national exposure as a designer independent of his father. In the late 1940s, Eames and Saarinen would both briefly work with John Entenza, editor of Arts and Architecture magazine, on the design for Entenza's own house as part of the Case Study House Program sponsored by the periodical.
Saarinen's career in his father's firm was interrupted in 1942 during World War II, when he was recruited by his friend Donal McLaughlin, from his days at Yale, to join the newly-formed Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which would later morph into the Central Intelligence Agency. There Saarinen became "irreplaceable," according to his superiors, designing situation rooms and military schools as well as prototype models for weapons and other devices. He also drew illustrations for bomb disassembly manuals and developed presentation charts for showing work flows through different parts of the OSS's organization.
Eliel Saarinen died in 1950. But even before then Eero had shown signs that he would make a serious name for himself apart from his father. In 1948, both Saarinens had independently submitted competition designs for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis - literally creating their separate submissions on opposite sides of a wall in the same office. The competition jury sent the announcement that Eero had been named one of the competition's five finalists to "E. Saarinen;" the Saarinen family interpreted this to mean Eliel, and broke out a bottle of champagne in celebration. Two hours later, they received a phone call from an embarrassed official who clarified that Eero Saarinen had advanced in the competition. The Saarinens immediately broke out a second bottle of champagne. Though the mood was celebratory, Eric Saarinen claims that privately it was difficult for Eliel to come to terms with the fact that his son had surpassed him. Eero, of course, would go on to win the competition and the $50,000 prize as the chief designer. His design, the now-famous Gateway Arch, would only be realized posthumously, however.
Eero launched his own architectural practice after his father's death, and in the ensuing decade produced a flood of important buildings and interior projects, establishing him on his own firmly within the canon of great modern architects. Nearly all of his important designs date from this relatively short 13-year period between 1948 and 1961. Saarinen loved models, especially large ones into which he could stick his own head in order to visualize the interior space, and numerous photographs exist showing him and his employees inspecting or constructing them.
Well before his divorce from Lilian, Saarinen had met Aline Bernstein Louchheim, an art critic at the New York Times, and they grew very close. In one of Eero's love letters to Aline, he quite bizarrely compared himself to root vegetables, declaring "You don't realize that I'm like a turnip or a potato, one of those plants that has stored up below ground a tremendous amount of lust for a full blooming life." Aline's promotion of Eero's career had begun even before the two of them married in 1954, and while they were certainly in love, practically their union formed a very potent team for the rest of Eero's life. Aline was instrumental in increasing Eero's profile among American designers, helping him to be featured on the cover of Time magazine in July 1956, an honor previously accorded to such names as Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright. She also, unlike Lilian, was capable of discussing Eero's work with him on a regular basis. After Saarinen's death, Aline became her late husband's greatest ambassador, frequently appearing on camera and giving interviews explaining the significance of his architecture. The year following Saarinen's passing, she published Eero Saarinen on His Work: A Selection of Buildings Dating from 1947 to 1964 with Statements by the Architect.
Saarinen supposedly also became more of a family man during his marriage to Aline, though his ambition did not shrink and he did not slow down the pace of his work. There were few days during the year when the firm's offices were closed. He expected his employees to follow his routine of working from morning until dinner time, return home for the evening meal and then reconvene to work late into the night. As he once simply quipped, "I would like a place in architectural history."
In August 1961, Saarinen complained of headaches as he was preparing for his firm to move from Detroit to New Haven, Connecticut, and checked himself into a Michigan hospital to seek a quick remedy. Doctors discovered instead that he had a brain tumor, and Saarinen elected to undergo an operation that promised a very slim chance of survival. He died during surgery, having turned 51 just a week and half earlier.
Saarinen's death was shocking, as it was sudden and completely unexpected. His leadership at the firm passed to Kevin Roche, and under him, Cesar Pelli, and others, as Saarinen's numerous projects were brought to completion. Aline was instrumental in convincing CBS to stay with the firm to finish its new headquarters in midtown Manhattan, the commission for which Saarinen had received only the year before.