Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950), an established Finnish architect and designer who settled in the United States in 1922, was a progenitor of an American modernism built on the interplay between art, architecture, nature and science. Saarinen possessed a unique ability to work as though he were customizing the design to fit the culture. He could manipulate his formidable talent and broad philosophies to create a space that combined tradition and innovation in a way that seemed immeasurably right for the times. His pioneering graduate program at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan allowed him to have a far-reaching impact on the emerging generation of designers. The school attracted, among others, Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, Florence Schust (Knoll) and Saarinen's own son Eero, all of whom had a hand in shaping the postwar horizons and interiorsin this country.
Saarinen studied painting and architecture at Helsinki University and established an architecture practice in his last year of school with classmates Herman Gesellius and Armas Lindgren. They created the Finnish pavilion for the 1900 World's Fair in Paris and, working in the Scandinavian national romantic style, the Finnish National Museum in Helsinki. They also designed Saarinen's own home near Helsinki, around 1901, and the Helsinki train station, around 1906. For each of these commissions Saarinen would also design furniture and sometimes even rugs. Some of his most famous pieces from this period are the "Hannes" chair from 1908 with a decorative mahogany inlay, and the 1910 "White" armchair. In 1922 Saarinen received a small windfall of money for his second prize-winning entry to the contest to design the Chicago Tribune Tower and he moved to the States with his wife Loja, atextile designer and the sister of his partner Gesellius, and Eero.
By 1926 the Saarinens were installed at Cranbrook, designing buildings, furniture, textiles and even silverware for the emerging subdivisions of the school. Saarinen began exhibiting his work nationally, showing a dining room set at the 1929 Architecture & Industrial Art Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a "Room for a Lady" designed with Loja for the 1934 show. The entire family exhibited work at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1932. From the mid 1930s on he was also running an independent architecture practice with Eero, their best-knowncollaboration being the General Motors Technical Center in Michigan circa 1950.
The graduate program at Cranbrook was introduced in 1928. Students and fellows worked collaboratively on projects steeped in the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement, touched with the decorative leanings of Art Deco, and through all of which a modern style emerged. Saarinen taught the importance of approaching work with the idea in mind that, "if the form is there, it is of minor importance if we use the hand of man or machine. Both are necessary." He designed furniture for his and Loja's studios like the "Blue Series" of lacquered chairs, a sofa and table and, for the dining room, the simple, high-backed "Side Chair," both from 1929. His active career was propelled by the energetic belief that, "as long as man is compelled to find his own way, his mind is bound to inventiveness."