The image above is a courtesy of the National Park Service on Flickr.
Mid-century modernism is different from other styles of furniture in the fact that it pertains to a particular period of time. That period, according to some people, starts around the mid-1930s and ends somewhere around 1965. Other people consider mid-century modernism to extend as far back as the 1920s, while others see the 1970s as the actual ending for the movement.
Most times, it really is a case of perspective, but one thing that we can all agree on is that mid-century modernism isn’t just a style. It is also an eventful era in modern history. Thus, it requires some of its key items and sites to be preserved, in order for its legacy to continue.
Many organizations have taken up the task of making MCM buildings and icons great again so future generations can still enjoy them. Others have made their mission to spread the words about these efforts. Today we want to talk about the latter.
How the Docomomo Awards help America’s large modernist legacy
Founded in 1988, Docomomo is an international initiative that centers around restoring and preserving the great modern architectural sites of the world. The org’s full name is “International Committee for the Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites, and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement.”
Their US chapter was formally established in 1996, and they have been celebrating most mid-century modern projects in the country every year since 2014. Docomomo grants the Modernism in America Awards not to specific structures or landmarks but to the projects that seek to curate and preserve them. This year they’ve honored the restoration effort made by the city of St. Louis to Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch structure, which has been expanded and thoroughly renovated.
The Finnish-American architect is one of the foremost representatives of mid-century modernist architecture in the US, and he is also the creator of the iconic Womb chair. An original model (without ottoman), by the way, is currently being shown at an MCM exhibition in the MoMA.
Giving a fresh look to Saarinen’s tallest monument
For those of you who still don’t know he is, Eero Saarinen is also the mastermind behind the Tulip collection: one of the most iconic furniture stylings in mid-century modernism. A Tulip table is easily recognizable by its circular (or oval) top carefully resting over a central white stem.
Saarinen’s accompanying Tulip chairs (with red cushions) usually make their appearance as well, though some people would argue that the Tulip table itself has stood the test of time much better.
In any case, the real star of the show today is the new Gateway Arch National Park as well the Museum below the structure. Started roughly a year ago, this project included a complete renovation of the museum and the subsequent creation of a passage connecting the park to the rest of the city. Before this project, the Arch site was a bit secluded, especially after the construction of Interstate 44.
Remembering Eero Saarinen (1910 – 1961)
The father of the Tulip table would not live long enough to see his tallest creation completed. The Gateway Arch was completed in 1965, almost 20 years after Saarinen won the design competition that was put in place to build it. We’d like to believe he would’ve argued against its original landscape: before this project (as most of you might know), the site was known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and visitors were meant to drive in and out of it, only marveling briefly at the curved gargantuan structure.
Since its rebirth as the Gateway Arch National Park, the landscape has become greener, more inviting, and more pedestrian-friendly (as all parks should be). In my honest opinion, Saarinen would have preferred this kind of functionality. Some people might even argue that the GANP is more modernist than its predecessor.
The only thing that’s missing could be some Saarinen furnishings, but the truth is that there aren’t a lot of places to sit around the Park. The idea is for visitors to constantly move around the structure, taking a stroll through the museum and visitor center, and then following up with a vertical ride to the top of the Arch, where you can get a unique, panoramic view of St. Louis.
In any case, most people will always recognize Saarinen as the great innovator behind this Missouri landmark. Those interested in getting a deeper look at his work can visit the TWA Flight Center, the American embassies in London and Oslo, the Washington Dulles Airport, and (my favorite) the North Christian Church, both in Indiana.
The Tulip Table and chairs collection
Tulip chairs actually came before the marble top table that everyone knows and loves. They were designed by Saarinen and Charles Eames in 1940 and then manufactured at the Knoll company since 1965. The first prototypes had the same ample seat with integrated armrests that people recognize mostly on Eames molded fiberglass chairs, but current iterations and replicas usually stick to the narrower look that most people recognize as a true Saarinen design.
The table itself has seen many changes since the 1960s, though most people today prefer the classic circular top, usually made of marble. The longer, oval-shaped version is also a favorite for large dining rooms, and there are even some square-shaped variants out there.
Saarinen stated that his goal was “to make the chair all one thing again.” His first attempts to build a Tulip chair, as he envisioned, included carving one piece entirely out of fiberglass. The resulting structure did not hold, so the base of the chair was built out of cast aluminum and then painted to match the seat. The Knoll company still makes these chairs with the same materials.
The flexible functionality of Tulip tables and chairs make them very desirable for mid-century enthusiasts, though most of the original designs might be mostly out of reach (budget-wise). There are lots of replicas out there, and lots of stores promoting them, so you should be careful when purchasing a Saarinen object.
We talked about replicas recently in a previous article, and will probably expand on the topic sometime next month. The Saarinen Tulip collection is bound to make a second appearance, so sorry if this seems unnecessarily short. If you are of the opinion that Eero Saarinen deserves a little more than 600 words, trust me, we’re right there with you, so see you in the next post!