A Tale of Two Chairs

When asked, late in life, about the furniture he designed for Kingswood School for Girls, Eero Saarinen referred to himself as “a child of my period.” Two chairs in particular show how the young, precocious designer was able to work in both traditional and modern modes. As designers in the 1920s and 1930s debated the merits of traditional and modern design, Eero worked with both.

Auditorium and Dining Hall chairs for Kingswood School for Girls by Eero Saarinen, 1929-1931. Cranbrook Art Museum.

He was just 18 years old when he began sketching designs for Kingswood in 1929.  Later that year, he departed for Paris to study sculpture for eight months. These two Kingswood chairs show an understanding of two major European designs trends of the era: the evolutionary Art Deco, with its roots in neoclassical design, and the revolutionary Modern movement, emerging most forcefully out of the German Bauhaus.

First, the Kingswood Dining Hall chairs. These birch wood chairs with painted coral-colored elements and linen damask upholstery are delicate adaptations of the ancient Greek klismos chair. The klismos form, which features curving splayed legs and a concave crest rail, became popular in late-18th-century Europe and America as part of the Greek Revival and the neoclassical style. The form again became a favorite among designers in the 1920s, when its clean lines and soft curves were used throughout Art Deco interiors. Kilsmos chairs were especially fashionable in Scandinavian modern design, with architects and designers like Aino and Alvar Aalto, Gunnar Asplund, Erik Bryggman, and Carl Malmsten producing versions of the chair. In fact, Carl Milles had a set of Malmsten-designed klismos chairs in his Cranbrook dining room. Eero Saarinen’s klismos chairs for Kingswood fit perfectly within the clean lines, rich materials, and Swedish Grace-styling of the light-filled dining hall.

Left: Klismos-stlye chair from Carl Milles House at Cranbrook Academy of Art by Carl Malmsten, manufactured by Firma David Blomberg, designed 1926. Right: Chair for Kingswood Dining Hall by Eero Saarinen, manufactured by Stickley Brothers Furniture Company, designed 1929-1931. Courtesy Cranbrook Art Museum.

Second, a chair that eschews historic forms for the avant-garde: the chrome plated, tubular steel Kingswood Auditorium armchair. Eero Saarinen’s cantilevered design recalls the furniture coming out of Germany in the 1920s, particularly the work of Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus. Breuer was a twenty-three-year-old student at the revolutionary German design school when, inspired by bicycle handlebars, he ordered tubular steel from the bicycle manufacturer Adler and built the world’s first tubular steel chair in 1925. Architect and president of the Bauhaus Walter Gropius was so taken with the initial tubular steel chair he invited Breuer to design most of the furnishings for the school’s new modern buildings in Dessau.

By 1930, when Eero designed the Auditorium armchair, there were at least three versions of cantilevered, tubular steel chairs on the market in Europe with designs from Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, and Mart Stam. Eero Saarinen’s iteration for Kingswood, made by the Ypsilanti Reed Furniture Company in 1931, is indebted to these European precedents. As historian Arnt Cobbers writes, “Plated with nickel or chrome, tubular steel furniture…became a classic manifestation of ‘New Living’—objective, functional, convenient, lightweight, hygienic, and practical.” (Marcel Breuer, Taschen 2007, p. 21)

Left: The Cantilever Chair B33 by Marcel Breuer, manufactured by Standard-Möbel and Thonet, designed 1928. Center:  Brno Chair MR50 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, manufactured by Berliner Metallgewerbe Joseph Müller, designed 1929-1930. Right: Chair for Kingswood Auditorium by Eero Saarinen, manufactured by Ypsilanti Reed Furniture Company, designed 1930-1931. Images courtesy of Rago/Wright Auctions, Brass House, and Cranbrook Art Museum.

And so, for the Kingswood Auditorium and Dining Room, two rooms separated by only a lobby, Eero Saarinen designed two chairs that were a part of two very different movements in design. I think this is what he meant when he said he was “a child of [his] period.” Just like architecture of the interwar period, there were evolutionary forms of classicism and traditional design, and there were the revolutionary forms of the modern movement. Young Eero executed both with aplomb.

Eero’s later career as a furniture designer would see him incorporate modern material advances like plywood, parachute netting, and plastic into his designs, but it was as a young man, designing for his father, that he carefully split his designs down the middle between evolutionary in the Dining Hall and revolutionary in the Auditorium.

Kevin Adkisson, Associate Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

NB: If you would like to learn more about the Bauhaus and its relationship to Cranbrook, join me this Tuesday, August 25, 2020 at 10:00am or 7:00pm EDT for our next Uncovering Cranbrook lecture: Cranbrook Academy of Art: An American Bauhaus?

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