Art: The Maturing Modern

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"Frank Lloyd Wrong." Two years later Eliel took on what was to become his major U.S. monument, the 40 school buildings and faculty houses for Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, a whole complex of transplanted Scandinavian modern, including sculpture by the late Carl Milles (who served there as resident sculptor for 21 years). Eliel Saarinen soon learned to exchange compliments with his contemporaries. When Frank Lloyd Wright wryly called him "the best of the eclectics," Eliel labeled his critic "Frank Lloyd Wrong."

With Cranbrook's brick buildings mushrooming before their eyes, the young Saarinens were expected to play their part. For the Kingswood School for Girls, Eero, then 20, designed the furniture (still in use) and Pipsan, 25, did the auditorium and ballroom decoration. Eero spent summers in Finland with the family, and one year alone in Paris, where he studied sculpture.

In the '30s, Undergraduate Saarinen found the Yale School of Architecture almost untouched by modern architecture. He produced models for school competitions on such set themes as "A Palace for an Exiled Monarch" and "A Monumental Clock," won so many school prizes (including one for holding his liquor) that he got a medal for winning the most medals, graduated with honors (1934) and the top traveling fellowship to Europe. Saarinen grabbed at the chance to rubberneck his way from Naples to Stockholm, wound up the year taking on his first architectural assignment, a playhouse in Helsinki. Says Saarinen today: "It was a terrible building, but good experience in seeing all the things that could go wrong with a building. That's where I took up the pipe—which is something you could put between you and your client." Today, with more clients than he can handle, he smokes his pipe incessantly.

Womb for Comfort. Welcomed home to Cranbrook as an instructor and made a partner with his father, Eero married a Cranbrook ceramics student, Lillian Swann, a wealthy Long Islander (they have a son and a daughter). With another Cranbrook faculty member, Designer Charles Eames (today famed for his "potato chip" plywood chairs), Saarinen teamed up on designing the first molded wood chairs. Years later, the wife of a furniture designer urged Eero to design a chair that women can curl up on. His answer was his famed "womb chair," today a bestseller. His current project: a one-legged chair on a broad base to "clear up the slum of legs in the U.S. home."

Designer Eames, on the scene at the time, will never forget Eero Saarinen's approach to his first major national competition, the firm's entry for a new Smithsonian Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. Says Eames: "I remember Eero thought out the whole thing carefully, and then told us that the first thing to do would be to make 100 studies of each element that went into the building. We would then pick the best, and never let our standards fall below that. Then we would make 100 studies of the combinations of each element—the placing of the sinks in the ladies' rooms, for instance. Then 100 studies of the combinations of the combinations. When the whole thing was finished, Eero was almost in tears, because it was so simple. And then, of course, he won the competition."

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