December 24, 2013

Art: The sky wasn’t his limit

The Eero Saarinen exhibit at KMAC details the esteemed work of the St. Louis Arch architect

Drive up to Indianapolis on I-65 and you’ll travel by an architectural Oz in the midst of farmland. The small town of Columbus, Ind., is a modernist dream financed by diesel engine manufacturer Cummins Inc. Under the idea of “Build it and they will come,” J. Irwin Miller, CEO of Cummins, funded a foundation that led to new town architecture designed by prominent mid-century architects. One of the architects was Eero Saarinen (1910-61), the focus of the traveling exhibition currently at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft.

“Eero Saarinen: A Reputation for Innovation” details his career as an architect and furniture designer. You know his work, such as the St. Louis Gateway Arch, even if you’re unfamiliar with his name. The exhibition is thorough, a labor of love by curator and architect Mina Marefat. It’s an excellent introduction before visiting Columbus or seeing other Saarinen architecture in person. The wall text, models and objects inform visitors about his early career to his final projects. Complete your learning curve by visiting Columbus; he designed three buildings there in the 1950s, including Miller’s private residence.

Saarinen was good at making flying tangible. His TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport in New York City came about because the TWA president requested a building that visualized “the spirit of flight.” (Abandoned since the demise of TWA, the building has now been envisioned as part of a planned hotel.)

Dulles International Airport outside Baltimore sealed the deal. He considered its soaring design to be “… the best thing I have done. Maybe it will explain what I believe about architecture.”

Saarinen started designing furniture early in his career, saying, “I believe very strongly that the whole field of design is one thing. Therefore, my interest in furniture.” His famous pieces included the Womb Chair, Tulip Chair and Executive Seating. He used molded, reinforced fiberglass for the shell, adding foam and fabric to make the chairs comfortable.

“I designed the Womb Chair,” he says, “because there seemed to be a need for a large and really comfortable chair to take the place of the old overstuffed chair … providing a great big cup-like shell into which you can curl up and pull up your legs.” It has molded armrests and full back support with separate seat and back cushions.

The Tulip Chair, the first mass-produced one-legged pedestal chair, also has molded armrests but features a lower back. His Executive Seating series comes with or without arms.

In lieu of a catalog, KMAC has a small exhibition booklet designed like an airline boarding pass for sale in the shop.

“Crafting Space,” a related program, will be presented at U of L on Saturday, Jan. 18. A highlight of the symposium is speaker/curator Mina Marefat.