My youngest years were spent in St Louis, but I was whisked off at the age of 5 to Chicago before I could witness the great St Louis date of Oct. 28, 1965 when the final piece of stainless steel was placed into the Gateway Arch.
Designed as a contest entry for the Jefferson Expansion Monument in 1947, Finnish architect Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) created the world’s tallest arch (630 feet), which I often passed as I returned to visit my father’s St Louis house. Thus, I have always loved the designs of Saarinen.
When T.P, asked me to research what she thought might be a Saarinen design in a consignment store find, I eagerly looked into her pedestal table and four tulip chairs. The question of value has to do with originality, as this shape, which began as revolutionary, is now standard (but still beautiful) design vocabulary.
“Original” tulip chairs harken back to 1957, manufactured by Knoll Associates, N.Y., and bear manufacturer’s labels. Later versions also made by Knoll (Knoll International Italy/US, also called Knoll Studios) from the 2000s bear the label “Made in Italy.” Today we see knockoffs from China.
If the table is Knoll, it will be heavy enameled cast iron. Even at his small scale, it will be almost impossible for a one-person lift. The chair bases, if Knoll, will feature a swivel mechanism housed inside an aluminum base, and the chair slips will be fiberglass. The best of them have arms.
You will pay much more for the originals in the Pedestal line. If T,P.;s table were manufactured by Knoll Associates, N.Y., 1957-to the mid 1960s, she’d pay $2,000ish for the table and the same for the four chairs. She’d pay more if the table had a gorgeous marble top.
However, now that mid-century modern is so hot, you will find Pedestal pieces for much more, and at auction you may see fierce competition for pieces dating to the late 1950s.
Saarinen disliked the traditional four legs of furniture and disliked the stretcher bars that sometimes connect the legs, calling the cacophony under your rear end “a slum of legs.” Therefore, he birthed the Pedestal Line, designed by Saarinen, and produced by Saarinen and Don Petitt of Knoll’s Design Development Group.
Saarinen built a doll’s house to visualize the table and chairs in a ¼-scale setting. As engineering and production was labored over (plastics were not as widely used), Saarinen tried the full-scale versions in his own home in Bloomfield Hills. By 1958, he had designed the Tulip armchair, the stool, the dining table, the coffee, and the side table.
He wanted a piece of furniture to be one piece, reflecting his early training as a sculptor: “The undercarriage of chairs and tables in a typical interior makes an ugly, confusing, unrestful world … I wanted the chair to be all one thing again.”
The motions of sitting and arising should also be calm, thus the chair doesn’t slide. The seat swivels.
He modeled the Pedestal designs with clay. Believing that furniture in a room is a problem to be solved, he said, “What interests me is when and where to use these structural plastic shapes. Probing more deeply into different possibilities, one finds many different shapes that are equally logical, some ugly, some earthbound, some exciting, some soaring. The choices really become a sculptor’s choice.”
In fact, Saarinen’s wife Lilly Swann was a sculptor, and the plastic arts was his lineage.
Saarinen’s father Eliel trained as an architect in Finland, coming to the U.S. to teach at the University of Michigan.
George Gough Booth and his wife Ellen Scripps Booth had purchased 174 acres outside of Detroit with the aim to create one of the world’s finest’s arts academies. Booth commissioned Eliel to design much of the campus at the Cranbrook Academy; Eliel became president of the Academy in 1932.
The younger Eero was exposed to his father’s unique teaching style: A student didn’t have to have experience in a given medium or discipline; a design problem was a problem to be solved through experimentation and invention. Amongst Cranbrook’s students were Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia and Florence Knoll.
This historical information about Saarinen and his design lineage is proof to my mind that when one discovers the culture of a certain time in design history, you discover the basis for a particular philosophy of design, as we see in T.P.’s Pedestal set. Her table is Knoll International and worth $700, but the chairs are knockoffs.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.