Few designers produce pieces that will enjoy more than half a century of popularity — but Eero Saarinen did. His Tulip table and chairs have become sought-after iconic pieces for homes and offices.
Saarinen was a Finnish-American architect, recognized for his solo work as well as his collaborations with other designers, such as Charles Eames. Probably best known for his furniture designs, Saarinen was firstly a prize-winning architect whose creations include the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the TWA terminal at JFK and the main terminal at Dulles International Airport, along with striking corporate buildings around the world.
He created the tulip table and chairs in 1957 and while today we might call them “retro, at the time they were considered futuristic. They were even used on the set of Star Trek, according to the Bienenstock Linbrary. Focused on creating organic shapes and doing away with “clutter,” Saarinen’s work was not always well received by critics, who thought he lacked an identifiable style. His style, as we have come to know it, is clean and modern. The one-legged Tulip table and chairs are Saarinen’s attempt to clean up our living spaces: “The undercarriage of chairs and tables in a typical interior makes an ugly, confusing, unrestful world. I wanted to clear up the slum of legs. I wanted to make the chair all one thing again,” he is quoted as saying, according to the Museum of Modern Art.
The concept of the single leg for the tulip table was ground breaking, as was his womb chair and his first-ever use of molded laminated wood,. The launch of the tulip table and chairs also brought about another important thing for Saarinen: a long relationship with Knoll Inc., the company that first produced the collection and still does today. Interestingly, a family connection led to the professional one: Florence Knoll, the wife of company founder, Hans Knoll, studied architecture with Eliel Saarinen, Eero’s father.
Knoll is a well-known high-end furniture producer, making commercial and residential lines. The Pennsylvania-based company was founded in 1938 and has the distinction of having working with designers such as Mies Van Der Rohe, Ray and Charles Eames, and Marcel Breuer, in addition to Saarinen, according to their website. More than 40 Knoll pieces are part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In 1957, plastic technologies were obviously not what they are today, and Saarinen’s dream of producing the chairs from one solid piece had to be modified, writes steel classic.com. The base and the top of the tulip table are made from separate pieces and materials. Knowing this can help you sniff out whether a piece is an original Saarinen or a reproduction. While the look may be the same, the price is not. A true Saarinen Tulip table can cost more than $8000, depending upon the size and tabletop material. Reproductions can be had for much, much less.
The base of a Saarinen Tulip table is made of a single piece of aluminum coated with a plastic called Rilsan®. Rilsan is the brand of a high performance polyamide (nylon) coating made by a French company named Arkema, according to a report on the iconic Tulip chairs by Martin Konrad Gloeckle of Pratt Institute.
Another telling detail is that the tabletop attaches to the base with a single rod that runs up the length of the base into the top, according to modern mom.com. And speaking of the top, no real Saarinen table is made with a plastic or metal top. The only materials used are marble, wood, laminate or granite. Last, but certainly not least, most tulip tables produced by Knoll will have an identifying metal tag underneath. Some vintage pieces from the early days may not, but most will.
Whether you decide to invest in a bona fide Saarinen tulip table or are happy with a lower priced reproduction, this iconic piece will be at home in almost any interior. It doesn’t mater if you surround it with tulip chairs or your own modern, contemporary or traditional chairs, it will be a stunning focal point in your dining area.