Eero Saarinen: Architect, Industrial Designer … Secret Agent?
October 4, 2012
A situation room designed by Saarinen in 1944. Photo: Mina Marefat; inset: Yale University Archives
When the Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles opens the show “Eero Saarinen: A Reputation for Innovation” Friday, viewers will see reproductions of drawings, blueprints, and models from familiar Saarinen projects such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Dulles Airport, and the famed though unbuilt design for the Smithsonian Gallery of Art. But in this exhibition (on view through January 3), they’ll get a glimpse of a part of Saarinen’s life that has remained largely out of the public eye.
In between exhibiting at the 1939 World’s Fair and collaborating with Charles Eames on a pair of Case Study Houses in 1945, Saarinen did a stint in psy-ops for the U.S. government. He and a few other top designers from the period, including the landscape architect Dan Kiley, were tapped by fellow architect Donal McLaughlin to work for the Office of Strategic Services (the World War II precursor to the CIA!). The OSS didn’t have much use for the theater and arts center plans Saarinen was dreaming up at the time, but they did need a guy with a knack for distilling complex concepts down to the logic of a line. Saarinen was snapped up and given a salary of $10 per day. Read more!
An OSS propaganda poster. Photo: courtesy of A+D Museum/Mina Marefat
Before long Saarinen was put in charge of the Special Exhibitions Section, which created propaganda posters, manuals for the Allies overseas, and elaborate scale models of Austrian and German towns that the Allies were planning to bomb.
The manuals were much more than pamphlets of text. They were quite visually rich—at once graphic design totems and valuable tools for the resistance. Saarinen and his artists at the OSS filled them with diagrams explaining how to do things like dismantle an unexploded bomb, assemble a DIY telescope on the fly, or detach enemy train cars from one another.
An OSS print shop. Photo: courtesy of psywar.org
Saarinen oversaw a staff of 30 to 40 designers and artists, so it’s impossible to know exactly which initiatives he had a personal hand in, but we do know that he designed two war rooms, one in the Old Executive Office Building and the other in the White House. “Saarinen was so important that when he was drafted, [his division chief] wrote letters twice to defer the drafting for him,” explains exhibition curator Mina Marefat, an architectural historian and practicing architect and urban designer in Washington, D.C. “They said, ‘He’s too important to us to win the war.’ In fact, they sent Dan Kiley, but they didn’t send Saarinen.”
The architect’s work on the war rooms didn’t just get him out of the draft; it also proved fruitful for the furniture designs he became famous for after the war, says Marefat. “It was because of designing the war rooms that he got so much into chairs, these swivel chairs, and the idea of a really comfortable place where you can sit and control the war and have these conference tables with backlit screens,” says Marefat.
Image: courtesy of Design Research & Knoll
“He was involved in recognizing new materials—plastics and particularly metals—during the war, and later he used them in his own work with the chairs,” says Marefat, noting that Saarinen started on the designs for both his Tulip and Womb chairs during his time at the OSS. “His years in the war, his working with new materials and technology, influenced not only his own designs, but his approach to design. He was a strategic, organized thinker, and he was able to apply that rigor and the precision that goes with war planning to design.”
An earlier iteration of “Eero Saarinen: A Reputation for Innovation” was on view this summer at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle.