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A New Eero: The Saarinen Show Opens in New York
The traveling exhibition “Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future” made its long-awaited New York debut Monday night at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), and the event had the look and feel of a Broadway opening. Given the visual confluence between Saarinen’s mid-century interior aesthetic and that of a certain top-rated TV series, the show could have been "Mad Men." Some 1500 visitors packed the museum’s galleries at the opening gala, including architects, designers, socialites, and three Saarinens.
Eero Saarinen has been part of the fabric of New York for five decades, so it is not only apropos that the exhibition made it to New York (it was not originally scheduled to do so), it is also something of a homecoming. From the TWA terminal at [then] Idlewild, to the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, to CBS headquarters, to the Knoll headquarters and showroom, Saarinen’s work has been absorbed into our collective unconscious. The show at MCNY features expanded coverage of these local landmarks and institutions.
So it is not surprising that the opening turned out a large, enthusiastic crowd. As a journalist (alright, as someone with a digital camera and a notepad), I recorded some of the palpable excitement, registered prosaically in finger-pointing and group discussion. Installing an exhibit intended for a different venue is no mean task; adding new materials to the mix presents additional challenges. The MCNY curatorial staff did a terrific job organizing, presenting, and interpreting a vast amount of material in a variety of media. Kudos to Donald Albrecht, the chief curator (and co-author, with Eeva-Lisa Pelkonen, of the exhibition catalog), and Wendy Evans Joseph Architecture for the exhibit design, and Pentagram for the graphic design.
I recommend the catalog, which was published in 2006, to anyone interested in modern architecture and design; even more, I recommend the show. Seeing models, renderings, and archival materials in person adds a tactile immediacy and sense of scale to the experience. One comes away with a new appreciation for just how much experiment and achievement Eero Saarinen packed into his relatively short lifetime.
A few of the highlights for me, on first pass, include the surprisingly large models of the TWA terminal, the Ingalls hockey rink at Yale University, the Dulles International Airport terminal, and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Arch. All of these are surrounded by drawings, renderings, and photographs depicting the design and construction process. Also impressive on a large scale is the floor to ceiling image of the Kresge Chapel at MIT, one of Saarinen’s most lyrical works. At the other end of the spectrum are intimate drawings and renderings, such as the one by Mathew Nowicki, a Saarinen protégé and collaborator whose immense talent was cut short at an even earlier age than Eero’s. As a design historian and modernism dealer, I was also drawn to the Organic Design chair from the 1940 MOMA competition, and the Herbert Matter ads for Knoll.
Best Mad Men moment: an exhange overheard in front of the model of the CBS headquarters. He: “I worked there. It was like a maze of rats’ nests.” She: “That’s the way they did things then.”
I guess that explains all the martinis.
Photos by Larry Weinberg.