When the TWA Flight Center opened in 1962 at New York’s JFK Airport, its swooping form seemed to embody flight itself, with its two white wings rising from the tarmac. Architect Eero Saarinen had died the year before and didn’t see his bird-like flight terminal to completion. In its unusual shape and carefully designed interior, it was something of a culmination of his work in both architecture and industrial design. One piece in particular included in the TWA lounges — the Pedestal or Tulip chair — designed by Saarinen just before the TWA Flight Center, foretold its hovering form and mix of organic and modern design.
Designing TWA: Eero Saarinen’s Airport Terminal in New York by Kornel Ringli, released at the end of last year by Park Books and distributed by the University of Chicago Press, is a deep dive into the creation of the TWA Flight Center. It’s also packed with fascinating and sometimes tangential details, like a set of architectural cookie cutters designed for the Museum of Modern Art’s gift shop with the TWA Flight Center’s silhouette; an unrealized plan for the Next Helsinki, a response to plans for the Guggenheim Helsinki that proposed moving the terminal back to Saarinen’s native Finland by boat; and the fact that Saarinen used a chart ranking prospective partners by “work integrity” “own work,” “sex,” and “representation quality” to choose arts journalist Aline B. Louchheim as his spouse (and head of communications).
With the TWA Flight Center now on its way to being reborn as a hotel after closing in 2001, it’s interesting to look back on its relatively humble origin with the Pedestal chair. A lot of factors went into Saarinen’s terminal, including a postwar flight experience that was more customer-focused with baggage carousels and plush lounges. Yet the Pedestal chair produced by Knoll in 1956 was a microcosm of ideas that would morph into the bigger structure. It used new cast aluminum technology for its single leg design, and favored a sculptural form over what he saw as the traditional chair’s cluttery “slum of legs.” As Jayne Merkel, who wrote the Eero Saarinen monograph, told Paul Makovsky at Metropolis, in “a way the TWA terminal is Saarinen’s pedestal chair turned into a building.”
“We have four-legged chairs, we have three-legged chairs, and we have two-legged chairs, but no one has done one-legged chairs, so we are going to do this,” Saarinen stated. Ringli writes in Designing TWA that Saarinen was so confident in his design that, in a letter to Hans Knoll, he proclaimed: “I have come up with an idea that I think would wipe Herman Miller off the map!” Ringli adds that the “outward appearance of the TWA Terminal bears evidence of the same economic thinking of attracting public attention through an exclusive design — and possesses that very potential.”
The Pedestal chair is still his most iconic piece of furniture, perhaps even better known than the TWA Flight Center itself, which is now a bit lost amid the larger labyrinth of JFK terminals. The chair is still produced by Knoll, and knockoffs abound. One of these imitations became a regular on the set of the original Star Trek. Before the space age really took off, Saarinen was pushing design to its gravity-defying limits, even if Herman Miller is still going strong.
Designing TWA: Eero Saarinen’s Airport Terminal in New York is out now from Park Books.