How the Tulip Chair Revolutionized Furniture Design

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Simple and sculptural in bright fiberglass and cast aluminum, there may be no better furniture item that represents the ideals of midcentury modernism (and foretells the coming space age movement) than Eero Saarinen’s Tulip Chair. With its inclusion in countless projects of the era—chief among them Saarinen’s own TWA Terminal at Idlewild Airport (now JFK)—the seat rightfully secured its place as a symbol of the design, manufacturing, and tastes of the 1950s.

History of the Tulip Chair

The son of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen and his wife Louise, Eero emigrated to the United states as a teenager. There, his father become dean at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which counts such design superstars as Florence Knoll and Charles and Ray Eames as former students. The younger Saarinen took classes at Cranbrook (cementing relationships that would later become pivotal in his career and life) before departing to study sculpture at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris and then architecture at Yale.

Photo credit: ullstein bild - Getty Images
Photo credit: ullstein bild - Getty Images

After graduation, Saarinen returned to Bloomfield Hills to teach at Cranbrook while working in his father's studio. Soon after, he would gain his first major recognition in furniture design for his collaboration with Charles Eames on a chair design for the Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition in 1940. Their submission, a low-backed armchair in molded plywood, paved the way for both designers' later work—and took first prize in the show. Saarinen soon entered a long partnership with Knoll (founded by his Cranbrook pal Florence and her husband, Hans), where he created several iconic furniture pieces—including the Tulip Chair.

Related: Everything to Know About the Iconic Eames Lounge Chair

Design of the Tulip Chair

Photo credit: DWR
Photo credit: DWR

Saarinen famously hated the visual clutter brought on by a jumble of furniture legs in a room—so much so that he famously said, “The underside of typical tables and chairs makes a confusing, unrestful world.” In an attempt to streamline these necessary supports, Saarinen developed the Pedestal collection, which trades the standard four chair legs for one central pedestal. The Tulip Chair, part of this line supports a sculptural seat reminiscent of its namesake flower. The rest of the line consists of a dining chair and armchair (which include seat cushions—the best known in a tomato red) as well as a dining table, which is topped with a round marble slab.

The Manufacturing Process

The Tulip Chair has been produced by Knoll (the manufacturer founded by Saarinen's friend Florence and her husband Hans Knoll) since 1957.

How to spot an authentic Tulip Chair

Photo credit: Kevin Hagen - Getty Images
Photo credit: Kevin Hagen - Getty Images

Like many iconic designs, the Tulip collection has its imitators (the table just may be the most knocked-off furniture item in history). But those in search of an authentic Tulip Chair can stick to authorized dealers like Knoll, which has remained the exclusive manufacturer of the Tulip collection for the past 7 decades, or Design Within Reach, which is authorized to sell Knoll products in the U.S.

If you're looking for a vintage piece, check sites like 1stdibs or Kaiyo. One way to ensure authenticity is to verify the seat measurements: Authentic Tulip armchairs measure 26" w. x 23.25" d. 32" h., with a seat height of 18" and an arm height of 25.375".

Price is also key here: If you see a "Tulip Chair" for significantly less than the list prices from Knoll or DWR, chances are it's not authentic. Some things are, indeed, too good to be true.

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