Cover Designed by Finnish-American architect and industrial designer Eero Saarinen, the Tulip collection remains a timeless classic to this day Image: Courtesy of Knoll

Designed by celebrated architect Eero Saarinen, Tulip tables and chairs form a floral-like pattern when viewed from above—here’s how the piece came to be

If you’ve ever stubbed your toe against a cumbersome table leg or found yourself awkwardly trying to fit all the dining chairs under a table, well, you’re not alone. Finnish-American architect and industrial designer Eero Saarinen faced the same dilemma too. In 1956, he designed a solution: The Saarinen collection of tables and chairs.

The collection, also known as the Pedestal collection or more famously as the Tulip table and chairs, impresses with its modern design and timeless silhouette. The Tulip table is not just admired by the public, it’s also a screen favourite, having appeared in films like Star Trek and the offices in TV hits like Grace and Frankie, Mad Men, and Supergirl.

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An icon of the modernist movement in design, the Tulip table is easily recognisable with its curved, pedestal base. With its sleek design, the slender stem-like structure is the key to offering more spacious legroom. It’s expertly connected to a heavy moulded cast aluminum circular base that keeps the table sturdy.

The tabletop, available in a round or oval form, offers an elegant and polished surface for both working and dining. Personalising the table is easy with the option to clad it in a range of luxurious marbles, veneers and laminates, all of which are finished with high-quality abrasion-resistant coatings. 

As the inimitable companion to the table, the Tulip chair was also hailed for its contemporary form and experimental materials that were considered futuristic for its time. Available in an armless or armchair form, the chair embodies the same sleekness as its table counterpart. It features a seat shell crafted from moulded fibreglass that’s connected to its cast aluminum base by a lithe and slightly arched structure.

Interestingly, when Saarinen first designed the chair, he only nicknamed the chair the Tulip due to its flower-like shell structure. Over time, however, the moniker gained traction for the rest of the collection, and many started naming both the chair and table as the Tulip collection. When all the chairs are pushed in underneath the tabletop neatly, the table is also noted to form a floral-like pattern when viewed from above. 

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While Saarinen designed the Tulip chairs to be paired alongside the table, the innovative slender base of the Tulip table meant that even normal four-legged chairs are able to fit comfortably under the table without jostling for space.

While the design of the table and chairs might seem straightforward, the engineering behind the collection is indiscernibly complex. Saarinen was determined to create the collection in order to resolve what he deemed as the "ugly, confusing, (and) unrestful world" underneath tables and chairs.

This wasn’t his first foray into such a concept—the architect first toyed with the idea in 1931 for the Kingswood School for girls, when he designed a streamlined table with a four-legged base cinched together.

Using the table as a reference, Saarinen painstakingly drew up hundreds of sketches for the Tulip table and chair. This was subsequently followed by ¼ scale models that were positioned in a scaled model room the size of a dollhouse. After several trial and errors, the designer relied on his early training as a sculptor and moved on to form full-scale models. He displayed his tenacity by continuously refining the design with clay, never giving up until he could find the best proportions and curves.

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Saarinen eventually granted manufacturing rights to American company Knoll. Architect and designer Florence Knoll was a known young protégé of Eliel Saarinen, also a famous architect himself. The younger Saarinen and Knoll developed a close sibling-like relationship and she eventually introduced him into the Knoll fold. 

Today, the timeless classics remain in production, crafted by Knoll according to the architect’s standards. A true icon of modern design, the ingenious concept of the Tulip collection continues to elevate interiors.

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