Engineering and architecture – Eero Saarinen’s curves for Ghesquière
We live in a world where styling is often mistaken for fashion, and the work of Nicolas Ghesquière requires a second look: designer by profession, his venue choice allows us insight to a wide gamut of cultural references. The TWA Flight Center has reopened as a hotel, where a terminal has been repurposed for overnight stays, not overseas flights. A chapter in history for twentieth-century architecture, the structure was designed by Eero Saarinen in collaboration with Charles J. Parise and was inaugurated in 1962. It’s also the venue chosen to showcase Louis Vuitton’s cruise collection in a globalized world: it might be snowing in Paris, but they’re swimming in Rio. Holidays straight from a brochure for exotic winters spent by the world’s well-to-do in the Caribbean or the Indies.
Saarinen emigrated from Finland to America at the age of thirteen, becoming a naturalized American years later at the age of thirty. He studied sculpture and furniture design, making friends with names destined to leave their mark: Charles Eames, whose career was influenced by the work of Saarinen’s father; Florence Schust who later married Hans Knoll, the founder of Knoll — the Tulip chair, like much of Saarinen’s furniture, would then be produced by Knoll. In May, earlier this year, the brilliant white space was opened with its contours and levels lined in red cushions, instantly recalling the color palette of his famous Tulip Chair. Plants and flowers abounded. Mosaic flooring was laid throughout the airport. From the outside, it was simply a volume of reflected light with curved roofs; inside, it didn’t feel like an airport at all. You could have just walked into a laboratory, a tailoring shop, or perhaps, paradoxically, a spaceship, catapulted into modernism. Everything was curved, clad in concrete and contrasting primary colors. The black and white became a structural element, fiberglass had recently made its debut, and spherical coat hooks could be made to look like colored ceramic or even porcelain.
Beyond their definitions, the context highlights the differences between the modernity of yesteryear and the contemporary of today — bearing in mind that what counts here is the value of the questions, not the weight of the answers. Saarinen never lost sight of his first references to van der Rohe, who brought a revolutionary approach to classic Victorian and conformist constructions. It was van der Rohe who introduced steel and glass as load-bearing structures. It became a question of subtraction for design and interiors: initially a wealth of materials were used, but eventually, the choice fell to materials that were readily available. The TWA Flight Center looked futuristic in the Sixties, although we’d now call it modern — in a retro sense — and yet it’s amazing how much the design is made contemporary when linked to the aesthetics of Ghesquière and the literature of a brand, in this case Louis Vuitton, first by revenue in the world.
Ghesquière has sharpened his vision for Vuitton — always complicated, but now confirmed. This is what non-runway collections are for — what they excel at: collections presented in a context as part of the design itself, in a place that amplifies their intent. Under voluminous dresses hid body-hugging jumpsuits embroidered with mini flowers, and mini pearls for a firefly effect. The cloaks are collars that become shoulder capes, playing with geometrics. With leather in extraterrestrial volumes — Saarinen’s style was actually described as Neo-futuristic — a masculine attitude was imbued throughout. There is a clear reference to Saarinen in these stiff, hyperbolic, waving shoulder shrugs that summarize their surroundings. It’s a question of curves, and it’s worth reiterating: curves, sinuous lines, and corners have been a constant for Ghesquière’s art since his very debut. Presented in the architecture of Saarinen, however, they reveal a synthesis that has rarely made a stylist’s work so clearly comprehensible and evocative.
The catenary is a planar, hyperbolic curve, the one a regular chain assumes under its own weight when supported only at its ends. In mathematics, it is expressed using the hyperbolic cosine function. The first to consider the catenary curve was Galileo in 1638, who mistakenly presumed that the shape of a chain suspended from its ends was a parabola. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, Huygens proved that it was not an algebraic curve and called it catenary. In practice, the curve’s weight is uniformly distributed across its length — a concept that seemed almost utopian for engineers at the time, when big structures and bridges were urgently needed. St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, built in the same period, included three volumes, one on top another — three domes built on catenary arches. Incorporating the shape of the curve in his architecture, Gaudì amplified its use, defining the time with his arches. But it was Saarinen who created a true style and a poetry, inserting catenary curves into structures and permanently into architectural projects.
It doesn’t seem long ago that journalists watched Ghesquière’s runway show at the Louvre in February 2014. It was a fresh slap in the face for fashion. The two LVMH flagship maisons, Louis Vuitton and Dior, made an almost simultaneous about-turn. They both went from an eccentric, ironic, all-powerful style led by Marc Jacobs and John Galliano, to an intellectual game played by two professionals, designers and never stylists — Nicolas Ghesquière and Raf Simons. Fashion is an elite game that affects everyone; when two labels like these come out with a shared aesthetic, the world is invaded by their images. During the first few months everyone outside the sector finds it underwhelming, but after three years, the very same looks begin to take over department store displays, and even stalls at summer markets.
The modernity of Saarinen’s legacy is also due to a donation of his archive to the University of Yale, a gesture championed by Roche-Dinkeloo. In his lifetime, Saarinen was criticized for his style’s lack of consistency: he was charged with kowtowing to customers and clients rather than following through and cultivating his own style and identity — an attitude that sounds modern today, in an age when design blurs with decor, art with crafts, and fashion with styling. This fusion of definitions today leads to the discussion that shapes the current market and that of the future. The ability to interpret different points of view in an identity capable of evolving, is a symptom of our times; an open dialogue that engages aesthetics and the fashion culture this magazine stands for.