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Eero Saarinen’s GM Tech Center Plus Designs by Laverne Originals and Philip & Kelvin LaVerne

by Don Schmaltz,
Senior Specialist,
Modern Design

 

During Toomey & Co. Auctioneers’ final sale of 2021, Art & Design on Thursday, December 2, an impressive example of the New York sofa, model 8/FC, designed by Katavolos, Littell & Kelley for Laverne Originals, was offered as Lot 289 with an $8,000-12,000 estimate. This large-form sofa (97 1/8″w x 28″d x 29″h) was acquired directly from the historic, Eero Saarinen-designed General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan and it has recently been professionally reupholstered. Art & Design on December 2 also featured a Tulip dining table (Lot 336), with a $1,000-2,000 estimate (which sold for $2,340), by Eero Saarinen for Knoll International and two brass works by Philip & Kelvin Laverne, in particular, a rare Chan Li cabinet (Lot 270), with a $25,000-35,000 estimate (which sold for $81,250).

William Katavolos (b. 1924), Ross F. Littell (1924-2000) & Douglas Kelley for Laverne Originals
New York sofa, model 8/FC, New York, New York, 1950s
chrome-plated steel, upholstery, metal tag ‘G.M.C. 8548 Styling’
This sofa was acquired directly from the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, which was designed and furnished by Eero Saarinen.
97 1/8″w x 28″d x 29″h
Art & Design, December 2, 2021, Lot 289
Estimate $8,000-12,000

Eero Saarinen’s GM Tech Center and Other Architectural Commissions

 

Architect and designer Eero Saarinen. (Photo courtesy of the Balthazar Korab Collection of Eero Saarinen Photographs, 2007, United States Library of Congress)  

The GM Tech Center was designed and furnished in 1956 by world-renowned, Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who later became famous for designing the TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, the main terminal at Dulles Airport near Washington DC, and the iconic Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri.

Design Center interior with reception desk and stairs in the background at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, 1945; 1946-1956. (Photo courtesy of the Balthazar Korab Collection of Eero Saarinen Photographs, 2007, United States Library of Congress) 

An early precursor to the Big Tech corporate campuses of Microsoft, Google, and Apple, the General Motors Technical Center was designed to create an idyllic, college-like setting where entrepreneurial creativity and innovation could flourish. The GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 2014 and over 21,000 employees currently work at the 710-acre campus north of Detroit.

Historical brochure cover image from the early/mid 1950s: Where Today Meets Tomorrow, General Motors Technical Center. (Photo courtesy of the GM Heritage Center) 

Subsequently, Eero Saarinen also designed corporate operations centers for IBM, Bell Labs, and John Deere, further establishing the idea of a suburban business complex modeled after a small college campus.

Saarinen’s GM Tech Center Interiors and Iconic Furniture Designs

 

At the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan, Eero Saarinen also oversaw all interior design and sculpture installations. Among Saarinen’s hand-chosen furniture for the complex were multiple examples of the Laverne Originals New York sofa, along with several New York lounge chairs, both of which are featured prominently throughout the light-filled main lobby/reception area of the Design Center.

Design Center lobby/reception area with stairs to the left at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan; all seating examples are Laverne Originals New York sofas or lounge chairs. (Photo courtesy of Architectural Digest, featured online in: Waldek, Stefanie, “Discover the Modern Architecture of Michigan by Frank Lloyd Wright, Zaha Hadid, Eero Saarinen, and Others,” 10 May 2018; photographs by James Haefner from: Conway, Brian D., Michigan Modern: An Architectural Legacy, Visual Profile Books, 2018) 

Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) for Knoll International
Tulip dining table, New York, New York, 1970s
marble, enameled aluminum
Knoll sticker label and illegible date stamp, 53″dia x 27″h
Art & Design, December 2, 2021, Lot 336
Estimate $1,000-2,000
Sold for $2,340

In addition to his distinguished architectural work, Eero Saarinen is best known for his neo-futurist furniture designs, such as the Womb chair and Tulip dining table and chairs. During Art & Design on December 2, Toomey & Co. Auctioneers offered a Saarinen Tulip dining table (Lot 336) for Knoll International with a $1,000-2,000 estimate that sold for $2,340.

The Artistic Furniture Designs of Laverne Originals and Philip & Kelvin LaVerne

 

Philip LaVerne (1907-1987) & Kelvin LaVerne (b. 1937)
wall plaque, New York, New York, circa 1965
acid-etched, enameled and patinated brass, etched signature
24″w x 48″h x 1″d
Art & Design, December 2, 2021, Lot 271
Estimate $1,000-2,000
Sold for $1,875

Erwine and Estelle Laverne were a mid-century, husband-and-wife design team well known for their artistic furniture designs and interiors. Together they founded Laverne Originals in 1938 and saw the design firm’s popularity continue to increase throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Some of their famous interior projects were for film director Otto Preminger as well as the corporate offices of Ford Motor Company and the General Motors Technical Center designed by Eero Saarinen.

Philip LaVerne and Kelvin LaVarne with an acid-etched, decorative table top. (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Living Design) 

The Lavernes’ New York City showroom/gallery displayed their timeless furniture designs like sculptures. They hired young designers William Katavolos, Ross Littell, and Douglas Kelley, who not only assisted Erwine and Estelle in the showroom but also helped them design award-winning furniture.

Erwine Laverne’s brother, Philip LaVerne (who adopted a different spelling for his surname), in collaboration with his son Kelvin LaVerne, created exotic bronze, pewter, and brass furniture, sculptures, and rare chests.

During the Art & Design sale on December 2, 2021, Toomey & Co. auctioned two acid-etched, enameled, and patinated brass works by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne: a rare, four-paneled Chan Li cabinet (Lot 270), estimated at $25,000-35,000 (which sold for $81,250), evoking imperial China in the Middle Ages; and a wall plaque (Lot 271), estimated at $1,000-2,000 (which sold for $1,875), featuring classical figures resembling the goddess of love, Venus, and her matchmaking son, Cupid.

Philip LaVerne (1907-1987) & Kelvin LaVerne (b. 1937)
Chan Li cabinet, New York, New York, 1970s
acid-etched, enameled and patinated brass, lacquered wood
etched signature to one door and back panel, 49″w x 15 1/2″d x 31 1/4″h
Art & Design, December 2, 2021, Lot 270
Estimate $25,000-35,000
Sold for $81,250