The architect Eliel Saarinen began his career in Finland, where he gained international acclaim as the designer of the Helsinki railway station (designed 1904, completed 1914). He came to America in 1923 and in 1925 was asked by George C. Booth to develop the Cranbrook Academy of Art at Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Thereafter, though he was responsible for many important projects elsewhere, Cranbrook became the focus of his life.
Saarinen used this tea service in his own house at Cranbrook. The designs of the prototype urn and small tray were slightly modified when they were put into very limited production by the International Silver Company. One example was prominently displayed in the "Room for a Lady" that Saarinen designed for The Metropolitan Museum of Art's important 1934 exhibition "Contemporary American Industrial Design."
The concept is remarkably sophisticated. On the one hand it relies for its effect on the pure geometries of the modernists. The spherical urn surmounts a palisade of struts forming a cylinder; the tray is a plain circular sheet of metal with a simple raised edge. What might in other hands lead to austerity, however, is offset by the fine proportions of the pieces and given great elegance, through the exaggerated height of the finial and the warmth of the brass plating that Saarinen insisted on for his personal pieces. (The other versions of the urn and tray were all finished in silver.) Illustrations of Saarinen's tea urn and tray have been published repeatedly, and over the years they have assumed iconic renown. The prototypes, together with their matching creamer, covered sugar bowl, and larger tray — which were added in 1935 and never put into production — are an excellent examples of work by the pioneer generation of industrial designers in America.