Modernist furniture company at the heart of transatlantic interior design networks
Knoll Associates Inc. became of the leading producers of Modernist furniture during the postwar decades. The company’s reputation rested in large part on the furniture designs it licensed from renowned architects and designers, many of whom were émigrés such as Marcel Breuer andLudwigMies van der Rohe. The company originated in New York in 1938 when German immigrant Hans Knoll teamed up with Danish designer Jens Risom. Knoll’s family had been in the furniture business for several generations and he had learned the trade in Germany, Switzerland and London. In the interwar years, Knoll’s father’s company had begun to develop ties to avant-garde designers, helping, among other things, to furnish the Werkbund’s Weissenhofsiedlung near Stuttgart in 1927.
Hans Knoll came to United States with the intention of bringing Modernist interior design to corporate America. His small company began to furnish and design office interiors for government entities and corporations during the war. During the early 1940s Knoll met his future wife Florence Schust, an aspiring interior designer, who had studied with Eliel Saarinen at Cranbrook Academy in Michigan as well as with Mies van der Rohe in Chicago and had worked with Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius early in her career. Florence’s connection to Cranbrook and the Bauhaustradition amplified the strict Modernist and Functionalist agenda of the company and guided the designs of Knoll’s Planning Unit, which she directed.
By the 1950s, Knoll Associates was widely seen as a node at the intersection of modern art and commerce with showrooms all over the United States. The Knolls drew on a network of celebrated designers whose designs they marketed. The group included Italian-born Harry Bertoia, Finish-American Eero Saarinen and Mies von der Rohe, whose Bauhaus era “Barcelona chair” counted to rank among the company’s biggest successes. Knoll received national attention for its corporate interior designs, such as the 1955 commission for Frank Stanton’s CBS offices, and its successful participation in the Museum of Modern Art’s acclaimed “Good Design” exhibitions, which aimed to set an elevated standard for industrial design in 1950s America.
The involvement with MoMA exhibitions fostered the Knoll’s international expansion at the time. Since the early 1950s, and sponsored in part by the Ford Foundation, MoMA had collaborated with various U.S. government agencies to promote its design standards in various Western European countries in exhibitions that also featured Knoll furniture. Under the name Knoll International, the company set up branch offices in several European cities; its German branch was headed by the transatlantic public relations expert Toby Rodes. Through its international activities and the network of designers it maintained, Knoll helped facilitate transatlantic exchanges in the world of interior and furniture design.