For a venerable company that has just turned 75 years old, Knoll, the great American furniture and fabric brand, seems to have a remarkably youthful frame of mind. While it goes on making some of the most recognisable, iconic pieces of furniture in the world, more than enough to keep its reputation polished, that has never been quite enough. Pushing boundaries and exploring the future has always been what it’s about, and for its birthday celebration it has persuaded two of the world’s most-courted and visionary architects – the Dutch-born Rem Koolhaas (seen in fourth picture) and the British-Ghanaian talent David Adjaye (seen in first picture) – to embark on a venture into product design. Both had been singularly hard to woo; neither was keen to turn their talents from raising up memorable buildings to designing a range of small-scale domestic objects. But, finally, the reputation and persistence of the Knoll team won them over. The result is a range of extraordinary pieces, all of them innovative, some conceptually challenging. They are the most important collaborations Knoll has embarked on since Frank Gehry came up with his ground-breaking laminated maple tables and chairs, such as the Cross Check ($3,754) and Hat Trick ($1,766), in 1992.
But then innovation is Knoll’s USP. It has always been more than just a maker of very fine furniture – though, of course, it is that too. Anybody who looks into the history of Knoll will soon discover that they are also getting a thorough tutorial on the history of modern design in America along the way. Their stories and their influences are inextricably intertwined.
Hans Knoll founded the Hans G Knoll Furniture Company back in 1938, though it wasn’t until architect and furniture designer Florence Schust joined it in 1943 (they married in 1946) that the famous collaborations with leading architects and designers of the day began. Many of the greatest pieces are still being made and sold today; trends and fashion were never what Knoll was about.
And lest those in Europe feel that all this is of little relevance to their own lives, a roll call of the architects and designers Knoll has worked with and their extraordinary output would soon put them straight. Many of the greatest of these designers began their working lives in Europe and moved to the US during the difficult years leading up to and during the second world war. They became icons the world over, part of the visual landscape of these decades.
Most famous of all their works is probably Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair (from $5,068), which, as Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London, puts it: “At the height of American power in the 1960s it seemed somehow fitting that the imperial, almost Roman, restrained opulence of the Barcelona chair should have become the seat of choice in the waiting rooms of the masters of the universe.” Then, of course, there’s Harry Bertoia’s Diamond chair (from $1,778), Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair (from $2,264) and Eero Saarinen’s Tulip chair (from $1,501) and tables (from $557), all of which became part of the great Knoll lexicon and live on as timeless classics. These are seminal pieces that every architectural student is as familiar with as the Seagram Building, Bilbao’s Guggenheim or Niemeyer’s Brasília. And though today these works seem so established, so internationally renowned, almost all were innovative in their day, exploring new methods and materials such as metals, plastics and laminates as they arrived upon the scene.
Speak to the people involved in design today and there’s no doubt as to where they think Knoll stands. “The body of work Florence Knoll left as her legacy is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago,” says Jerry Heller, president and creative director of furniture makers Bernhardt Design. “You cannot have an appreciation for modern design without feeling a sense of gratitude for what she created.” Sudjic, meanwhile, says that “Knoll was the quintessential heart of modernity.”
And so we come to the 75th birthday and the desire to do something in that great tradition. Both Andrew Cogan, Knoll’s CEO, and Benjamin Pardo, its design director (both seen in first picture), had their eyes on the same two architects – Koolhaas, co-founder of design practice OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture), and Adjaye. As Cogan puts it: “We saw Rem as very established and well-known and David more as an emerging talent, which seemed a great balance. David is the first architect from the African continent that we have ever worked with, and that was exciting to us.” Cogan had been trying for some 15 years, without success, to work with Koolhaas – a Pritzker prize-winner who featured in Time magazine’s 2008 list of the 100 most influential people in the world – while he’d been inspired to learn more about Adjaye after reading about his work in the Financial Times in 2006.
Adjaye is an award-winning architect, famous for designing Elektra House in Hackney, east London, and for his Idea Stores in London’s Tower Hamlets, which combine a library, café, adult education classes and computer access under one roof. He also created the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, and more recently was asked by the Smithsonian Museum to design its National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington. Adjaye admits it was only the fact that it was Knoll that approached him that made him agree to turn his mind to furniture. “Firstly, I was worried because I’m not a furniture designer and I wasn’t sure I could do it,” he says. “I didn’t want to embarrass myself. But no student can go through architectural school without learning about the incredible pieces Knoll has created, whether it’s Richard Meier’s designs or Frank Gehry’s seminal creations, which blurred the boundary between furniture and sculpture. If you go to the Knoll Museum in Pennsylvania you realise that displayed before your eyes is the evolution of domestic furniture since the beginning of modernism in the 20th century. Whereas many furniture companies are more about fashion and trends, Knoll is about evolution, about where it’s going in the future and also it’s about longevity.”
Pardo initially asked Adjaye for a chair. “We never,” he says, “take designs that are simply brought to us. We always work with the designers, as everything has to chime with the DNA of Knoll.” He wanted to work with Adjaye just as much as Cogan did. “The fact that David got the Smithsonian commission was interesting, but I’d also admired a lot of the private work he’d been doing, such as the way he uses light as a foil to the geometry, so that he highlights and dematerialises the surfaces and volumes of his interiors. I also like his use of materials – for instance, for the Smithsonian he is going to use bronze screens in the façade to cast light and shadow into the building – and it was his use of light to transform spaces that attracted me to him, and convinced me he could work on interior objects in the same way. His buildings are challenging yet appropriate, and they seem to take one further into the future.”
Pardo tasked Adjaye with creating an iconic chair that had staying power and was truly functional. “Whatever I came up with really had to perform,” says Adjaye. “And I liked the fact that Knoll said unless I truly loved it, there was no point in my doing it. That to me was a very powerful pitch. It started off as a plastic chair and I was thrilled by that – for me plastic is as lovely as marble, steel or timber.” Adjaye fans will know that one of the hallmarks of his work has been the love of taking unusual or humble materials, such as plywood or concrete, and rendering them striking and beautiful. “I began to realise,” says Adjaye, “that thinking about the chair became an opportunity to express myself just as authentically but on a smaller scale. It was almost shocking to me that I could encapsulate the DNA of my thinking in a piece of furniture.”
While developing a plastic chair, he realised that the design could be extrapolated to make another in aluminium. “They look very different at first sight, but then when you look more closely you see that one is the skeleton and the other is the muscle,” says Adjaye. “Knoll has the most extraordinary technical team, they’re true craftsmen. This chair has incredible flexibility and I hope people will find it very comfortable.” The result is that design lovers can buy a chair designed by one of our foremost architects and made to the highest technical standards for $300, or $490 in aluminium (both seen in first picture).
But, having started, Adjaye found himself wanting to do more. The collection grew so that now there is a lounge chair ($7,500 for the high-back version, $6,250 for the low-back, both seen in first picture) and a low table – a limited edition of 75 pieces – in cast bronze ($50,000, seen in first picture) or aluminium ($37,500). There’s also an ottoman ($3,250, seen in first picture) and a side table ($2,375). The collection will be available from October 1, when Knoll will dedicate its recently opened Knoll Home Design Shop in New York’s Avenue of the Americas (seen in eighth picture) to Adjaye’s work, as well as selling it through its online store, which launched in April.
Knoll’s other anniversary coup, the collaboration with Koolhaas, was previewed during a Prada catwalk show in January – Koolhaas’s fans will know that he’s had a long association with the brand – before launching to some fanfare at the Milan Furniture Fair in April. “I wanted to collaborate with Koolhaas because his work breaks down boundaries, and we were looking at furniture that would be flexible and could work in a domestic as well as an office setting,” says Cogan. “His relationship with Prada has meant that we now have a triangular relationship that includes them, and some of the OMA furniture collection for Knoll appears in the latest Prada ads.” Pardo says that he too had wanted to work with Koolhaas ever since arriving at Knoll eight years ago. “I appreciated his honesty and the fact that the relationship between his buildings and his interior spaces always seemed well organised – they weren’t just pretty boxes that were good to look at from the outside,” he says.
Fortunately, Koolhaas had begun to be intrigued by domestic interiors. “I had always felt that designing furniture was kind of redundant,” he says. “But due to some experiences in my private life, at home, I was designing on that scale. I had thought that it would be almost impossible, but actually I enjoyed it. So I decided that our so-called principle of not being involved in [small-scale] design needed to be thrown overboard.”
Pardo was interested in talking to Koolhaas about flexible designs that could bring people together. “It seemed to me,” says Pardo, “that mobile devices had changed our lives so much that the old separation between work and home was irrelevant.”
The result is the Tools for Life collection, a series of 11 pieces that can be moved up and down, as well as laterally or horizontally, to take different shapes and be used in different ways. Koolhaas calls them “mutable and changeable”, while Pardo refers to them as “kinetic”. Koolhaas was fascinated by how the furniture would perform and what difference it could make to the lives of its users, rather than how it looked. That chimed perfectly with Cogan and Pardo’s brief, which was for Koolhaas to create an environment, rather than simply design a product. Tables, for instance, can be adjusted to several different heights so that the owner can work on the floor, sitting or standing up.
The most striking piece is perhaps the 04 Counter (price on request, seen in fourth picture) – three tiers of horizontal shelves that when stacked uniformly look like a single counter, but when pushed into a variety of different directions create a series of benches or shelves, in an impressive feat of engineering. As Pardo puts it: “The 04 Counter is a wall. Also, it’s a piazza of sorts, as it brings people together. Once people discover that the object moves, they want to engage with it, gather around it. When the top two beams start to rotate, the wall begins to dematerialise and people are able to walk through a space that was, seconds ago, occupied by a massive solid object.” The 05 (third picture) and 06 tables, meanwhile, have almost industrial-looking bases that can be raised or lowered at the push of a button, as do the 01 (second picture) and 02 chairs. There’s also a coffee table in acrylic that swivels and extends, a base-less floor seat and a modular bench. It’s a highly technical, beautifully engineered range, designed to help bridge the boundaries between work and social life. Don’t go looking for conventionally stylish pieces of furniture though – the collection is revolutionary and is designed for performance, not for looks. It, too, will be on sale this autumn.
Alongside these collaborations, Knoll is also working with designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby (seventh picture), as Pardo loves their work. “I had become infatuated with the light fitting they did for Flos,” says Pardo. “There was a simplicity and a directness about the object that overwhelmed me; it just says ‘I am a light’, and that is so rare today. So I asked them to do a sofa that embodied the language and iconography of their work. The foot of this sofa is a very simple cast-aluminium part painted in bright colours, which immediately aesthetically connects the sofa to the bases of the table and stools, which are painted in the same colours.” There are two-, three- and four-seater sofas (four-seater sofa, seen in sixth picture, about $7,878), while the range also includes an armchair (from about $3,451, fifth picture), two ottomans in textile or leather finishes (from about $1,475), two stools (from $510) and two tables (from $705). Available from February 2014, it’s a simple yet sophisticated collection that embodies the qualities that so attracted Pardo to the Flos light.
So it’s going to be quite a celebration: three very fine, innovative, even provocative, design teams creating pieces that they and Knoll hope will have the kind of lasting power its earlier designs have proved to have – as well as the brand’s first-ever retail space and an online shop, which will also be selling vintage Knoll pieces. One thing is certain: Knoll shows every sign of continuing to be as challenging and stimulating as it has always been. Seventy-five years old? Pah… Knoll clearly isn’t feeling its age.