If you were a fan of the Emmy Award-winning television series Mad Men, you know the intrigues weren’t merely plot- and character-driven. From office to living room to swanky cocktail lounge, the show’s luxe but functional 1960s esthetic—which has inspired our ongoing obsession with mid-century modern interiors—was often characterized by Knoll furniture and textiles.
In January, Michigan-born Florence Knoll, the matriarch of mid-century modern design, passed away at 101, after having worked well into her 80s. “In her legacy of design, she was a beacon not only for architects and designers, but for women and modern thinkers,” said Jennifer Roth, director of sales for KnollStudio, at a fascinating presentation celebrating Florence Knoll at Vancouver’s Inform Interiors.
Born Florence (Shu) Schust, she was orphaned at age 12, but was fortunate in that her guardian had the foresight to enroll her at the influential Cranbrook Academy of Art just outside Detroit. The school, designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, was an incubator for mid-century modernism, textile design and sculpture. In its halls, Knoll would befriend Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, and Harry Bertoia, with whom she would later collaborate on many now-famous furniture collections. She went on to study architecture with mentor Mies van der Rohe in Chicago, absorbing his “less is more” approach to design, and in Boston with Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school.
In 1941, she met and later married Hans Knoll when she was the only woman working at a New York architectural firm and he was establishing his furniture company. “Keep in mind that up to this point, interior design wasn’t really a specialty and so architects designed everything,” explained Roth. “So, for the first time, when she began working with Hans Knoll Associates in 1943, Florence could say to clients, ‘Let us also design the interior of your home or building, too.’ ”
The intrepid Knoll practised a philosophy of “total design” considering whole environments and, for the first time, actually asked clients how they worked. Surrounded by men, she had no fear of putting her ideas in motion, creating the Knoll Planning Unit that pioneered many firsts in interior design, including space planning with intricate paste-ups that included textile and carpet swatches.
Excited about designing furniture, Knoll wasn’t deterred by the depletion of wood and steel after the Second World War. She used cord and wire and, in 1947, began manufacturing work by other designers through KnollStudio. They included Mies van der Rohe’s now iconic Barcelona Chair, tufted on one side with thick welted piping on the cushions, and Eero Saarinen’s Womb Chair and Tulip Chair.
Next time you see colourful floor-to-ceiling panels in a home or business setting that divide rooms into intimate spaces, remember that was an invention of Florence Knoll.
As she shaped the brand, Knoll was adamant that designers must always be credited for their work. She was the first to introduce the artist’s signature on all KnollStudio pieces.
“I’ve always admired Florence Knoll’s practical approach and clear objectives in design,” says Vancouver furniture maker Sholto Shuton, who attended the Inform presentation. “Her thin, knife-edge conference and dining tables are classics and a technique I use in my Emerald Collection for embassy residences.”
“I’m a big fan of Knoll Saarinen chairs,” enthuses Vancouver interior designer Robert Bailey. “I just used them in a kitchen eating area in a home at Crescent Beach near White Rock and they are so comfortable—a classic.”
Founding KnollTextiles in 1947 when chintz, brocades and velvets were the only upholstery fabric available on the market, Knoll introduced textural, durable men’s suiting fabric from London. Today, thousands of fabric designs and technological innovations later, Knoll Luxe Textiles has partnered with fashion designers including Proenza Schouler and Rodarte for the Knoll Luxe 10th Anniversary Collection. Knoll’s witty creative director, Dorothy Cosonas, designed Prince Hairy, a luxurious fuzzy mix of alpaca, wool and mohair in painterly geometrics, perfect for a cozy cuddle with the duchess.
And let’s not forget that Florence Knoll pioneered the use of photography for all her company’s furniture ads. Don Draper would be so pleased!