Knoll Textiles 1945 – 2010 @ Bard Graduate Centre, New York

Knoll Textiles 1945 – 2010 @ Bard Graduate Centre, New York

From May 18 to July 31, 2011, the Bard Graduate Center presents “Knoll Textiles, 1945 – 2010″, the first comprehensive exhibition devoted to a leading producer of modern textile design.

The exhibition focuses on Knoll’s leadership and risk-taking practices, the innovation in textile materials, production, and marketing, and the way that the Knoll Textiles division was ingeniously used to promote that “total design” philosophy

The exhibition and its accompanying catalog consider the individuals and ideas that helped shape Knoll Textiles from its founding to 2010, with the goal of bringing the sartorial dimension of the Knoll brand and the under–recognized role of textiles in the history of modern interiors and design to the forefront of public attention.

The Knoll Textiles exhibition features approximately 175 examples of original textiles, furniture, photographs and ephemera on loan from public, private and corporate collections, including The Museum of Modern Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Smithsonian Institution, Cooper–Hewitt, National Design Museum; Yale University Art Gallery; the Brooklyn Museum; the Knoll Museum; and the Knoll Textiles Archive

bard exhibition curation planning board

Interestingly, the lack of museological and historical interest in modern textiles became apparent as the various loans for this exhibition were secured. For example, key works from Knoll’s innovative handwoven collection of the 1950s were found in boxes of scraps preserved for more than fifty years in the attic of a former Knoll employee and large samples dating to 1948, the second year of production for Knoll Textiles, languished in storage for decades at one of America’s leading design collections without formally entering the collection until they were recognized by Bard’s curatorial team.

Another major contribution of this exhibition has been the discovery in private collections of furniture with its original upholstery. Not only were these rare examples of early upholstery on Knoll furniture brought to light, but a major conservation project was subsequently undertaken that revealed the challenges of properly conserving twentieth-century furniture—of preserving not simply the furniture form but also the textile covering it.

This year Knoll Textiles is celebrating sixty-four years of good design for the Contract industry. It’s a known fact that there wouldn’t be a Contract industry if it wasn’t for Florence Knoll, creator of interiors planning and arbiter of minimal taste for the mid-century corporate office.

Florence Bassett hated floppy panels hinged to walls, which were the industry norm for viewing textiles. Instead she upholstered fabrics to panels that were designed as decorative walls within the showroom, or she displayed them in the form of a wheel, the same shape used in the 1960 Petal dining table, by Richard Schultz.

In the 1940s, when Florence Bassett began designing modern furniture and interiors for Knoll, wartime shortages made the textile selection downright dreary.

“There was nothing except decorator fancy stuff,” she says. The only decent fabrics she could find were flannels in midtown Manhattan tailor shops. “They gave me samples and were very happy to work with me because I gave them much more business than just buying a single suit.”

Bassett did this for about a year, until the company hired staff designers to create beautifully colored and textured patterns, and good weavers to make them.

“Cato balances itself very well,” Bassett says of the textile’s contrasting warp and weft. Cato has been in the Knoll line continuously since Paul Maute designed it as a handwoven fabric made in 30-yard runs in Germany, though it is now machine woven in Scotland.

“It’s a classic foundation product, and it gets specified on a lot of Knoll Studio pieces,” Cosonas says. “It’s an incredible crossover product that works for office or residential spaces.”

Knoll Textiles, 1945-2010,” at the Bard Graduate Center flips the story line on the brand’s famous chairs (Womb, Tulip, Diamond, Platner) by focusing on the fabrics rather than the frames.

The project began in 2007, when Knoll approached Bard Graduate Center to do an exhibit. Soon thereafter, the curatorial team was created, comprising of Earl Martin, the associate curator at the Bard Graduate Center; Angela Völker, the curator emeritus of textiles at the MAK in Vienna; Susan Ward, an independent textile historian, and Paul Makovsky, the editorial director of Metropolis and a Florence Knoll expert.

The exhibition focuses on several aspects of the Knoll enterprise. Perhaps the most significant is the unrecognized role that textiles play in the realm of interior design. Often one of the most colorful and visually effective elements of any room, textiles are rarely acknowledged as such.

The curators, in their discussion of the topic, use Eero Saarinen’s iconic Tulip chair as an example: considered a benchmark of modern design integral to any museum collection, the stark white chair’s seat is often covered in a colorful, lushly textured Knoll textile, and yet it is rarely ever mentioned or considered in exhibition tags or photograph captions.

According to the curatorial team, in collecting materials for the show it became apparent how little consideration had been placed on the textile designs that, in part, made Knoll’s name.

Many print designs were found only in the attic boxes of past employees or on original, threadbare furniture in private collections. The recognition, reclamation and preservation of these early designs proved challenging to the curatorial team, revealing an under-appreciation for one of the most visually significant components of any interior design.

Some of the reasons for textiles’ also-ran status are mundane: fabrics are ephemeral, faded by sunlight, dirtied by use. “We needed the conservators at the Museum of Modern Art to rescue some of these pieces and preserve the upholstery,” Martin explained.

Because Knoll’s program was frequently experimental, a few early fabrics that incorporated fiberglass or rayon disintegrated within the first years of production and had to be discontinued or reformulated.

Moreover, much of the company’s business was contract work, and office workers hardly paid attention to the provenance of their swivel chairs or curtains.

From its beginnings, the Knoll Textiles division was headed by Florence Knoll (now Bassett), the wife of the company’s founder, Hans Knoll.

Florence Knoll Bassett, for example, turned to New York tailors in the 1940s when faced with wartime wool-textile shortages. “The decorators at the time were just using antique French furniture and satins,” Bassett says. “I got gray and dark flannels, mostly neutrals of course, which I thought looked elegant on a chair.”

Initially she turned to men’s suiting fabrics for furniture coverings that would enhance the sofas’ long straight lines, rather than the “brocade and chintz with cabbage roses” she found in the marketplace.

The Knolls soon decided that the company needed to create its own fabrics.

Florence Knoll, despairing of the lack of good-quality upholstery materials, had looked toward the fashion industry to find mills that would produce innovative fabrics for Knoll furniture.

Open-plan offices benefited from partitions in bright, long-lasting colors. The expanses of glass in Modernist office buildings called for a new type of curtain, with “small motif prints that create a rhythm and visual interest but don’t distract from the coherence of the room,” Martin said. “Or sheers or open weaves that are useful as a sun screen but allow the air-conditioning to come through.”

In 1947, Knoll opened a showroom devoted entirely to textiles, and announced the creation of a textiles division. The New York Times described it as representing, “half a dozen of the most talented designers of this country and Europe.”

Also represented in the early textiles collection were striking fabrics derived from the craft of weaving, adapted for the first time for mass-manufacture on machine looms.

Suzanne Huguenin headed Knoll’s textile division from 1955 to 1964.

Knoll and its subsequent textile division heads, who included Eszter Haraszty, Suzanne Huguenin and Barbara Rhodes, relied on the same design and architecture networks for commissioning textiles that they used to recruit furniture designers.

ross littel

Ross Littell—a Fulbright scholar who studied fine art in Italy—created the Mira collection for Knoll that included this drapery print, which initially featured bright geometric shapes on a white background.

Now reinterpreted as a sheer drapery and a vinyl wall-covering, the new fabrics pass flame-retardant tests and can be used in contract settings. “We mimicked some of the original clean colors, but also added a few—like a beautiful purple berry tone—for today’s market,” Cosonas says.

Ester Haratzy

Based on loom heddles—the part that keeps the warp yarns in place—Eszter Haraszty’s original Fibra pattern, a very large-scale print, is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. Haraszty’s Fibra print (1953) was in the line for nearly 20 years and was applied to linen, sheer cotton and fiberglass.

Fibra coat

Dorothy Cosonas ( Knoll Textiles‘ current Head of Design ) has recently scaled the Fibra design down considerably to create a woven textile that will work on a piece of furniture like a chair or banquette, but kept it large enough that you still get a sense of the pattern.

antonin and noemi raymond

Noémi Raymond, the wife of the architect Antonin Raymond, designed a series of Japanese-influenced prints.

Marianne Strengell in her studio, 1948

Marianne Strengell, the head of the textile department at Cranbrook Academy of Art, contributed a number of early, highly textural fabrics.

astrid sampe

annie albers

“We were always trying for something new and better,” Albers said. An expert weaver and printmaker, Albers began a three-decade collaboration with Knoll Textiles in 1951. Eclat, based on precise geometric patterns, was issued in 1974 as a printed fabric in three scales

The innovations and emphasis on design continued through the late 1970s and 1980s, when designers Jhane Barnes and Nob + Non, as well as architect Robert Venturi, created groundbreaking collections for Knoll.

suzanne tick

The pioneering use of materials has continued to the present day, as seen in the designs of Suzanne Tick and Dorothy Cosonas and in  Knoll Luxe, a new line of fashion-forward, environmentally friendly textiles.


dorothy cosonas current head of design at Knoll Textiles

At Neocon in 2008 , Dorothy Cosonas launched the Knoll Textiles “Luxe Line Collection”.

Recently, under its creative director, Dorothy Cosonas, Knoll Textiles has turned to the fashion labels Rodarte and Proenza Schouler for its Knoll Luxe line, examples of which are also on display.

These recent collaborations may best prove the exhibition’s point: Why would you think less of what’s upholstering your chair than what’s upholstering your person?

In 1997, To celebrate the recent 60th anniversary of  the Knoll Textiles showroom, Cosonas created the Archival Col­lection, five reissues based on fabrics produced since 1947.

“One of my goals is to rediscover the past, what Florence Knoll started, and to expand our language of design but really keep it consistent with the company’s heritage,” says Dorothy Cosonas, current creative director of Knoll Textiles. “My mantra from the start was to live up to our history, not off of it.”

For this occasion Cosonas chose to bring back pieces from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s because their exaggerated colors and textures still look fresh. “These are strong patterns that speak to today’s designers,” she said.

Their reissues prove that these fabrics have staying power, but company founder Florence Knoll Bassett offers a word of advice about how to pick the right one: “A good fabric has to relate to the person, the object, and the atmosphere.”

The Bard exhibition’s goal is to bring the role of Knoll’s classic fabric designs to the forefront.

The Knoll Textiles exhibition is organized along four themes.

1) The exhibition first considers the formation, shaping and dissemination of the brand over time.

The curatorial focus here is the importance of Knoll’s leadership and design directors who took risks to enhance innovation, promoted creativity, embraced new ideas and gave resources to develop them, ultimately leading to success within the design industry. This section also considers the significance of Knoll’s promotion and marketing of textiles.

2) Then it traces the early group of Knoll designers and the innovations in materials and methods of production associated with textiles from 1945 to 1965

Florence Knoll shifted the traditional vision of textile production, bringing it in line with a modern sensibility that used color and texture as primary design elements.

In the early years, the firm took remarkable risks by hiring young, untried designers along with leading proponents of modern design to create textile patterns. The core group of designers from the early years included Astrid Sampe, Marianne Strengell, Sven Markelius, Angelo Testa, Stig Lindberg, Eszter Haraszty, Suzanne Huguenin, and Evelyn Hill Anselevicius.

3) It explores the ways in which the textile division thrived in conjunction with the success of the Knoll Planning Unit from the 1940s through the 1960s.

As Knoll obtained many of the most important corporate commissions of the 1950s, the textile division received large orders for textiles that were used to upholster furniture and to serve as interior fittings, such as space dividers, window casements, and wall covers.

Knoll used textiles in ingenious, unprecedented ways to convince clients to accept the Planning Unit schemes. One of the most important was the paste-up, a presentation method that used textile swatches and wood samples to produce a miniature mockup of an interior, a method Florence Knoll brought to the Planning Unit from her student days at Cranbrook.

Major projects examined in the exhibition include Knoll’s impressive showrooms in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere, as well as major office interior projects, such as the Alcoa building (1952), the suburban campus of Connecticut General Life Insurance (1957), a research center for the H. J. Heinz Company (1959), and the offices of Columbia Broadcasting System (1954 and 1965).

cbs office plan 1965

cbs offices 1965

4) The exhibition disseminates the history of Knoll Textiles after Florence Knoll’s retirement in 1965,

Tracing the increasingly international approach of Knoll Textiles during the late 1960s and 1970s when the design direction shifted to Europe and designers such as Wolf Bauer and Marga Hielle-Vatter came to the fore.

Knoll Textiles, 1945–2010 is accompanied by an extensively illustrated catalogue published by the Bard Graduate Center in collaboration with Yale University Press.

The exhibition catalog, designed by Irma Boom, offers a comprehensive history of the brand’s textiles, about 80 percent of which were designed by women.

Knoll Textiles, 1945–2010 makes a major contribution to modern design history by resurrecting the stories of nearly seventy-five designers who created textiles for Knoll from 1942 to the present in an extensive biography section, which provides previously unpublished and critical information.

Knoll Textiles is considered by the A&D community to be the premier source for timeless textures and exceptional colors woven in the finest fibers. They are reliable excellence; simple, honest, and not overly designed. Their rich textures and colors emphasize modern forms and never detract from them.

Today this quiet giant is receiving the attention it deserves with a blockbuster exhibition. Unlike other exhibitions that have treated the entire cadre of the company’s products, including furniture and office systems, this exhibition pays homage to the most under-recognized divisions of the company.

knoll textiles postcards by massimo vignelli

About Knoll

Originally focused exclusively on furniture, Knoll was founded by Swiss-born designer Hans Knoll in 1938. Knoll has been a leading proponent of progressive furnishings and interior design since the early 1940s, when the company was formed under the direction of Hans Knoll, who had come to the United States from Germany to expand the family furniture business.

Fundamental to Hans Knoll’s success was the partnership he began in 1943 with Florence Schust, a talented graduate of the Cranbrook Academy of Art who had studied architecture both at the Architectural Association in London and with Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

Hans and Florence were married in 1946, and her contacts gave the company access to many leading modern designers.

In addition to her experience and contacts, Florence Knoll brought a strong commitment to innovation and adherence to quality.

In 1943, Florence Schust convinced Hans Knoll that she could turn his furniture company around and on an upswing by partnering with architects and incorporating interior design into the company’s mission. It worked.

By 1944, after creating what could easily be characterized as one of the most progressive lines of modern furniture in the United States at the time, Knoll introduced the Planning Unit. This division of the company, with Florence Knoll as its director, was devoted to creating complete interiors, primarily for the contract market.

They married in 1946 and together they foundedKnoll Associates.

herbert matter,hans,florence and harry bertoia 1951

Although Knoll had been experimenting with textiles since 1942, the firm formally added textiles as a third division in 1947, thereby unifying three key areas of the corporate design field within a single company brand.

When Hans died in a car accident in 1955, Florence took over the business.

With Florence at the helm in the role of design director, the company sprouted wings and rapidly expanded to encompass not only iconic furniture designs but textiles and complete interior schemes.

The company acquired designs and commissions from designers such as Hans Bellman, Eero Saarinen, George Nakashima, Harry Bertoia, and Isamu Noguchi.

In 1951 – designers and their pieces – noemi raymond (1), harry bertoia (2), eszter haraszty (3), abel sorensen (4), dorothy cole (5), george nakashima (6), richard stein (7), florence knoll (8), isamu noguchi (9).

Florence Knoll was a student of architecture who earned degrees at the Architectural Association in London and the Armour Institute (Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago). She studied with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, among others.

Famous for her “total design” philosophy and space planning and storage innovations, Florence Knoll revolutionized interior design and produced collections that have become 20th century icons that are somehow timeless.

By the 1960’s Knoll had 20 showrooms in the US and 30 around the world.

Throughout their 70-year span the company has featured the work of such notable designers as Robert Venturi, Massimo Vignelli (who would later serve as design director), Ettore Sottsass, Frank Gehry, George Nakashima, Maya Lin, Isamu Noguchi and countless others.

About Florence Knoll

Born Florence Schust in Saginaw, Michigan, USA, in 1917, Knoll was orphaned at 12.

In 1932 she attended Kingswood, a girls school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, that was part of the newly created Cranbrook educational community. The school was designed by architect Eliel Saarinen, and Florence, or ‘Shu’ as her friends called her, virtually became a member of the Saarinen family, travelling with them on holidays to Europe.

She was exposed to numerous crafts at Kingswood, but it was the architecture of the school itself that most impressed her and inspired her to become an architect.

She associated with many of the Cranbrook students, including Eero Saarinen, Ralph Rapson and Harry Bertoia, whom she later recruited to design for Knoll Associates during the ’40s and ’50s.

After graduating from Kingswood in 1934, Knoll continued her studies at the Architectural Association in London. In 1941, she obtained her architectural degree after studying with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology. (Later, in 1948, she secured the rights to his classic Barcelona collection for Knoll).

A short stint working for former Bauhaus masters Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, led to a move to New York in 1943, where she began working for the Hans G. Knoll Furniture Company.

She brought a cache of contacts and designers to the firm, paving the way for its future success.

In 1946, she married Hans and the business name was changed to Knoll Associates.

She was made head of design and responsible for the development of furniture and textiles, taking over as president of Knoll after Hans’s death in a car accident in 1955.

She established the now famous Knoll Planning Unit and was key to integrating textiles into the brand’s identity.

A designer in her own right, Florence created many iconic pieces for Knoll, which she humbly referred to as “fill-in” pieces, intended to supplement the work of their retinue of accomplished designers.

Florence was known for her modern sensibility, bold use of color and her fearless promotion of young designers to create truly unique and groundbreaking designs.

Her style of client presentation, known as a “paste up”, was responsible for swaying even the most traditionally minded clients into integrating Knoll’s vibrant textiles into wall coverings, casements and space dividers, creating a unified and strikingly designed space.

Through her strong leadership, the Knoll business acquired the best designs and commissioned an amazing array of lesser-known designers (Franco Albini, Hans Bellman, Herbert Matter and George Nakashima), as well as ones who have become household names, such as Isamu Noguchi, Harry Bertoia and Eero Saarinen.

Knoll Associates also moved into furniture textiles in 1947 with a large range of fabrics using natural and man-made materials, including the classic Cato fabric in 1961.

In 1961 she received the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal for Industrial Design – just one of her swag of awards (which also includes the USA’s National Medal of Arts in 2002).

She retired in 1965 and moved to Florida, where she still lives today.

knoll textiles at neocon 2011

The Bard Graduate Centre

The Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture is a graduate institute affiliated with Bard College that opened in New York City in 1993.

The Bard Graduate Center occupies a six-story town house at 18 West 86th Street and a second, newly renovated town house at 38 West 86th Street.

Gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 11am to 5pm and Thursday from 11am to 8pm

Share your thoughts