Obituary Florence Knoll
Her surname stands for so much more than merely a style or an epoch, it encompasses an attitude to white-collar life that spanned, with some interruptions, several decades, new ideas about everyday modernity and a globally successful American way of life that is not geared towards waste: Florence Knoll, who died on 25 January, aged 101.
Together with her husband Hans, who died in 1955, she founded the Knoll International furniture brand – the adjective “International” wasn’t merely a promise, but signified actual global reach. It began with contemporary, not fashionable designs such as the simple seat combinations out of wood and belt by Danish designer Jens Risom. Soon after, timeless luxury objects accompanied the designs for contemporary everyday use. That was in 1948, when Knoll reissued an almost twenty-year-old design by the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who had emigrated to the USA: a deep armchair, soon to become known as the Barcelona Chair. As an architect herself, Florence Knoll admired the architect as well as the work, and she wanted to make up for what the furniture had not been able to get owing to the circumstances of the time – a proper appreciation as constructively innovative and formally convincing object. In fact, she succeeded in doing something completely different, namely, founding a new product segment: the re-edition. The armchair itself became an essential part of post-war architecture in open, bright rooms and transparent waiting areas, with lobbies complemented by Florence Knoll’s own designs, sideboards and sofas. The Knoll International style spread throughout the world, first in the USA and then throughout the Americas, followed by Western Europe, where the company Wohnbedarf took over distribution and modified production in Switzerland, and from 1951 also in (Western) Germany, where Knoll initially set up company headquarters and private apartments from its base in Stuttgart. At least one furniture series, the steel wire chairs by the sculptor Harry Bertoia, achieved almost instant popularity and found their way into countless households of the enlightened bourgeoisie as well as into a large cleaning chain in Frankfurt, where the Bertoia chair became part of the corporate design. The same easy choice was clearly not intended for the Barcelona Chair. Made of chrome and leather, it became a generic feature of lobby furnishings, but anyone who wanted to purchase it could not simply buy it: Knoll interior decorators had to first examine the rooms to see whether they were worthy of such a leading modern product. Aside from that, with tables and chairs designed by Florence Knoll and Eero Saarinen, Knoll International continued to astonish with an overhaul of traditionally representative rooms, a fact that the German magazine Der Spiegel acknowledged with a title story about product design and its author. Knoll design stood for lightness and mobility, for changing places – Knoll designs were for the age of everyday air travel and individual car ownership, replacing journeys in Pullman wagons and ocean liners. Even the heavy material of marble, which has been used for rooms since antiquity, was given a contemporary reinterpretation that seemed almost weightless in Saarinen’s tables.
The fact that all this work became well known was thanks to excellent product graphics to which the saturation of Herbert Matter’s and the striking seriousness of Massimo Vignelli’s graphics and Irma Boom’s talent for communicating haptic associativity, particularly admired by a younger graphic community, all contributed. Florence Knoll founded this commitment to graphics and thus helped to free author design from the constraints of advertising, and she may well have smiled at terms such as the magazine-compatible Eames era: she knew better. The topicality of her work is not only evidenced by the beautiful historical reminiscences that the magazine Creative Inneneinrichter occasionally closes with, but also as seen in Germany during the furniture fair in Cologne this year. At the show, Markanto showed old products and new productions designed by Florence Knoll. Historical Knoll publications also played a major role in the themed showcase on furniture design at the Walther König bookshop. A life’s work such as hers cannot, of course, be captured by these few examples, but the following statement may be better: Florence Knoll not only lived for a century, she also shaped it like few others have.