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Marcel Breuer, Robert Venturi, and More Insiders On the History of Knoll

The Knoll design firm, founded in 1938, went on to create some of the 20th century's finest pieces of American modernist furniture. Architecture luminaries like Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen designed chairs and modular storage systems alongside the company's husband-and-wife leaders, Hans and Florence Knoll. In the late 1970s, a series of interviews were done with 60 insiders about the beloved furniture company's first 40 years. Below, the most interesting excerpts from the previously unpublished interviews, which were conducted by NYC subway map designer Massimo Vignelli, architect and later TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, and Knoll executive Christine Rae, and appeared in the last issue of the Art Papers.

Peter Blake, the editor-in-chief of Architectural Forum, on the Knoll's sheep dog:
Hans and Shu [Florence] had this enormous sheep dog. He appears in the early Herbert Matter ads. He was unbelievable. He slept on the fire escape outside their apartment, on Sutton Place. One of the last things that happened to me at the end of the war in Europe was meeting this Romanian officer wearing an enormous sheepskin coat. I bought it from him, brought it back to America and gave it to Hans as a gift. He wore that coat while walking that huge dog and they looked like two dogs walking down the street.

Florence Knoll on developing the famous womb chair:
We finally found a ship builder in New Jersey and he was working in fiberglass. We got excited about it and Eero developed the Womb Chair…. Eero Saarinen and I went out to New Jersey to beg this ship builder to make us some models. He was very skeptical. Mr. Winter was his name. We just begged him. I guess we were so young and so enthusiastic that he finally gave in and worked with us. We had lots of problems and failures until they finally got a chair that would work.

Herman Miller's first design director, George Nelson, on run-ins with Hans Knoll:
I remember a moment when he showed me a check from some [government department] for, I think, $26,000, which in those days looked like the national debt. He didn't want to cash it and Xerox was not around then. When I signed up with Herman Miller about 1945 or 1946, I remember Hans coming by; and he was angry at me because I had signed up with Herman Miller. This struck me as odd because he had never invited me to do anything.

Skidmore, Owings & Merill architect Gordon Bunschaft on dining with Mies van der Rohe and the Knolls:
Hans and Shu invited my wife and I to a Sunday lunch at the Plaza with Mies. It was a marvelous time. He was a very quiet man and we didn't really talk about furniture. He likes to talk about marble and was a great lover of marble and onyx.

Postmodern architect Robert Venturi on Knoll furniture:
It seems to me I've always known about Knoll and Knoll has always been there, which is a little surprising for someone for my generation. They were beginning when I was beginning to get interested in architecture. I probably first heard about them when I was working at Saarinen's in the late forties.

Bauhaus architect and designer Marcel Breuer on naming his Knoll furniture items:
"Do you have a nickname?" I said. "Marcel I use officially, my middle name is Lajkó." We called the benches Lajkó. He misunderstood the name and in the catalogues he used something like Lefco. That's how the chairs got their names.

Florence Knoll on the first Knoll chair, now lost:
He [Hans Knoll] had one good chair that he brought over from Germany ... the design is no longer in existence. I don't think there are any photographs of it. It's a shame, because it is still one of the finest chairs. It had a marvelous spring system which has never quite been equaled. We were never able to produce it in the beginning because the steel that was needed was not available. It was wartime.

Graphic designer Herbert Matter on designing ads for Knoll:
I was in Basel in a railroad station and suddenly a chimney sweep on his bicycle passed by and made a very strong impression. When I was back here and thinking about an ad, it came to my mind . . . Hans was really excited when I showed him, and Shu was absolutely against it. She did not think it was dignified. This was not exactly her idea of an ad. The ad was received very well. I think it was probably the most striking ad we did.

Herman Miller's design director George Nelson with some major furniture gossip:
Recently, I heard some gossip that Herman Miller had been asked to interest itself in acquiring Knoll. I think that would be the worst thing that could possibly happen, because the co-existence of Miller and Knoll is what really puts both of them on their toes. We were always designing to each other.

· The Knoll Transcripts [Knoll]
· All Knoll coverage [Curbed National]
· All Furniture posts [Curbed National]