Hans Knoll was born in 1914 in Stuttgart, Germany, into the successful manufacturing family behind Walter Knoll & Co. Early-20th-century Germany was an epicenter of modernist design theory—most notably expressed in the products and practices of the Deutscher Werkbund association of artists, architects, designers, and industrialists, as well as the influential Bauhaus school—which advocated for design rooted in the principles of rationality, functionalism, and mass production. This milieu had a profound influence on Hans and inspired him to produce furniture for the new age. In 1937, after a stint in London, he moved to the United States and brought his modernist vision with him.
Florence Knoll (neé Schust) was born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1917 and from an early age exhibited a strong interest in architecture. After graduating from the Kingswood School for Girls in 1934, she moved across campus to the newly formed, Bauhaus-inspired Cranbrook Academy of Art to study architecture under recent émigré, Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. There she befriended future design luminaries Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. She went on to Columbia University’s School of Architecture to study town planning. In 1937, she apprenticed under former-Bauhaus professors Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a few years later, enrolled at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe became a life-long mentor to her.
In 1938, Hans Knoll established The Hans G. Knoll Furniture Company as a furniture exporter in a small space on East 72nd Street in New York City. As the company quickly grew, it evolved into a manufacturing business. In 1941, he opened his first plant in a former dance hall in East Greenville, Pennsylvania and hired Danish designer Jens Risom, who eventually helped him develop the first, original Knoll furniture designs. That same year, Hans met Florence on an interior design project and, recognizing her exceptional taste and eye, hired her to bring in business with architects and interior designers and, later, to provide in-house planning and interior design expertise for a growing corporate clientele. In 1946, Hans and Florence married and renamed the company Knoll Associates. That same year, the Knolls formally established the Planning Unit, solidifying the company’s role in the design of interior spaces. In 1951, Knoll International was launched as the German and French arms of Knoll Inc., producing Knoll designs for the European market. Sadly, Hans died in a tragic car crash in 1955, but Florence remained actively involved until she retired in 1965.
Knoll’s signature pieces include Breuer’s Wassily Chair (1925), Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair (1929/1948), Harry Bertoia’s Diamond Chair (1952), Eero Saarinen’s Tulip Armchair (1957), as well as Florence‘s own furniture collection developed through the 1950s. Knoll’s impressive catalogue includes a who’s-who list of midcentury modern and contemporary design figures, including Jens Risom, Alexander Girard, George Nakashima, Isamu Noguchi, Richard Schultz, Warren Platner, Charles Pollock, Andrew Morrison & Bruce Hannah, Vignelli Associates, Richard Sapper, Maya Lin, Frank Gehry, and Rem Koolhaas. As of this writing, Knoll’s most recent collaboration is with David Adjaye, who designed the Washington Collection for Knoll and the Adjaye Collection for KnollTextiles. Today, the company is particularly focused on meeting the evolving needs of the 21st-century workplace.
In 2011, Knoll received the National Design Award for Corporate and Institutional Achievement from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. The award recognized Knoll’s legacy in American modern design and the company’s commitment to promoting the relationship between good design and quality of life. Knoll designs can be found in the permanent design collections of institutions around the world, including more than 30 acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
* All images courtesy Knoll, Inc. The David Adjaye Skeleton Chair was photographed by Joshua McHugh.