2013 was the year of the company’s 75th anniversary celebrations. 2015 was the centennial of Harry Bertoia. 2016 marks the 50th birthday of the famous collection in welded steel rod designed by Warren Platner. And 2017 will be the centennial of Florence Knoll.
So many histories go into the story of Knoll that it is almost hard to choose the most representative projects and personalities of a brand so rich in content. Besides the names mentioned above, we should add a few others: Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Eero Saarinen…
Architects who with their iconic products transformed the ideals of the Bauhaus and the concept of convergence of art, industry and crafts into reality, laying the groundwork for modern design thinking.
In the Knoll factory at Foligno, in Umbria, the main production facility for the European market, everything speaks of this cultural mission that the company founded in New York in 1938 by Hans and Florence Knoll has constantly updated, collaborating with world-famous architects and designers.
The relationship with history is already evident on an architectural scale: the concept were designed in 1963 by Achille & Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, commissioned by Dino Gavina, which set up production facilities here, taking advantage of government incentives for development in Southern Italy.
In 1968 the brand was acquired by Knoll, and even today the skill of local artisans goes into the carpentry of the products for the home and the cabinets made for offices (where articles made to measure still have a leading role). The assembly of operative and managerial office seating, and above all the workmanship of fabrics and leathers, is still a matter of refined manual skill.
It is no coincidence that the Barcelona® by Mies van der Rohe is entirely produced here, for many international projects. Its characteristic covering is formed by 40 squares of leather, of imperceptibly different sizes, cut out one by one and stitched by hand using a complex technique that calls for simultaneous stitching of four skins, reaching bundles of 16 at the junction points.
At this location, also with a connected showroom (a space designed in the 1970s by Cini Boeri, which conserves all of its expressive force intact), the historic pieces of the Knoll catalogue come to life, as well as the company’s new classics, all of which keep faith with its mission of innovation of the languages of living and dwelling.
This is the principle, for example, behind the famous collection by Frank O. Gehry in curved wood, created in the 1990s, or the furnishing system designed by Rem Koolhaas in 2012, all the way to the latest seats designed by David Adjaye and the duo Barber & Osgerby.
The new developments for 2016 include two seating families whose outstanding feature is the way they connect workspace and homespace. The first, designed by Marc Krusin, is a family of chairs in a range of variations that make functional performance flexible. The second is the result of collaboration with Piero Lissoni, already working with Knoll on other projects halfway between home and office. It is a system of upholstered pieces with a very technological and innovative concept, also designed for spaces with a hybrid function.
“This is a true industrial project, very complex,” says the designer, “based on the idea of a structural steel beam that through a series of crosspieces supports different elements that diversify use: the seats are conceived as platforms, but also as flatbeds made in different materials. In practice, this is a product that changes the traditional concept of upholstered furniture, a technological and aesthetic alphabet to put together to meet different needs.”
The system will make its debut at the Salone del Mobile this year, flanked by small cabinets, but in the near future it will be enhanced by new elements that will gradually expand its functional role.
“My points of reference,” says Lissoni, “are Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Florence Knoll. Names of great importance for anyone who works as a designer. Nevertheless, I do not think we should hide behind the great masters: we have to always come to terms with the contemporary world, without making heritage into the sole value with which to move into the future.”
The concept is reformulated in strategic terms by Andrew Cogan, CEO of Knoll, who at the Salone del Mobile in Milan in 2013 announced the brand’s major return to Europe and the new challenge in the home sector, where the company had glimpsed the largest growth margins with respect to its already consolidated position in the office sector.
This choice has been a success, and just three years later Knoll Europe has reinforced its position, reporting constant double-digit sales growth in the world of the office and in that of residential furnishings.
“We are operating a high performance design-driven business worldwide,” Cogan explains, “that has resulted in a unique culture and brand identity. Knoll stands for modern design. Three years ago we put into place a strategy to diversify and expand our business.
This resulted in several acquisitions, including Holly Hunt. And we are especially pleased with the continuous expansion of our business in Europe, which is profitable and split evenly between workplace and residential customers and distributors.
We are very well positioned to serve clients worldwide, especially as traditional boundaries between residential and contract continue to blur, and the importance of total environment outshines any one particular element.”
The man at the helm of the consolidation of the brand in Europe is Demetrio Apolloni, who thanks to over 30 years of managerial experience in the world of Italian design knows the specificities of the market on the ‘old continent,’ as well as those of a product that represents design excellence.
“The objective I have set for myself,” says Apolloni, president of Knoll Europe since 2013, “has been to bring new vigor to the brand through a proactive attitude. Which has meant: returning to the Salone del Mobile with a booth designed by OMA, and then updating the tools of communication to enable us to narrate, in an updated, contemporary way, the history and the productive offerings of the company.
It seemed very important, furthermore, to offer people closer knowledge of what Knoll really is and how we work inside the company, organizing training programs and visits in the Foligno factory. The goal is to transmit the uniqueness of the brand, to communicate the quality of the processes behind its iconic products, and the company’s desire to play a leading role also in Europe. The true mission is to move forward with the value and responsibility of the Knoll heritage: what we have inherited from the past is what we foresee for the future, to honor and preserve our cultural legacy.”
A challenge – and a responsibility – that are certainly not easy, given the great achievements of Knoll. It is no coincidence that the company’s motto is ‘Modern Always,’ meaning the proposal of products with innovative content, but outside of fashions and trends, capable of lasting over time.
Regarding the secret of developing projects that stand up to comparison with the icons of the past, Andrew Cogan comments: “Hans and Florence Knoll created a business founded on an unwavering commitment to good design. At Knoll, modern means standing up to the challenges of an ever-changing world in helping clients create inspired workplaces and residential settings.
In fact, there’s no secret to developing projects that stand up to the iconic force of those created by the Knolls. The Knolls and their collaborators envisioned a world that could transform society for the better through integrated design principles. While the scope of our work has evolved since their time as the world has changed, we continue to be driven by a rigorous process, shared experience and a distinct modern sensibility.
The goal of our innovation is always timelessness and adaptability — rejecting short-term trends and anticipating the inevitably of change. Our task is to ensure that Knoll remains vital and synonymous with good design for generations to come. Knoll is Modern Always® because modern always works.”
Text by Maddalena Padovani – Photo by BHM Studio