Knoll Show Defines Modern Design
by Mary Voelz Chandler
Published May 22, 2008 at 5:50 p.m.
Updated May 22, 2008 at 6:33 p.m.
It's not hyperbole to say that Florence Knoll is in the top tier of internationally significant designers, especially in a post-World War II America eager to bring Modernist design into its homes and offices.
And her timeless designs - and those produced by Knoll Inc. - continue to enrich our lives with their simplicity, good looks and functionality.
That's why "Florence Knoll: Defining Modern" is a much-anticipated exhibition. After traveling to six national design schools over the past couple of years, this selection of 13 Florence Knoll designs and several photographs of her projects has opened at the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art.
Who can think of a better place to take note of Knoll's work after joining what was Hans Knoll's furniture-manufacturing firm in 1943? That was when she was Florence Schust; they later married. After all, the Kirkland's collecting areas are furniture and the decorative arts, with an accent on Modernism, and work by Colorado artists including Vance Kirkland.
An architect by training, Florence Knoll contributed more than 100 designs for furniture and related objects to a firm that was manufacturing furniture by top designers, artists and architects; she also introduced new practices to the firm and to the interior design profession.
She created memorable designs for corporate offices at CBS and H.J. Heinz in Pittsburgh before leaving the firm in 1964. Florence Knoll Bassett now lives in Miami, where her second husband, the late Harry Hood Bassett, was a prominent banker; Hans Knoll died in 1955 in a car crash.
The traveling portion of this show is quite small: nine pieces of furniture from the Knoll Museum that suggest a living room and an office, plus a few wall panels.
So it is no surprise that Kirkland Museum director Hugh Grant turned to his institution's holdings and others in the community to flesh out "Defining Modern." Grant has devoted one gallery to the show, and cleared out the usual objects on view to create three distinct components in this augmented reinterpretation.
The first, along the back wall, holds the office and living room vignettes. The Knoll office includes a walnut table desk, a coffee table, a swivel armchair and a bench; Grant has added objects such as a Frederick Weinberg atomic desk clock, Valentine portable typewriter (Ettore Sottsass Jr. and Perry King), a desk pen by Eva Zeisel, and pieces such as a Model 8 table lamp by Clay Michie for Knoll, on loan from Z Modern.
A fine 1970 Lucite sculpture by Elizabeth Yanish Shwayder serves as a divider between the office and the living room, where the core works include a coffee table, an end table, a settee, stacking stools and a parallel bar system arm chair.
As with the office, Grant has added objects including an Alexander Calder mobile, a maquette for a Robert Delaney mobile, a Princess telephone (in pink, yet), and ceramic items. Bertoia sculpture is liberally represented throughout.
The second component lines two other walls: furniture manufactured by Knoll and designed by masters such as Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, plus Isamu Noguchi, Eero Saarinen and Bertoia.
That segment of the show - work by mentors and colleagues - is a great addition to the core, a context that fills out the expansive reputation of the firm Florence Knoll helped make a giant in design.
Finally, in an homage to work by women, Grant has added numerous works by Colorado artists, from Amy Metier and Virginia Maitland, to Martha Epp and Dorothea Dunlop.
A stretch? Well, it's certainly not the streamlined Knoll sensibility. But it's a message, about the importance of work by women, as is displaying them side by side with lithographs by Kandinsky and Miro.