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Prior Restraint

Sitting-room installation with furniture, by Florence Knoll.

Design is the stepchild of the visual arts, with none of the high status of its cousins, painting and sculpture, or its big brother, architecture. This is most likely because of its ubiquitous nature. On the plus side, the ready availability of design — which is all around us — gives it more power in its influence on us than is the case with more rarely seen art objects like paintings and sculptures, and it determines how we live as much or more than architecture does. That's why I found Florence Knoll: Defining Modern, at the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, so interesting.

Florence Knoll, who is in her nineties and lives in Florida, is one of the greatest mid-century modernist designers from the spectacular generation that came of age in the 1950s and '60s. During that time, she created more than a hundred designs for different chairs, sofas, tables and, most famously, cabinets. And in her spare time, she served as the design director for Knoll Associates (now Knoll International).

The core of the Kirkland exhibit is a modest traveling show sponsored by the Knoll Museum in Pennsylvania, made up of only nine pieces of furniture and some panels of wall text. This limited selection has been supplemented by works from the Kirkland collection. Typically, I chide Kirkland director Hugh Grant for cramming too much into his shows, but in this case, the traveling portion needed the help. Aside from the added Knoll pieces, he's included the work of others of her era whose pieces were likewise produced by Knoll Associates, but the results of that decision are more mixed. While the other designers demonstrate how different Knoll's aesthetic was from theirs, their work competes with her pieces for our attention.

Knoll was born Florence Schust in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1917. Orphaned at twelve, she nonetheless was able to study as a teenager in the 1930s at the Kingswood School at Cranbrook Academy, where she distinguished herself with her architectural designs. This connection to Cranbrook, a hotbed of revolutionary ideas about the design of household items, would influence her designs and affect her business decisions for decades.

She studied with Cranbrook head Eliel Saarinen, just one of several celebrity mentors in the 1930s and '40s. After a stint at Columbia University, she attended the Architectural Association in London and then the Armour Institute, where she was influenced by less-is-more guru Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In a 1960s interview, she noted that Mies had taught her more than anyone and did it in fewer words. Her designs reveal this debt, and her furniture is even more Miesian than Mies's own work.

She then joined Wallace K. Harrison's firm, of United Nations Building fame, and also worked at the Architects Collaborative, with founder Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Talk about an academic and professional lineage. And since Mies, Gropius and Breuer were all associated with Germany's epoch-launching Bauhaus art school, Knoll's work is also linked to vanguard design from the early twentieth century.

In 1941, she met her future husband, Hans Knoll, and joined his Hans G. Knoll Furniture Company in 1943 as a designer. She married Knoll in 1946 and became a full partner in the business and began working under her married name, doing her first production piece made by the newly named Knoll Associates.

Knoll was instrumental in building the company into a worldwide design powerhouse and used her connections to recruit architects to design products for the company. Knoll Associates brought out chairs and tables by Saarinen, Mies and Breuer, which are now modernist classics, like Saarinen's "Grasshopper" chair, Mies's "Barcelona" chair and Breuer's "Vassily" chair. All are included in the Kirkland show. Knoll also brought out furniture designed by sculptors like Harry Bertoia and Isamu Noguchi, and pieces by them are also on view as part of the exhibit.

All of these designers, whether trained in architecture or sculpture, created stand-alone pieces that have a look-at-me charisma and are meant to be the centerpieces in the rooms they're in. Knoll took a different approach in her own work, which was to create background pieces — what she called "gap fillers." Everyone who designs furniture wants to create an iconic chair, and most want to do a great table, too, but Knoll, like few others of her generation, went ahead and did dressers, credenzas, chests of drawers, side tables, settees, couches and other ignored furniture categories.

The decision to focus on the more mundane types of furniture wasn't just self-serving; it also solved a business problem. Knoll Associates couldn't enter the world of architectural interior design without these key pieces filling out the roster of celebrity chairs and tables. Knoll herself became one of the most important interior designers of the era, carrying out significant commissions at Eero Saarinen's CBS Tower and at the Connecticut General Life Insurance Building by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

At Kirkland, Knoll's work has been installed along one wall of the large exhibition room and separated from the rest of the show by a literal cordon strung close to the ground. Looking at both the traveling pieces and the Kirkland ones, it's clear that Knoll took a strict functionalist approach to design in keeping with the second, more refined version of the international style.

On one side, director Grant has installed a seating area, and on the other, a work area. The seating area includes a white settee, the squared-off welting on the back reminiscent of a similar device used by Mies. On either side are two different side tables, one with a white marble top, the other in black; both have simple chrome legs set at the four corners. In front of the settee is a super-elegant coffee table with a white-painted steel frame and a black-laminate-covered top that cantilevers off of it.

The office group is anchored by an impressive pedestal table that was also marketed as a desk. The table, designed in 1961, is illustrated in a widely published photo that appears in just about every history-of-design book out there, and a facsimile of the image is hanging on the wall at the Kirkland. Grant has done his own take on the photo with the actual furniture. The pedestal table features an interesting example of Knoll literally sampling the work of another designer at Knoll Associates. The top of the table was designed by Saarinen as a dining table for his pedestal group, nicknamed the "Tulip" group because the matching armchair looks like a tulip. But in Knoll's version, the sinuous base by Saarinen has been substituted with a no-nonsense solution of a central pole and four radiating legs. Knoll took Saarinen's top as a business decision, since she wanted to use elements already being made by her company to reduce tooling costs.

For Knoll, a table was a simple set of legs or a straightforward pedestal with a slab of wood or marble used for a top. A chair, bench or settee has four legs, a back, a seat and sometimes arms. In every case, the individual elements, just like the completed works, are scrupulously stripped of ornamentation and presented as pared-down rectilinear formal elements used to build the overall compositions. There's a utopian character to this simplicity and an industrial quality to the materials that are used — notably, lots of steel, either polished or painted. Both of these attributes — one conceptual, the other pragmatic — hark back to the design values of the Bauhaus masters, who had been among the designer's early influences.

Florence Knoll is the supreme proponent of understated elegance; the success of her vision is underscored by the fact that several of her designs, each forty to fifty years old, are still being made by Knoll International. The show at the Kirkland includes many of these, and they've aged remarkably well.