Building up an icon (mass produced) – Part #7

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Knoll was founded in 1938 by Hans G. Knoll, a German immigrant to the U.S., and son of one of Germany’s pioneer manufacturers of modern furniture. Educated in England and Switzerland, Hans Knoll was familiar with the Bauhaus and with many of the seminal figures in 20th century design and architecture, including Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Starting from scratch, Knoll slowly built up a roster of respected designers and a catalog of impressive furniture designs. In 1943 Knoll furniture hired Florence Schust, a designer with bright ideas who had worked with European masters. In 1946, Florence Schust and Hans Knoll married and formed Knoll Associates. Their major breakthrough came shortly after they were married when they were hired to design the Rockefeller family offices in Rockefeller Plaza. The job was heralded as a benchmark for office designs of the day, and it became a springboard for Hans and Florence into other high-profile office design jobs. Since the beginning of their partnership, Florence played a critical role in the development and direction of the company. It was her concept to take a Bauhaus approach to furniture design: to offer objects that represented design excellence, technological innovation and mass production. Together, Hans and Florence Knoll searched for and nurtured talented designers; they believed strongly that designers should be credited by name and paid royalties for their work, a tradition which continues at Knoll today. With the extensive European and American design contacts of Florence and Hans, the company’s products took on an international flavor. They brought in architects Eero Saarinen and Franco Albini, and worked with artists such as Harry Bertoia, Jens Risom and Isamu Noguchi to develop a collection of furnishings that are now widely recognized as classics in the pantheon of modern design.

Knoll made a masterful move in 1953 when they came to an agreement with Mies van der Rohe for the exclusive manufacturing and sales rights to his furniture. His collection includes the Krefeld Collection, the MR Chaise Lounge, and the world famous Barcelona Chair. By 1968 another important event took place in Knoll´s history when Knoll International purchased The Gavina Group of Bologna. Founded in 1949 in Bologna, an Italian furniture production company established to manufacture and sell experimental works by local unknown designers, Gavina had won over the years the elite of Italian design, including the Castiglioni brothers, Vico Magistretti, Mario Bellini, Marco Zanuso and Luigi Caccia Dominioni. In 1968 however, its founder, Dino Gavina was forced to sell the company and Knoll International purchased it. With the takeover, all the Gavina glorious designs, Kazuhide Takahama and Tobia Scarpa’s sofas, Cini Boeri’s tables and the Marcel Breuer furniture (including the Wassily Chair) went into the Knoll catalogue.

After Hans Knoll’s death in 1955, Florence Knoll assumed the leadership of the company, until 1960. In 1965, she withdrew from the industry completely, leaving Knoll it in the hands of those she had trained and inspired. Since then Knoll has expanded both within the United States and internationally. The company that Florence Knoll Bassett started with her husband, Hans, in 1946, is still one of the most influential design houses in the world, and the 3rd largest manufacturer of custom furniture.

Knoll´s visionary management strategy to secure the exclusive production rights of most qualified and famous designers proved to be very successful. Knoll has the rights today to manufacture and sell products by Mies van der Rohe (the Barcelona collection), Harry Bertoia (the Bertoia wire chairs), Marcel Breuer (the Wassily chair), Eero Saarinen (the Tulip chair), Warren Platner (Lounge collection), Jens Risom (the Risom lounge chair) and many others.

Knoll introduced its successful KnollStudio collection in 1985. This line, which was designed for executive offices and residences, integrates classic icons of modern furniture by renowned designers like Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen and other reputable designers. Currently Knoll keeps a very long list of prominent designers that work or have worked for Knoll such as: Raul de Armas, Alvar Aalto, Paul Aferiat, Franco Albini, Don Albinson, Davis Allen, Emilio Ambasz, Gae Aulenti, Hans Bellman, Cini Boeri, Antonio Bonet, Achille Castiglioni, Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, Pepe Cortès, Joseph D’Urso, Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy, Gianfranco Frattini, Frank Gehry, Hans Wegner, Robert Venturi, Massimo and Lella Vignelli, Iimari Tapiovaara, Kazuhide Takahama, Tobia Scarpa, Jens Risom, Ralph Rapson, Warren Platner, Gio Ponti, Don Petitt, Vico Magistretti, Donald R. Knorr, Pierre Jeanneret, Florence Knoll Bassett, Piero Lissoni, Isamu Noguchi, George Nakashima, Bill Stephens, Arne Jacobsen, Ettore Sottsass and many others…

With an all star roster with names like those mentioned above, with furniture icons like the ones all these geniuses designed and with the great moves like dealing in person with Mies van der Rohe the exclusive manufacturing and sales rights for his furniture and acquiring The Gavina Group profiting from their designers portfolio including the famous Marcel Breuer Wassily Chair I bet you that this is the Group that you would like to own for sure! The funny thing is that what started as a dream of a couple that by the way she is the one that pioneered the concept of a system in which she had long meetings with the clients to get feedback of their needs, expectations and so on (Marketing on the stage of what the client really demands..) and then producing furniture to fulfill all his dreams, coincidentally this is one of the reasons why she designed some pieces of furniture. He on the other hand, succeeded on his share of the dream giving credit by name and paid royalties the designers he hired for their masterpieces and remained focused on the manufacturing end of the business. But this fairy tale lasted profitable until the late 1970’s thanks to the introduction of the first open office furniture system in 1973, The Stephens System, designed by Bill Stephens; and then a number of new owners came and apparently none of them had the brain, imagination or knowledge of the industry, but there were lousy financial results for more than a decade to the point in which Westinghouse was not able to get rid of this Group that was losing tons of Dollars. This is an example of preeminent designs – the icon – to name it – that by far are more important than the brand that produced them, the copycats of the series like the Wassily, Barcelona, Tulip, Diamond, Platner Collection, etc. easily exceed the millions of each one. But this is no news, by the 1950’s Knoll stopped production of the B.K.F. Hardoy Sling chair because more than 5 million copies of the chair were estimated to have been produced by numerous manufacturers at the time.

The Knoll couple made great Marketing for their designs but apparently failed in educating customers to buy the brand that owns the rights. Unfortunately this is an endemic disease for human kind. Fortunately the only person that can admire an authentic KNOLL produced furniture piece and be overwhelmed by that is the one that knows that you own an underwhelming knockoff!

…to be continued in part # 8

Copyright © 2010 – 2017 Karin Goyer. All Rights Reserved.

Building up an icon (mass produced) – Part #1

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Thonet was established in 1819 by Michael Thonet. Michael Thonet‘s work is synonymous of the transition from craftsmanship to industrial furniture production. His breakthrough towards industrial production took place in 1859 with “chair No.14”, later called the „Vienna coffee house chair“, using the innovative technique of bending solid beech wood.

The Thonet family perfected the mass production formula for bentwood furniture based on an assembly-line and implemented for the first time the concept of labor division to furniture production. ”Chair No.14” paved the way for Thonet to turn into a global enterprise. Other bentwood designs followed and became icons of design history: the rocking chair No.1 from 1860, in the late 19th century the successful models No.18 and No.56, around 1900 the elegant chair No.209 with its curved armrests and the art nouveau armchair 247 by Otto Wagner, the so-called „postal savings bank chair,“ in 1904, to name just a few. Production peaked in 1912, when 2 million different products were manufactured and sold worldwide. Just to give you an idea, Thonet had sold 30 million No.14 chairs by the 1930’s and to date nearly 60 million (without counting the plagiarized versions)…. Chair No.14, today known as 214, is still produced by Thonet.

The 1927 Werkbund exhibition „Die Wohnung“ in Stuttgart, Germany was an important milestone for Thonet‘s development of tubular steel furniture. The public was presented for the first time with tubular steel furniture on a large scale, including designs by BAUHAUS instructors Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer and Mart Stam, among others. At first, the new and innovative tubular steel furniture proposal was received rather coolly by the general public, but finally, as a result of Thonet‘s involvement supported by attributes like a well known company to a broad public, inventor of the lightweight and cost-efficient bentwood furniture, appreciated by avant-gardists like Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier and the engagement in the emerging subsidized housing concept, the tubular steel concept took off on an entirely new dimension and distribution.

With the clever acquisition of Marcel Breuer and Kálmán Lengyel‘s tubular steel business “Standard Möbel” (including Marcel Breuer‘s designs rights) Thonet began producing tubular steel furniture in 1929. During the 1930’s the company developed into the world‘s second largest producer of tubular steel furniture with the cooperation and the designs from famous architects like Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Mart Stam, Le Corbusier, Charlotte Pérriand and Guyot. A perfect example of the new material benefits is the CANTILEVER CHAIR, enabling designers to spare the back legs for the first time and becoming one of the most important inventions  in furniture history. By 1934 Rietveld will show the world with the Zig Zag chair that wood was also fitted to produce a chair with fewer legs but of course, at a much higher expense.

Le Corbusier admired both the designs and the industrial processes of the Viennese furniture factory Gebrüder Thonet, which turned out millions of bentwood chairs in the 19th and 20th centuries. Le Corbusier´s Chaise Longue LC4 was first put into production by the French division of Thonet who, in all probability, constructed the first prototype. The structure of the undulating seat and supporting tubular steel arc in this chaise is thought to have been inspired by Thonet’s famous bentwood rocking sofa of around 1883. In the early 1930’s it was produced under Thonet license by the Swiss company Embru. Le Corbusier´s Chaise Longue in its present form was reintroduced in 1959 by Heidi Weber of Zurich who worked on the re-edition directly with Le Corbusier.

Another good example is the LC7 Swivel chair, designed in 1929 by Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret, a descendent of the Thonet bentwood swivel chair of 1900. As with all of Le Corbusier models, it was produced by Thonet, Paris. The Thonet French production lasted until 1932 or 1933 when the French company was shut down and production transferred to Germany. In 1964, while Le Corbusier was still alive, Cassina S.p.A. of Milan acquired the exclusive worldwide rights to manufacture his furniture designs. Today many copies exist, but Cassina is still the only manufacturer authorized by the Fondation Le Corbusier.

The list of designers who have worked for Thonet during the past 60 years is very long. It includes among others Egon Eiermann, Verner Panton, Eddie Harlis, Hanno von Gustedt, Pierre Paulin, Ulrich Böhme and Wulf Schneider, Alfredo Häberli, Christophe Marchand, Lord Norman Foster and Piero Lissoni.

Today Thonet continues with the prodution of many of the tubular steel and bentwood classics and introduces products by renowned contemporary architects and designers such as Stefan Diez, Naoto Fukasawa, Hadi Teherani, Delphin Design, Lepper Schmidt Sommerlade, James Irvine and Glen Oliver Löw.

Other iconic pieces of the modern furniture movement like Marcel Breuer´s Wassily Chair, Mies van der Rohe´s Barcelona Chair, the Eames Lounge (670) and Ottoman (671) and many others, share similar stories which I will discuss in these series of posts. They have been mass produced by KNOLL International and Herman Miller for decades. More recently the Chinese market, as well as other European companies, have begun making direct copy knockoffs.

In the last 40 years these iconic designs have decorated from the waiting room of your doctor to airport lounges, hotels, restaurants, boutiques, corporate offices, shopping malls and sometimes flats and houses in an omnipresence form in which the proud owners think that they have a precious and “exclusive design”. Yeah, right! As “exclusive” as the most appreciated inheritance from your great-great grandmother, the famous „Vienna coffee house chair“ that occupies an important place in the home of another 30 Million individuals.

The truth is that decorators and interior designers have used and abused the proven formula of one LC4 Chaise Lounge here, two Barcelona chairs there and a table and some chairs by Eero Sarineen, and some other combinations with Wassily chairs and Eames designs to the point where they become ubiquitous and if you own these furniture pieces you feel at home at office, at airport, at shopping mall, at doctor, etc. wherever you are. Sorry – mass production syndrome.

Funny thing is that the only involvement of many of the great names from the 20th century furniture design was THAT – only designing it and letting someone else to build the icon using the preferred tools of that century: mass production, cost control, large distribution network and of course, marketing to make the customer believe in the exclusivity of the product.


…to be continued in part # 2

Copyright © 2010 – 2017 Karin Goyer. All Rights Reserved.