A recent exhibition in New York City enlightens as it delights
By Mary Carey
In May, the Bard Graduate Center of Decorative Arts presented Knoll Textiles, 1945–2010, an exhibition including the earliest innovators’ applications of materials and fiber construction for interiors. These innovations began the formation, shaping and disseminating of the Knoll brand. The exhibition features architect Ralph Rapson’s original 1945 657W rocking chair made with WWII parachute strapping woven over a simple birch frame, one of the first upholstery constructions to use an industrial textile. Knoll Textiles brought cachet to handwovens and eventually translated them to machinewovens. Many American and international textile, graphic and print designers’ careers were launched at Knoll Textiles including textile designers Alexander Girard, Amy Raymond, Suzanne Tick, Dorothy Cosanas, and graphic designer Massimo Vignelli, and their work is displayed in the exhibition.
Founder Hans Knoll’s fundamental success began in 1947 when he formed a partnership with Florence Schust. Schust started The Planning Unit, followed by Knoll Textiles in 1950 and appointed textile designer Ester Haraszty as design director. Together with the GM Technical Center, the two Knoll divisions invented industrial “transportation cloth” in the late 1950s.
Schust (who married Knoll in 1946) envisioned interiors as “architecture in its smallest form.” Regardless of the design medium, all spatial relationships were to be compatible with human scale, engage the human spirit and compliment the architecture whether the design involved a printed textile’s repeat pattern, a piece of furniture or the placement and proportion of furniture in relation to an environment.
Room dividers were introduced as “air walls” made from translucent or transparent textiles made of leaf fiber compositions from the Philippines. Because of its subtle weave, men’s suiting material from the apparel industry (a symbol of corporate success), was re-imagined as upholstery and wall coverings. Astrid Sampe used fiberglass and Susanne Hugenen used asbestos to create string-like fishnet open weaves to be used for window treatments and wall coverings that met stringent fire codes.
Throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Knoll Furniture introduced many unconventional furniture forms and materials. Simultaneously, Knoll Textiles combined natural and synthetic fibers for woven’s, nonwovens, stretch knits and plaited textiles. Knoll’s offerings always included the proper fiber or material selection, pattern, color and texture carefully matched to each piece of furniture, wall or window treatment or room divider. In 1969 Knoll recognized the need to provide designers a way to show and sell unusual fabric and hired graphic designer Massimo Vignelli to design Knoll Textiles’ highly recognizable packaging.
Today innovation at Knoll Textiles is driven by a demand for product diversity, textile longevity and sustainability without sacrificing the company’s strong aesthetic. Suzanne Tick, with Knoll Textiles since 1995, created a new breed of hard surfacing called Imago—the first time fabric was embedded in a high performance recycled resin, effectively extending the range of textiles and launching a new product category. Tick’s latest development is a non-woven material from dry-cleaning refuse. Elizabeth Whelan’s “Paper Shift” is a woven paper wall-covering with non-toxic backing. Knoll’s use of recycled materials has led to unexpected discoveries for textile and material design.
Knoll Textiles operates today much like the original business, thriving on designers’ experimentation, innovation and high craftsmanship. The show includes 175 examples of textiles, furniture, photographs and ephemera on loan from public, private and corporate collections.