The Knolledge | Hans G Knoll

It has an enviable history, a cult following, and one of the best-known and best-loved showrooms in Clerkenwell. As interiors brand Knoll celebrates its 75th birthday, Nick Constance tells its story…

 Hans Knoll was the son of one of Germany’s pioneer manufacturers of modern furniture. He left Germany for New York in 1937. The following year, Hans made a statement of intent by nailing a sign outside his newly opened Hans G Knoll Furniture Company on East 72nd Street which read simply: Factory No. 1.

Heavily influenced by the Bauhaus school and the Modernist Movement, Knoll hoped to bring European-style design to America. But the early years in New York proved tough as the market for modern design was limited, and pieces were expensive to produce. In addition, materials that might have been used for furniture were redirected to the war effort after 1941.

Fate was on Knoll’s side, however. In the early 1940s, Hans met and hired a promising young designer named Florence Schust, who came with impressive credentials. She had studied at the highly-influential Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, had a degree in architecture from the Architectural Association in London, studied with Mies van der Rohe and worked in the architectural offices of Gropius and Breuer in Boston.

Florence and Hans went on to marry in 1946, and formed Knoll Associates Inc. shortly afterwards.

In 1948, Mies van der Rohe gave Knoll the rights to his Barcelona chair.


The newlyweds persuaded some of their contacts in the design world to create pieces for Knoll. In 1948, Florence’s friend Ludwig Mies van der Rohe gave Knoll the rights to his iconic Barcelona chair and Ottoman, still two of Knoll’s most successful pieces. In 1951, Knoll opened its first European showroom in Paris. Florence had the idea of making the showroom look like an apartment. Her then radical approach gave customers the opportunity to see such classics as the Saarinen Womb Chair placed in a ‘real’ living space.

With its increasing network of European and American design contacts, Knoll’s products took on more of an international flavour. Architects Eero Saarinen and Franco Albini were brought in to collaborate with artists and designers such as Harry Bertoia, Jens Risom and Isamu Noguchi and together they developed products that are now widely recognised as furniture classics.

In 1947, Knoll acquired exclusive U.S. production rights of the Hardoy Butterfly chair by Jorge Ferrari- Hardoy. It also commissioned Eero Saarinen to design the Tulip Chair for mass production, in 1956.
But tragedy struck when Hans Knoll was killed in a car accident in Cuba in 1955. A grieving Florence assumed the role of president. She continued to grow the business, launching Eero Saarinen’s iconic Pedestal Collection. But in 1960 she stepped down to become a consultant and in 1965, she withdrew from the industry completely, leaving Knoll in the hands of those she had once trained and inspired.

The company continued to expand, and by the 70s had showrooms in major cities in Germany, France and Italy. Its first London showroom opened on Saville Row in 1982, moving to Smithfield in 1997 and its current Goswell Road location in 2009. In 1988, KnollStudio launched – selling those classic designs which Hans and Florence helped make famous. Knoll’s influence on design is so great, that the Museum of Modern Art in New York houses more than 40 of its designs – a legacy even greater than Hans Knoll could’ve hoped for when he nailed that sign outside his factory in 1937. Knoll is hosting a talk with Max Fraser and Jay Osgerby on 21 May at 7pm for Clerkenwell Design Week.

Five more international brands with a rich history and a Clerkenwell showroom…

Swiss company Vitra was founded by Willi and Erika Fehlbaum in the 1950s. It has produced many designs by Charles and Ray Eames, including the iconic RAR rocking chair, and Lounge Chair and Ottoman. Vitra has also worked with the likes of Verner Panton and Jean Prouvé, and even has its own Design Museum in Germany, designed by Frank Gehry. Vitra, 30 Clerkenwell Road, EC1M 5PG.

Poltrona Frau began life in Italy in 1912. The luxury furniture group has grown to encompass other brands over the years including Cappellini and Cassina. Together, the Poltrona Frau group has worked with some of the biggest names in 20th and 21st Century design, including Franco Albini, Jasper Morrison, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. Poltrona Frau, 148-150 St John Street, EC1V 4UD.

Italian brand Arper has only been going since the 1980s, but its cutting-edge chair designs have already become modern classics. Arper recently opened a showroom in Clerkenwell, where you can see its best-known designs including the Duna and Leaf Chairs. Arper, 11 Clerkenwell Road, EC1M 5PA.

Bulo celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011. Belgian Walter Busschop founded the company in 1963, using the profits from his patented office trolley Bulo’s best-known designs include Claire Bataille and Paul Ibens’ H20 Desk and Maarten van Severen’s SCHRAAG trestle-style table. Bulo, 20 Old Street, EC1V 9AP.