Lasting legacy

Modern always’ is the company’s motto,” says Demetrio Apolloni, president of Knoll Europe, “meaning the proposal of products with innovative content, beyond fashions and trends, capable of lasting over time.” Even separately, the two words of that simple, pragmatic motto make convincing descriptors of the New York-founded furniture and interior design brand. “Always” aptly describes the resilient longevity that has seen the nearly 79-year-old company prevail through a world war, huge social and technological revolutions and a rapidly evolving global design landscape. (Incidentally, its matriarch Florence Knoll turns 100 in 2017.) “Modern” means the brand never loses sight of its legacy as an incubator of mid-century modernist design or its ongoing mission to remain ahead of the curve in contemporary residential and commercial furniture and interiors. Explains Apolloni, “Knoll has always kept faith with the original tenets of the Bauhaus philosophy, according to which modern furniture should complete the architectural space, not compete with it.” German-born Hans Knoll had furniture in the blood: his grandfather had founded a furniture company in 1865, which his father and uncle, inspired by the Werkbund and Bauhaus design movements, steered towards modernist concepts.

Hans left Germany in 1936, going on to establish the Hans G Knoll Furniture Company in 1938 in New York. Ostensibly an import company, Knoll’s start-up initially focused on bringing European furniture to America, until the war and its imposition on shipments compelled him to seek out local designers to implement his modernist vision. This was the start of the Knoll brand’s tradition of collaboration that would see it manufacture the creations of dozens of the 20th and 21st centuries’ most important designers. “Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Eero Saarinen … architects who, with their iconic products, transformed the ideals of the Bauhaus and the concept of convergence of art, industry and crafts into reality, laying the groundwork for modern design thinking,” says Apolloni.

When Hans hired architecture and town planning graduate Florence Schust in 1941, he formed his most significant partnership; she overhauled the design direction of the company, recruited many of its most significant collaborators – including Saarinen, van der Rohe and Harry Bertoia – and established its interior design arm, the Planning Unit. They married in 1946 and the company became Knoll Associates. With Hans’ head for business, Florence’s exemplary eye for design – and their combined nose for prodigious talent in others – the couple led their brand into a golden age. Knoll took its remit beyond the boundaries traditionally adhered to by furniture firms of the past; the Planning Unit, under Florence’s stewardship, wrote a whole new template for holistic office design. The roll call of creative greats on its roster grew to include Isamu Noguchi, Richard Schultz, Warren Platner, Frank Gehry and Hans Wegner. Hans Knoll’s sudden death at 41 in 1955 saw Florence take the helm until her retirement a decade later, but by then the company had grown into the design powerhouse that thrives to this day.

“The mission is to move forward with the value and responsibility of the Knoll heritage,” says Apolloni of the role of the company’s present-day custodians. “What we have inherited from the past is what we foresee for the future, to honour and preserve our cultural legacy.” With iconic products in its stable such as the “Barcelona” chair by van der Rohe, the “Diamond” chair by Bertoia and the “Pedestal” collection by Saarinen, Knoll is still living up to the purposeful brevity of its motto.

Knoll furniture is available at Studio Italia.

Take a seat

Alberto Perazza sits at the dining table, sips from the bottle 
of – naturally – Italian mineral water, and muses about the international design laboratory founded by his father, Eugenio, 40 years ago. Magis is a residential, commercial, industrial and homewares design company with a difference. Make that several differences.

Based in northern Italy, the company doesn’t employ designers; it works with more than 40 international names. Nor does it have a factory; Magis collaborates with a number of leading-edge technology firms to produce its tables, chairs, shelves, lighting – even stepladders. “My father has a strong passion for design,” Perazza recalls. “But we never give designers a free hand. The designer is only part of the process that involves them, the engineers, the technicians … We believe that any good product must be the result of teamwork.”

And Magis knows about good products: Philippe Starck, Jasper Morrison, the Bouroullec brothers, Konstantin Grcic and Thomas Heatherwick have styled for them. Think Morrison’s plastic Air Chair (5), the Paris siblings’ wrought-iron Officina tables and chairs; Grcic’s Chair One (6), Heatherwick’s iconic Spun chair (4). Spun epitomises the Magis ethos: looking more like a sculpture than a seat, the spinning chair appeared in a London gallery. The Perazzas saw it and knew it could be produced in a more cost-effective way. Six months later their lightweight, high-tech plastic version was in stores. And selling out.
Alberto takes another sip of his water. There’s a nice synergy, he points out, in Magis’ relationship with its New Zealand representative, ECC. “We are celebrating our 40th birthday and are in our second generation,” he says. “They are a bit older than us, 107 years, and the fourth generation of the family is in the business.”

Magis is available at ECC.