Florence Knoll and Cy Twombly’s Material Worlds

Jhane Barnes (upholstery) and Ettore Sottsass (chair).

“The modern chair, which most people find too advanced today, is what they’ll like to sit in 10 years from now,” Florence Knoll said in 1953. She was right. If you don’t know Ms. Knoll’s name, you have undoubtedly sat on her low, chrome-foot chairs: she created the look of U.S. embassies, corporations and college dormitories during the 1940s and ’50s. Ms. Knoll’s imagination gave us both the Cold War diplomat’s office and the Mad Men executive suite. Born in Michigan in 1917, Ms. Knoll (née Schust) attended Cranbrook, the storied art school outside of Detroit, where she was a classmate of Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen. She was steered to fashion because she was a woman; she steered herself back to architecture, interning in 1939 with Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer and then briefly studying with Mies van der Rohe in Chicago. This exhibition, curated by Earl Martin, Paul Makovsky, Angela Völker and Susan Ward, focuses on the Knoll firm’s use of textiles, Ms. Knoll’s specialty and a small and tactile entry point into the feel of American postwar industrial and political expansion. Her first and only boss, Hans Knoll, a German emigré from a furniture-making family, hired Florence Schust in 1943 to design interiors for his new modern furniture company. Their inaugural commission was the secretary of war’s office in the newly built Pentagon. Ms. Knoll remembers those early years as tough: “Everything was difficult. Fabrics were difficult. Even the glues were inferior glues. Everything was on a wartime basis. We had to use ingenuity to get anything produced at all.” She proved resourceful. Wooden benches and chairs designed by Jens Risom needed upholstery and Ms. Knoll found an ingenious wartime solution: she caned them with army parachute straps. The 1.5-inch-wide, olive-and-red ribbons distributed weight well and matched the stripped-down utilitarian look of the chairs. Ms. Knoll’s 652W Lounge Chair With Arms (1943) is the first of many innovations that became synonymous with American resourcefulness. Hans Knoll married Florence Schust in 1946. Although a Life magazine article from the 1950s spins their romance as though she were a secretary made good (“Florence Knoll, 35, who has done many Knoll pieces, came to work for Knoll as a designer, after two years married the boss”), Florence was an equal partner. She covered Hans’s early business gaffs with $50,000 from her trust fund, providing necessary capital during the firm’s expansion. Her modernist ideas about pattern and color created a signature look. She invited former Cranbrook classmates to design chairs, which Knoll manufactured and sold on license. They found hits with the Saarinen Womb Chair (1946) and Executive Armless Chair (1946). They opened showrooms on East 65th Street and then Madison Avenue; open spaces with great blocks of primary colors and groupings of geometric tables, couches and chairs. They branded their furniture “Equipment for Living.” Ms. Knoll’s talent was in taking unconventional textiles used by an industry and repurposing them as interiors. It was brilliant design homeopathy. She used the flannels and tweeds from men’s suit fabrics as upholstery on the firm’s executive chairs. The sturdy weaves and subtle textures complemented the 1940s office. With limitations on traditional fibers, Ms. Knoll turned to synthetics developed for military use, like Saran, made by Dow Chemical, or DuPont’s Orlon acrylic. She turned army material technology into defense office interiors. You already know the feel of these fabrics. Here, the show becomes Proustian, materials evoking cultural memories. These textiles are the wipeable stuff of school cafeteria walls, the ridged caning of lightweight, movable chairs in college dormitory common spaces, the nubby chenille pile of the American corporate carpet. As the firm grew, Ms. Knoll turned to designers for new fabrics. Marianne Strengell created thick, Chanel-like tweeds. Toni Prestini conjured a cotton plain weave staple that the company produced continually from 1948 to 1982. These fabrics were technical triumphs: in Prestini, a ratiné weft alternates with a two-ply cotton/rayon warp to create illusionistic tone-on-tone dots. The company got a colorist when it hired Eszter Haraszty in 1949. Haraszty reissued 1940s prints in bolder palettes and nailed the Knoll “look” of the 1950s and ’60s: a red-orange color, an unworried mixing of plastic, chrome, nylon and wool, tone-on-tone on white. Her “Lana” persimmon fabric on the Model 31 chair designed by Ms. Knoll (1956) is exemplary. In the press, Knoll’s uses of industrial materials were seen as representative of American ingenuity and talent. Knoll didn’t just sell chairs—it conjured the American postwar dream to live in a new and better world. No wonder the firm was chosen to design the interiors of the American consulates in Stockholm, Havana, Copenhagen and Brussels, IBM, General Motors, the North American Life and Causality Co. and the CBS building. Their Marcel Breuer coffee tables and Saarinen Executive armchairs became as ubiquitous as gray flannel suits. After Hans Knoll died in 1955, the company went on without a misstep until Florence Knoll retired in 1965. But afterward, despite the exhibition’s cheerleading, it seems lost. It was sold and changed names three times, and drifted away from the minimalist look and design innovation that had made its name. Knoll is still having its effect on American identity and industry. Modernist furniture, glimpsed through New York’s condo windows, displays the ubiquitous horizontal silhouettes of Knoll’s Barcelona chairs and Ms. Knoll’s sofas. The graphic design of Google’s home page echoes Knoll’s cheerful modular look: the white space around the search box might be the friendly plastic of a Tulip Chair. A small exhibition of seven Cy Twombly sculptures installed at MoMA takes on new significance in light of the artist’s death last week. Produced quietly during the length of Mr. Twombly’s career, the sculptures span the half-century from 1954 to 2005 like white shadows of his more famous paintings. Like the work of his peers, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Mr. Twombly’s sculptures reveal neo-Dada tastes in found materials. Untitled (Funerary Box for a Lime Green Python) (1954) is assembled of wood, palm leaf fans, cloth and wire. Untitled (1976) is a telescopelike tube of cardboard. All are white—some are covered in white house paint, others by plaster—yet often vibrant glimpses of materials show through the surfaces, and their parenthetic titles evoke color. The Virginia-born Mr. Twombly called white paint his marble, referencing his chosen home of Italy; the conflict the sculptures stage between color and noncolor, assemblage and classical austerity, modernity and history gets at the heart of his project. He was as interested in precedent as he was in the present moment. Recently purchased by the museum directly from the artist’s private collection, the sculptures are newly on display, yet now suggest a reliquary pallor; Mr. Twombly might have appreciated the peculiar poetry in this tension. editorial@observer.com