The 70th birthday of Knoll started me thinking again about mid-century modern. Florence Knoll, happily still alive and 22 years older than the business, said ‘no compromise’.
So what’s a compromise? According to Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911), it is ‘Such an adjustment of conflicting interests as gives each adversary the satisfaction of thinking he has got what he ought not to have, and is deprived of nothing except what was justly his due.’
I don’t know about compromise, but America between 15 August 1945 and 8 November 1960 (which is to say between VJ Day and John F Kennedy’s election victory) was a culture of adversaries. Tom Wolfe explained the position in his comic-polemic From Bauhaus to Our House (1981). It was the American century. Wolfe says the average American family car was a 400-horsepower lurching V-8 barge which sucked fuel like a Shuttle launcher on lift-off. Architecture? Perhaps the key building of the period was Morris Lapidus’ Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach (1954). Guests were to feel as if they were being carried around on a silver platter. There was an 800-cover dining room with a hydraulic dance floor. Lapidus did ‘wild and woolly modern’ with cheese holes and boomerang shapes. Elvis came here in 1960, and he liked the interior man-made mountain and waterfall, and the grotto lagoon.
It was America’s period of ‘full-blooded, go-to-hell, belly-rubbing wahoo-yahoo youthful rampage’, as Wolfe described it. The freeway system was completed in 1955, the peak year of US car production. Harley Earl was General Motors’ wizard of kitsch. He explained his design philosophy as, ‘I want that line to have a duflunky, to come across, have a little hook in it, and then do a rashoom or a zong.’
In 1951, Ike Turner created rock’n’roll with Fireball 8, a record named after a car. The most successful domestic furniture was the Barcalounger, created by Edward Barcelo, who in 1902 in his upstate New York bedding company had created the coffee break. A Barcalounger was an ad for sloth. If furniture could be obese, it was. You could order it with vibrating squabs and internal heaters, sometimes covered with easy-wipe Vinelle.
Against all of this you have Knoll. The facts are simple. Marriage to Hans Knoll brought architect Florence Schust into contact with European taste and the furniture business. Creating the Knoll Planning Unit gave her the opportunity to make furniture that blurred distinctions between corporate and domestic, expressing the Modernist technology-art, live-work theology. Her idea was to extend architecture beyond building design into the design of life itself. This was the Bauhaus idea, but it’s one of history’s curiosities that the European Bauhaus idea was most completely realised in the US.
In 1954, the Knoll showroom in San Francisco presented an ideal interior. Lots of plate glass and Californian air and light. Groups of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chairs on textured rugs. Some prehistoric-looking pots and a glass-topped table. Open-tread stairs. This became a template of Modernist perfection which we are only now questioning. Knoll said of her work, ‘I needed a piece of furniture for a job and it wasn’t there, so I designed it.’ This is similar to Albert Einstein’s explanation of his discovery of relativity – ‘I just ignored an axiom.’ Or to Claude Shannon’s statement about how he created information theory – ‘I had to invent maths that were necessary.’ Or even to Miles Davis’ view of creativity – ‘Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.’
The Knoll achievement was very clear – to create the very best massproduced furniture. There was none better. Before or since. Unless there are fundamental changes in human physiology or discoveries of new materials or new laws of physics, there never will be better furniture than that made in America between VJD and JFK.
But does it look dated? Wolfe once told me it was time someone established the term ‘modern’ as an historic-style label, like Victorian or Ming Dynasty. But modern is not a style. It is an attitude. It is making the best of opportunities. Which is what Knoll has done.
At a time when any fool who can rag-roll a knackered Irish dresser calls himself a designer and creatively bereft designers are causing problems rather than solving them, it’s thrilling to be reminded that design is intelligence made visible. Against a historic background of vulgar opulence and excess, Knoll looks rational. Against the miasma of spineless relativism and posturing that’s contemporary design, midcentury
modern looks pleasingly permanent. It has what George Nelson called a ‘manifesto quality’. Voltaire said it was the business of design to improve on nature. It’s the business of design to improve on industry.
I recently visited the new house which Gerry McGovern, Land- Rover’s design boss, has built for himself. The first thing he told me was that as soon as he had enough money, he bought a pair of Knoll chairs. McGovern explained what he was trying to do with the car of the future. He picked up a Harry Bertoia Diamond chair from 1952, looked at the welded iron and told me, ‘There’s a bit of Land-Rover here.’ Mid-century modern is timeless, yet capable of development. That’s one of the definitions of good design. •
Stephen Bayley is a design critic and commentator
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