I’m a big fan of Knoll furniture and own quite a number of Knoll produced pieces. The range of iconic, groundbreaking designs produced by Knoll is amazing, but what really sold me on Knoll was the quality and the fact you can USE it everyday without worry.
Knoll produced pieces that would survive a nuclear blast. Some times you buy vintage MCM furniture and you have to worry about damaging it by using it in your home – it becomes more “art” than practical furniture. (I’m looking at you Eames rope edge Zenith (RAR) rocker) But Knoll designs were made to the highest standards and built to last. The pieces are extremely heavy, use the best materials and seem virtually indestructible.
A couple of months back we came across two rare, early examples of Florence Knoll table desks from 1952. These table desks were utilitarian designs for multiple uses, were only produced for three years from 1952 to 1955 according to the “Knoll Furniture” guide (2nd edition) by Steven and Linda Rouland.
The book shows Hans Knoll’s personal office with the desk and a printed ad done by Knoll featuring the desk with various custom pieces. The Knoll text describing it reads:
““Secretarial Desks from the Knoll Office Planned Furniture Group. The new design provides maximum work area per square feet of space and brings wider flexibility to the planning of contemporary offices. Structural base of black metal
supports a burn and stain proof, high pressure laminate top of linen or birch, with stepped down typerwriter extension left or right. Grouped in multiples of two or more, these desks form working units of great effciencey in compace space. Knoll Office planned Furniture is available in integrated groups of desks, tables, cabinets and chairs for executives and secrtaries. Information on request. (L-Shaped Secretarial Desk. 500PM 1952-1955. Florence Knoll. Main Top W54″, D28″, H29″. Metal Base Black Finish. Also available with Realwood top. ” (Page 151)
The desks are utterly devastating examples of the sleek, minimalist styling that made Florence Knoll a design legend. I will go ahead and confess my endless admiration for Florence Knoll. I could be president of her fan club. Born Florence Schust (Shu to her friends) she was orphaned when she was 12. A benefactor ensured she was educated at the famous Cranbrook Academy in Michigan and one of its teachers, the famous architect Elie Saarinen, took her under his wing. She would remain close to the Saarinen family ever after, and eventually employed Elie’s son Eero to design for Knoll. Florence went on to study in Europe under some of the legends of modern design such as Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and then under Mies van der Rohe at the Armour Institute of Chicago.
When Florence met Hans Knoll in 1943. Hans, a native of Stuttgart, Germany, came from a family of furniture makers and was passionate about modern design. He founded the Hans Knoll Furniture Company in New York City in 1938 to introduce true modern furniture to the American market. Half of the designs from his first catalog were by Jens Risom. In 1943 Florence arrived on the scene and began working for Hans. The two formed Knoll Associates and were married in 1946. They were full partners in the business and Florence headed the Knoll Planning Unit and was in charge of interior design.
Tragedy stuck in 1955 when Hans was killed in a auto accident while on a business trip in Cuba. It was can only be described as a stunning achievement Florence took the reigns of Knoll after Hans’ death and with her leadership it went on to become a driving force in modern design and a very successful company. To do this as a woman, in the 1950’s, when women were expected to either be secretaries or housewives, demonstrates Florence’s incredible talent and indomitable spirit. Florence presided over Knoll through a golden era. She sold Knoll to the Art Metal Co. in Jamestown, NY but remained at the company as President and then as head designer. She retired from Knoll in 1965, when the company was still at apex of success.
The pieces Florence Knoll designed came out of necessity. She had a stable of famous designers working under her and they all wanted to do the interesting, iconic, cutting edge furniture designs. As a result no one was much interested in designing the more practical, but very necessary furniture, such as credenzas, desks, sideboards and cabinets. Florence stepped into the void and created a series of designs for the planning unit that became staples of the modern design aesthetic and eventually some of the most acclaimed pieces produced by Knoll.
I’m a big fan of these desks due to their sleek design and practicality. Not only can they be used in the office but they are also excellent for a home office or as a work table. I have to stress these are
heavy, solid, pieces of furniture – like almost all Knoll furniture. Seven grown men could dance on these desk and it wouldn’t even move an inch. Before I got this desk I had a flimsy, cheap, “Made in China” Big Box Office store desk of glass and chrome and I can’t even describe the vast improvement.
We did have to do some restoration work on each of the table desks to get them looking as sharp as they did in 1953, but due to Knoll quality it is just restoration. You can sand the good quality, solid wood to get a beautiful surface back, the metal can be polished to remove scratches and pings that occurred over the years.
What I love about these desks/tables is how practical they are for a variety of uses. Some desks just look bulky and too big to ever go into a home – but these tables can easily be used in any room in the house and can be both a desk and table. Great for home offices that you want to look better than just a “home office” and have more flexibility. In the actual office setting the clean lines make an office seem more spacious and airy. I’ve even seen people use them as dining and kitchen tables, they look perfect with certain Knoll chairs. The versatility is part of the appeal and why these are sought after pieces. The desks were actually designed so that buyers could customize, if needed, to work in various layouts for different jobs and their needs- executive, secretary, designer, reception, etc…You could have a big file drawer, or small pencil drawer, or L-shaped desk extension added to any desk.
Well, it’s amazing how much I’ve managed to post about two Knoll table desks. I’m going to be doing a lot of posts on Knoll designs and each one will be pretty detailed and about a small group of particular designs. Next up will be the Pedestal/ Tulip tables and chairs done by Eero Saarienen.