This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus, and to celebrate Knoll's connection to the immeasurably influential German design school, the American furniture brand recently mounted an exhibition dedicated to their relationship and impact on the course of modern design. In the process, the show traces a thread trough some of Knoll's greatest hits.
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The story begins with the rise of Nazi Germany and the close of the Bauhaus, which found its third director, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, emigrating to Chicago in 1936. Florence Knoll studied under the legendary designer before co-founding her eponymous brand in 1946. They developed a friendship and working relationship that led to Mies van der Rohe granting Knoll's company exclusive rights to produce his furniture.
The exhibition highlights these historical connections through an assortment of objects that span 88 years, including Mies van der Rohe’s best-known furnishings, as well as later work by Frank Gehry and David Adjaye that show the lasting influence of the design school. The objects are grouped thematically to illustrate links between various designers, allowing visitors to chart the school's enduring impact on furniture design.
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Curated and designed by Office for Metropolitan Architecture partner Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli and design historian Domitilla Dardi, Knoll Celebrates Bauhaus commemorates the school’s 100-year anniversary. "I would not call it an exhibition," says Laparelli. "What we did was to stage a relationship, to reflect on two stories, Knoll and Bauhaus, which really contributed to construct modernity as we know it."
Laparelli and Dardi tell these stories through four "clusters"—each dedicated to a designer or architect who had a special connection to the Bauhaus and Knoll. The clusters are architectural fragments populated by furniture and objects, and each cluster takes you into a different space and a different time. Visitors are invited into the scene to walk around, interact, and listen to archival interviews with the subjects.
"Each cluster features objects not necessarily related to Knoll or the Bauhaus, but related to the cultural context and historical context in which those people operated," says Laparelli. He goes on to say, "Somehow you feel that these pieces can exist 50 years ago in the same way they exist perfectly today."
Cluster 1 is focused on Marcel Breuer, who was first a student, then a teacher at the Bauhaus. Breuer's scene draws in elements of the Piscator house he designed in New York and the office of the first Bauhaus director, Walter Gropius.
Cluster 2 centers upon Mies van der Rohe, who directed the Bauhaus until it was forced to close in 1933. The display is based on a section of Mies' Barcelona Pavilion, which is an emblematic work of the modernist movement.
In the Mies cluster, there is a Kodak camera from 1936, Chanel no.5 perfume, and a Model 300 Bell telephone designed by Henry Dreyfuss in 1937.
Cluster 3 showcases Florence Knoll's table, armchair, and sofa, designed in 1954, alongside work from her close collaborators Charles Eames and Harry Bertoia. The architectural element is based on a section of Case Study House No. 8—The Eames House.
Cluster 4: Complexity and Contradiction is broken into two scenes, and takes its title from Robert Venturi’s famous 1977 essay "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture." Here, the exhibition explores a dialogue between opposites, attempting to showcase the cultural debt owed to the modern movement.
"We didn't want just to celebrate the Bauhaus or the legacy of the modern movement; we also introduced two moments that tell how, after the end of the modern movement, generations of designers and architects reacted to it," says Laparelli.
"What we claim is that they would never have produced the pieces they produced—the architecture, or the thinking that they did—if Bauhaus never existed. We see their work as a reaction to the legacy of the Bauhaus."
One scene in Cluster 4 is dedicated to Frank Gehry—it pairs a Wassily chair designed by Breuer in 1924 with a Power Play club chair designed by Frank Gehry for Knoll in 1990. "Here there is clearly an understanding of a system, an understanding of the structure, but the language is completely different," says Laparelli.
The other scene in Cluster 4 features the Skeleton chair David Adjaye designed for Knoll in 2013; Marcel Breuer's 1928 Cesca Chair; and a "ghost chair"—Breuer's pre-Bauhaus African chair—designed in 1922.
"The ghost chair is actually the African chair that Breuer designed when he was a student at the Bauhaus, before the eruption of modernism and international style, when it was most concerned with local arts and crafts," says Laparelli. "It's very interesting that the African chair Breuer designed when he was extremely young still has more to do with the David Adjaye chair than his later Cesca chair, designed a few years later."
To develop the exhibition, OMA and Knoll created a diagram to explore the connections and relationships between people, objects, and architecture.
"From that, we extracted those stories or objects that were interesting for us—that we could represent in the real space," says Laparelli. "It started as a mental map of all possible relationships in product design: people, histories, encounters, interviews, architecture, travels, and so on. And then from that, we made the selections and built the clusters in the physical space."
Reflecting on what has come after the Bauhaus and modernism, Laparelli says, "I think we are in a stage that is far beyond the modern movement and far beyond also postmodernism. Performance is becoming a key factor in everything that we envision in design. And by performance, I mean not necessarily the actual aesthetic quality of an object, but the way an object responds to these challenges—from its production, to the way it's used, to the way it's eventually dismissed."
"This transition is leading to a new way of designing—an extremely fresh way to understand design as a way to read the reality we live in," says Laparelli. "The opportunities that are given to us by material sciences, by technology, are beyond anything that we could imagine just 20 years ago. This is really opening a phase that is completely, completely new."