Knoll Inspiration: In Conversation With Jon Naar

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By Knoll, Inc.
The photographer recalls his years at Knoll with Massimo Vignelli

This post was originally published on Knoll Inspiration in 2016.

Jon Naar has enjoyed a long and prolific career in photography, in spite of a relatively late start; he made a professional switch from marketing in the 1960s, when he was in his 40s. Naar's photos, with their striking graphic composition and intense color, have captured an illusive, contemporary spirit ever since. A British transplant to New York and New Jersey, Naar is perhaps most known for his groundbreaking photographs of graffiti in 1970s New York City, although he is also well known for his images of design, architecture, fine arts and people (including Andy Warhol).

Naar contributed to a series of Knoll brochures in the 1960s and '70s. Below, he recounts a "photographic love affair" with the late Italian designer Massimo Vignelli, who sparked Naar’s fruitful relationship with Knoll when Naar was just beginning his brilliant career.

Knoll Inspiration: In Conversation With Jon Naar - Photo 1 of 10 - Jon Naar’s inaugural photograph for Knoll titled, "Pollock Skyline," 1973.

Jon Naar’s inaugural photograph for Knoll titled, "Pollock Skyline," 1973.

Jon Naar: I was lucky to have met Massimo at the outset of my career as a professional photographer, in 1966. He contacted me after seeing a photo-reportage I had done for Domus magazine entitled "Sondaggio in Germania" on the then current state of architects, designers, and other members of what was known as Germany’s Lost Generation. Massimo had recently been assigned to redesign the entire Knoll image, including logo, brochures, advertisements, and corporate identity. He said he liked my "existential"—his word—lifestyle approach to photography that included a 1965 portrait of Andy Warhol relaxing on a red sofa in the Silver Factory. The first work we did together on Charles Pollock’s Executive Chairs was based on an idea of mine: to put the chairs in an unfinished office of a skyscraper under construction with the caption, "Our chairs are ready before your office is finished." 

Knoll Inspiration: In Conversation With Jon Naar - Photo 2 of 10 - One of Jon Naar’s photographs for The Pollock Chairs brochure, 1973.

One of Jon Naar’s photographs for The Pollock Chairs brochure, 1973.

I didn't know then that Massimo was acrophobic, but he bravely accompanied me up the rickety external elevator to the 32nd floor of the building on East 52nd Street. As can be seen from the photograph, which was shot in black and white, I included four of the construction workers in my picture. Massimo liked it, but when he showed it to Knoll President Bobby Cadwallader, he was told that the image was "messy." Faced with this rejection, I was ready to resign from the assignment forthwith. But Massimo, ever the consummate diplomat as well as the consummate designer, prevailed on me to bear with him and take another shot.

Knoll Inspiration: In Conversation With Jon Naar - Photo 3 of 10 - Harry Bertoia's Large Diamond Chair in Bally, Pennsylvania, 1973.

Harry Bertoia's Large Diamond Chair in Bally, Pennsylvania, 1973.

The rest, as they say is history. In addition to re-shooting the Pollock Collection, at ground level in front of the Seagram Building and other locations on Park Avenue, I went all over.

Knoll Inspiration: In Conversation With Jon Naar - Photo 4 of 10 - Left: Eero Saarinen's TWA Center at JFK Airport in New York, New York. Right: Eero Saarinen’s Tulip Arm Chair.

Left: Eero Saarinen's TWA Center at JFK Airport in New York, New York. Right: Eero Saarinen’s Tulip Arm Chair.

To Harry Bertoia's studio in Bally, Pennsylvania, and to the TWA Building at the JFK air terminal for Saarinen. [Note: This brochure is incorrectly attributed to Nils Bygholm.]

Knoll Inspiration: In Conversation With Jon Naar - Photo 5 of 10 - Stephens Chair at the Yale University campus in New Haven, Connecticut, 1973.

Stephens Chair at the Yale University campus in New Haven, Connecticut, 1973.

To the Yale campus for the Stephens Chairs.

Knoll Inspiration: In Conversation With Jon Naar - Photo 6 of 10 - Photographs from the brochure for Don Albinson's Model 1601 Stacking Chair, 1973. 

Photographs from the brochure for Don Albinson's Model 1601 Stacking Chair, 1973. 

To a junkyard in Hoboken, New Jersey, with Massimo to photograph the Albinson stacking chair. Back to the Seagram Building for the Mies van der Rohe Collection.

Knoll Inspiration: In Conversation With Jon Naar - Photo 7 of 10 - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's MR Chair in the Seagrams Building, 1973.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's MR Chair in the Seagrams Building, 1973.

And to the countryside near Stamford, Connecticut, for the Schultz Leisure Collection.

Knoll Inspiration: In Conversation With Jon Naar - Photo 8 of 10 - Richard Schultz's Leisure Collection near Stamford, Connecticut, 1973.

Richard Schultz's Leisure Collection near Stamford, Connecticut, 1973.

Finally, to Marcel Breuer's house in New Canaan, Connecticut, for the Breuer Collection, where I caught his daughter Francesca seated on her namesake chair front-to-back.

Knoll Inspiration: In Conversation With Jon Naar - Photo 9 of 10 - Francesca Breuer seated in her namesake chair, 1973.

Francesca Breuer seated in her namesake chair, 1973.

Except for the latter brochure, where he joined me in person, Massimo had such trust in me and his own superb graphic design skill that, as he said, he didn’t need to look through the lens of my camera.

Knoll Inspiration: In Conversation With Jon Naar - Photo 10 of 10 - Examples of Jon Naar photographs on Massimo Vignelli-designed Knoll brochure covers, c. 1970s. 

Examples of Jon Naar photographs on Massimo Vignelli-designed Knoll brochure covers, c. 1970s. 

The brochures, advertisements, and promotion pieces I did with Massimo won a number of prestigious awards and, thanks to his generosity, led me to a wide range of assignments for IBM, Chase Manhattan Bank, SONY and other clients.

More on Knoll Inspiration: Discover the photographs of Austrian-born Milanese architect Ettore Sottsass, who worked with Knoll in the 1980s.