This post was originally published on Knoll Inspiration in 2015.
While it is now commonplace to mix styles and design periods, modern or otherwise, doing so was once revolutionary. Since its founding, Knoll had presented its furniture within the Bauhaus idea of "total design"—modern furniture was part and parcel of a new architectural envelope. Architects like Mies van der Rohe, Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright helped foster this idea, leading many to conclude that letting modernism in meant the erasure of previous decorative styles. At Knoll, that mindset loosened under the leadership of Yves Vidal, who showed that modern furniture could happily coexist with past architectural styles.
As President of Knoll International from 1951 to 1972, Yves Vidal was responsible for taking the modern designs being championed in America and introducing them to the European market. With his partner, Charles Sevigny, the esteemed interior designer, Vidal set about demonstrating how Knoll could fit within the more historic and traditional architecture of London, Paris, Berlin, Milan and Prague.
Vidal flipped the paradigm being used stateside to ease modern furniture into the public vernacular. Rather than begin with the office, as Florence Knoll had done, Vidal targeted the residential market. To date, Knoll furniture in Europe can be found more often in residences than in offices, while the reverse holds true in the United States.
Instrumental in his efforts were Vidal’s two homes—Le Moulin des Corbeaux in Saint-Maurice, France and York Castle in Tangiers, Morocco—in which he staged Knoll products, and shot brochures for Knoll International.
Vidal’s Parisian country home was a fifteenth century mill built across a portion of the Marne river. While anything but modern, Vidal furnished the home almost exclusively with designs by Mies, Saarinen, Platner and Bertoia. "It was a revolution," Vidal recalled of its reception. "For all the designers, architects, decorators [...] it was unheard of at that time—it wasn't done."
Vidal’s other home, York Castle in Tangiers, played host to a near-constant flow of international jet-set dignitaries and celebrities, including Richard Burton and Barbara Hutton. Considered in its time to be one of the most beautiful homes of the world, the castle was remodeled in the early 1960s and came to represent the nexus of old and new. Taken together, "both places had impact."
When the brochures began to circulate, sales began to rise, especially in Paris, where Knoll "burst on the public imagination as a stunning surprise." The shift in perception is difficult to overstate. "It was a big laugh when they first saw the Bertoia chair, which was a totally original chair," Vidal stressed, "[but] they couldn’t believe it. It was the most grotesque thing they could think of."
By demonstrating that the designs of Bertoia, Platner and Saarinen harmonized rather than clashed with the corbelled arches, Corinthian columns and decorative molding of architectural tradition, Vidal located the key selling point among Knoll’s continental clientele. In the years that followed, Knoll emerged as an international style, not just an American one, becoming synonymous with everyday elegance.
"I tried to reach the top of the pyramid at the beginning, and go down to the general public after that," Vidal summarized of his approach and influence. "This is maybe my contribution, to have been able to reach the top."