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A few years ago Walter Knoll celebrated 150 years of its prolific existence. 150 years marked by excellent craftsmanship and a mind for the avant-garde. Few furniture manufacturers have been around for such a length of time. Even less managed to maintain the level of quality and success that Walter Knoll has achieved. But in order to understand how far the company has come, one must take a step back in time. All the way to the beginning in 1865.
It was the year in which Wilhelm Knoll opened his leather shop in Stuttgart. Becoming well-known for the quality of his goods, Wilhelm began directing the company towards the furniture industry. At the beginning of the twentieth century company entered the market as a leather seating manufacturer. In 1907, his sons Walter and Willy took over the business, expanding it further in the upcoming years.
Working for his father gained him a vast amount of knowledge and experience. In 1925 Walter established his own company – Walter Knoll, leaving the reins of Wilhelm Knoll with his brother. Even at the very beginning, Knoll was a pioneer of the avant-garde. He closely cooperated with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on the furnishing of several apartments on the Weissenhof Estate. Weissenhof Estate was a prominent housing estate and advocate of the International style in architecture, aimed at setting the standard for modern living of the working class.
The furniture style of the company was thus heavily influenced by the modern visions of the Bauhaus school and emerging trends which sought for more casual, lounge-type seating. The “Prodomo” Chair was a true representation of the times. It had a tubular aluminium base and light-weight body, but it was the revolutionary upholstery technique which ultimately defined the chair as the first piece of modern upholstered furniture.
The Second World War halted the growth of the enterprise. Furniture production came to a standstill, with manufacturers focused on providing services to the war effort instead. With both brothers’ factories suffering severe damage, after the war Walter and Wilhelm began rebuilding the grounds and their companies. This new beginning set the foundation for furniture design in post-war Germany.
In the mid-forties, the company made a fresh start and began developing its new direction. However, this was no easy feat. The shortage of materials and workforce in the country ravaged by the effects of losing the war was great. In these tough times Walter Knoll embraced an optimistic outlook characteristic of the era, pushing forward his modern approach to design. The production of the Vostra Chair marked the beginning of the truly modern era of Walter Knoll. At a time in which German design was still very much classic in style, the launch was a bold and daring statement directed towards changing the way in which people lived. The chair was loosely reminiscent of its successful predecessor – the Prodomo Chair, with its informal, light-weight aesthetic. As a result of the success of Vostra, Knoll gained international exposure as a pioneer of modernity.
A series of defining events marked the fifties as an important decade for the company. The Furniture Fair in Cologne in 1950 was a major advancement for Knoll’s furniture. The company continued to further its modern vision throughout the decade, releasing a series of innovative designs including the 369 armchair, more commonly known as the bucket seat. Along with the Vostra Chair, the 369 became a part of the company’s Classic Edition Collection . This is a selection of iconic pieces which recount the company’s avant-garde history in celebration of its 150th birthday.
In 1964, Walter Knoll retired, passing the company on to his son Robert. One of his first major moves was the establishment of the Contract division, aimed at expanding the furniture range to the office sector. Knoll began producing furniture for executive offices, conference rooms, as well as sofas for lobbies. This was an excellent move, as Walter Knoll continued to provide elegant solutions for the corporate market to this day. The company highlights the furnishing of Berlin’s Tegel Airport as one of the more important endeavors in its history. The Berlin Chair, designed for the VIP lounge remains yet another classic creation of the company’s long-standing legacy.
Sixty years after Walter had established his own company, leaving the management of his father’s business to his brother Willy, Walter Knoll took over Wilhelm Knoll in 1985. The two companies founded by father and son finally united as one. Furniture by Wilhelm Knoll continued being sold as the “Wilhelm Knoll Collection”. However, the company went through a change of ownership in 1993, as the prominent furnishing family Benz acquired Walter Knoll. This marked the end of the long-standing family tradition, providing the company with a new perspective, directed towards further growth.
Company built another production facility to ease the expansion, and in 2006, the company unveiled new multi-functional building in Herrenberg. It incorporated the factory, headquarters and showroom as one, behind the transparent veil of a glass wall. The building was inspired by the heart and soul of German modernity – the Bauhaus, particularly architect Walter Gropius’ design philosophy. It combines the essential modern ideas of continuous glass planes joining at the corners, a trademark of many of Gropius’ designs, with a contemporary and light-weight aesthetic directed towards the future. It also allows an uninterrupted view of the goings-on inside, giving passers by a glimpse into the meticulous manufacturing process, ultimately conveying the company’s pride in the work which create masterful pieces of design.
Setting the company’s prolific twentieth century oeuvre aside to focus on its contemporary efforts, one will find there is no shortage of accomplishments in that aspect either. The company expanded its global outreach with the opening of its subsidiary in Australia in 2007. Showrooms in Paris and London followed two years later – showing no signs of stopping.
In addition, the brand has been vocal about sustainability as an integral part of its design process and philosophy. A company of such capacity must acknowledge the great responsibility as part of the global effort to battle climate change and preserve the environment. There are several aspects of their sustainability efforts. Emphasis on design quality as a major factor in creating lasting pieces is definitively one of them. Knoll also gravitates to cooperation with companies based near its headquarters in order to shorten distances.
Walter Knoll has also reported being climate neutral, meeting the highest standard according to the Climate Pact. The idea of reducing energy consumption even stood behind the design of company headquarters in Herrenberg. It’s a true testament to the company’s forward-thinking ethos, set on evolving with the times and persevering through the ages, while making an effort to leave a positive mark on the world with their preservation endeavors.
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