Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

High Fiber

It sometimes feels as if no aspect of American midcentury modern design has been left unconsidered, unexhibited, unreissued. But there is undiscovered territory. You’re sitting on it.

“Knoll Textiles, 1945-2010,” at the Bard Graduate Center in Manhattan from May 18 to July 31, flips the story line on the brand’s famous chairs (Womb, Tulip, Diamond, Platner) by focusing on the fabrics rather than the frames. “One of the major goals of this project was to shift the attention,” said Earl Martin, a curator of the exhibition. “People might save a Saarinen Womb chair but have it recovered because we don’t yet have a sensibility about the textiles being that important.” Among the vintage chairs on display with their original upholstery will be a 1945 Ralph Rapson rocker with a woven webbing seat and back, and a 1965 Eero Saarinen side chair covered in still-brilliant red Cato fabric by Paul Maute. Some of the reasons for textiles’ also-ran status are mundane: fabrics are ephemeral, faded by sunlight, dirtied by use. “We needed the conservators at the Museum of Modern Art to rescue some of these pieces and preserve the upholstery,” Martin explained. Because Knoll’s program was frequently experimental, a few early fabrics that incorporated fiberglass or rayon disintegrated within the first years of production and had to be discontinued or reformulated. Moreover, much of the company’s business was contract work, and office drones hardly paid attention to the provenance of their swivel chairs or curtains.

From its beginnings, the Knoll textile division was headed by Florence Knoll (now Bassett), the wife of the company’s founder, Hans Knoll. Initially she turned to men’s suiting fabrics for furniture coverings that would enhance the sofas’ long straight lines, rather than the “brocade and chintz with cabbage roses” she found in the marketplace. The Knolls soon decided that the company needed to create its own fabrics. Open-plan offices benefited from partitions in bright, long-lasting colors. The expanses of glass in Modernist office buildings called for a new type of curtain, with “small motif prints that create a rhythm and visual interest but don’t distract from the coherence of the room,” Martin said. “Or sheers or open weaves that are useful as a sun screen but allow the air-conditioning to come through.”

Knoll and its subsequent textile division heads, who included Eszter Haraszty, Suzanne Huguenin and Barbara Rhodes, relied on the same design and architecture networks for commissioning textiles that they used to recruit furniture designers. Marianne Strengell, the head of the textile department at Cranbrook Academy of Art, contributed a number of early, highly textural fabrics. Haraszty’s own Fibra print (1953) was in the line for nearly 20 years and was applied to linen, sheer cotton and fiberglass. Noémi Raymond, the wife of the architect Antonin Raymond, designed a series of Japanese-influenced prints. Evelyn Hill Anselevicius, later known as a fiber artist, added a series of unconventional hand-wovens in the 1950s: a thick chartreuse wool with shiny black plastic; pink with orange. The exhibition catalog, designed by Irma Boom, offers a comprehensive history of the brand’s textiles, about 80 percent of which were designed by women. This may be another reason for the textiles’ historically low profile. “Our exhibition has motivated a few museums to look at things in their buildings that may not be accessioned, and to decide they are worthy of being in the permanent collection,” Martin added dryly.

The experiments kept on coming well after Knoll’s midcentury heyday. Some of Martin’s favorite fabrics are from the 1970s, when Rhodes commissioned German designers to create a number of vibrant large-scale patterns that were printed on cotton velvet. Recently, under its creative director, Dorothy Cosonas, KnollTextiles (as it is now known) has turned to the fashion labels Rodarte and Proenza Schouler for its Knoll Luxe line, examples of which are also on display. These recent collaborations may best prove the exhibition’s point: Why would you think less of what’s upholstering your chair than what’s upholstering your person?

Originally published in New York Times Magazine