While approaching its 75th year of existence, this was the problem facing the American company.
Born in 1938, Knoll has remained true to the Bauhaus design philosophy – modern furniture should complement architectural space, not compete with it. Its production sites have, throughout the decades, churned out classics such as the Dining Tables and the Tulip Collection by Eero Saarinen, the Barcelona Collection by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Bertoia Collection by Harry Bertoia and the Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer. Just check out any glossy interior design magazine and you will find at least one of them.
Despite this, as it often happens, the business is not as booming as one could imagine. “If we could only bring our market share to the same level as our worldwide brand recognition we would be thriving,” stated Andrew Cogan, Knoll’s CEO.
Knoll’s problem has never been in the design area. Ever since the Florence Knoll era, who led the company since the 40s, the quality of the forms, of the materials and of the industrial production has always been at the top – and recognised as such.
But Knoll was founded with the purpose of bringing modern design into offices and homes. This double vision has always characterised their commercial strategy, yet in Europe, this approach has never been fully developed and Knoll was known more as an office brand, rather than a home brand.
Add to this the phenomenon of copies and cheap replicas (Knoll’s products are among the most imitated in the world) and the evermore aggressive approach of other upcoming brands and you get the perfect storm.
Hence the decision: to envisage a growth strategy that bravely starts off in an economically highly volatile time, keeping Europe at its very centre. The overall operation, which began with product design but is now being deployed as a communication campaign, was named Modern Always.
“We have been used to working in a very volatile environment in the last 10 years. We now look at Europe with hope, though, and we consider it a great opportunity,” explains Cogan.
His first move was to ask Demetrio Apolloni to join his team as President of Knoll Europe. Apolloni has 20 years of experience in top management positions in Italian design companies, with a global outlook such as B&B Italia, Kartell and Cassina. The latter, with its great portfolio of highly imitated classics, is in some way very close to Knoll.
Apolloni’s strategy was two-fold: for the home environment, leveraging on the classics from the catalogue and coupling with a new, contemporary collection by a young but very acclaimed British duo, BarberOsgerby; and for the office environment, creating a new, futuristic concept (that turned out to be an actual usable furniture piece) by one of the most sophisticated and appreciated architects and theorists of today: Rem Koolhaas. The Dutch guru decided to work with AMO, the young, creative branch of his Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), based in Rotterdam.
More than just an architect, Koolhaas is a symbol. Critical towards contemporary town planning, and forever drawn towards “transforming cities by injecting intelligence rather than mere beauty”, Koolhaas is also very well connected with the glamorous world of fashion, thanks to his decades-long collaborations with Miuccia Prada.
This gave Knoll the possibility to present, prior to the Salone del Mobile, a series of experimental pieces of furniture designed by AMO during the Men’s Fall/Winter catwalks last February in Milan: with their strong colours and rigorous lines they were a perfect match to Prada’s clothes. And the boost to the brand’s image was amazing – all of a sudden, Europe (who keeps a very careful eye on fashion shows) knew that Knoll was about experimental domestic furniture pieces rather than just iconic heritage office chairs.
The official presentation of the ‘new’ Knoll to the design audience was made in April in Milan, during the Salone del Mobile. But, again, the approach was dual. The classic pieces and the new BarberOsgerby projects were introduced at the fair, in a booth that was designed by Rem Koolhaas. The office pieces – shown for the first time – were on display in the city, at the Fondazione Prada. And it was the Dutch architect who talked about them in person.
The collection was centred on the 04 Counter, a monolithic block of horizontal shelves. When arranged neatly, it is a single counter top. But when you simply push or pull in any direction, the three tiers create a communal gathering space with cantilevered benches and shelving, thanks to a system of internal bearings and rails to facilitate full 360-degree movement in each layer.
“More than a piece of furniture, it’s an environment,” says Apolloni. “The idea was to create a collection that could change the way we conceive work spaces. My favourite piece is an element that can be changed from a screen to a table to a bench and can accom-modate several ways of working and interacting together.”
The BarberOsgerby collection of lounge furniture, on the other hand, is thoroughly focused on the home environment. It includes different sized sofas and two complementary ottomans. Available in a range of upholstery fabrics and leathers, it has stitched seams that reinforce its architectural profile, softened by the curvature of cushions on each face. Each piece sits on cast aluminium feet that slide neatly between its upholstered elements.
“Given a sofa’s scale and prominence in a room, we felt that the pieces should be formally balanced and calm, expressing their character through detail,” Barber and Osgerby say. “The design concentrates on comfort, proportion and the foot detail, which visually connects the sections.”
Together with the contemporary pieces, the heritage ones were relaunched: the height of the classic Florence Knoll Coffee Tables was lowered, the Wassily Chair was proposed in natural canvas. Produced to designer Marcel Breuer’s original specifications, the KnollStudio logo, as well as the signature logo of Marcel Breuer, are stamped into the base of the chairs. Knoll also reintroduced its MR Side Chair, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, in a new rattan upholstery.
In parallel, Knoll is also focusing on its textile brand, KnollTextiles, and its leather divisions, Spinneyback and Edelman. “Last year, for instance, we purchased a wonderful felt producer FilzFelt who now provides us with great materials for the domestic environment,” says Cogan.
For the time, the Modern Always strategy was a success. To further leverage on the media and public attention, Knoll will open by the end of year new flagships such as a very high-profile one in New York, next to the MoMA. Only time will tell whether the European public will answer in an equally enthusiastic manner.