The role of textiles in the history of modern interiors and design, often unrecognized, gets the spotlight at an exhibit at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History and Material Culture.
The overlooked status of modern textiles is perhaps best exemplified by the iconic "Womb" chair by Eero Saarinen, according to Earl Martin, a curator of the "Knoll Textiles, 1945-2010" exhibit.
A feature of most 20th-century design collections, the "Womb" chair's fabric, usually a Knoll textile and a dominant design element, is rarely, if ever, identified.
"In modern interior design, the role of the furniture designer is well documented, but the importance of the textiles on their furniture was never talked about," Martin said.
The lack of recognition is perhaps partly attributable to the concentration of women in textile design.
"In the field of design, it was fairly characteristic for women to be pushed into textiles," Martin explained.
Knoll Textiles grew out of Hans Knoll Furniture which was formed in the early 1940s by Hans Knoll, who came to the United States from Germany to expand the family furniture business. Fundamental to Hans Knoll's success was the partnership he began in 1943 with his future wife, Florence Schust.
She had studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where she was a protegee of the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, and with Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. She also interned with the architects Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius in Cambridge, Massachusetts before coming to New York City and working at various architectural firms.
"The community of modernist designers was small and she met Hans Knoll," Martin said.
Schust went to work for Hans Knoll Furniture in 1943 and established the Knoll Planning Unit. She believed in "total design," embracing principles of architecture, manufacturing, interior design, textiles, graphics, advertising and presentation.
Her use of design principles to solve space problems was a radical departure from the standard practice in the 1950s, but was quickly adopted and remains widely used today.
Having become a full business and design partner in the firm, Schust married Hans Knoll in 1946, after which the couple formed Knoll Associates.
With Schust as its director, Knoll's Planning Unit was formed to create complete interiors, primarily for the commercial market. Though the firm had experimented with textiles since 1942, it formally added textiles as a third division in 1947.
She was a driving force.
"Florence Knoll was unusual in that she was, in terms of design, the head of the company in the 1940s and 1950s," Martin said. "She designed a lot of furniture. She did not design textiles, but she directed the textile department."
She brought to textile production a modern sensibility that used color and texture as primary design elements.
Early on, the firm hired young, untried designers, along with leading proponents of modern design, to create textile patterns. Core designers included Astrid Sampe, Marianne Strengell, Sven Markelius, Angelo Testa, Stig Lindberg, Eszter Haraszty, Suzanne Huguenin, and Evelyn Hill Anselevicius.
"If Florence Knoll didn't like it, they didn't make it," Martin said.
The Bard exhibit, which closes on July 31, comprises approximately 175 examples of textiles, furniture, photographs, and ephemera on loan from public, private, and corporate collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and Cooper-Hewitt, among others.