German-born Hans Knoll was a member of a prominent furniture-making family. His father Walter C. Knoll, one of the pioneer makers of modern furniture in pre-Hitler Germany, produced early Mies van der Rohe designs in his Stuttgart factory.
A man of vitality and drive, and disenchanted with Europe, Knoll went first to England where he opened his own interior design company, Plan Ltd. His stay in England was brief and in 1937 he came to New York. With his background in the production of furniture and his zeal for good design, he was ready in 1938 to form the Hans G. Knoll Furniture Company in small space on East 72nd Street. Hans originally intended to import European designs but because of difficult import conditions, he shifted his ambitions toward domestic products.
As Hans expanded the scope of his company to include interior design projects, he hired a young Danish designer named Jens Risom in 1941 to help with space planning. The state of custom interior design led Risom to design new pieces of furniture for specific projects – the original Knoll furniture. At the same time, Hans created the company’s first manufacturing plant in an old dance hall in East Greenville, Pennsylvania.
While the company grew quickly in its first few years under Hans’s leadership, it was Knoll’s association with Florence Schust, beginning in 1943, that propelled the company toward unparalleled excellence. (Florence and Hans were married in 1946.) Over the next nine years, and until Hans’s untimely death in a 1955 auto accident, the company grew substantially both in the US and abroad, with the establishment of the Knoll Planning Unit, Knoll Textiles, and a myriad of now iconic commissions. By 1955, Hans and Florence had established one of the preeminent and international design houses: the Planning Unit had begun work on Connecticut General’s headquarters, and the collection included designs by Mies van der Rohe, Saarinen’s Womb Chair and 71 and 72 office chairs, Bertoia’s wire-frame collection, Florence Knoll’s design, among others.
Eero Saarinen wrote of Hans Knoll: Hans Knoll has made a great and lasting contribution to the cultural world. No one man has done so much to change the interiors of our buildings. In America we feel his impact especially in institutional and commercial buildings into which contemporary design has hardly penetrated. … It was he who gave his clients confidence in good design. Within his huge, flowering organization he dealt with each employee in a personal, human way. To designers he gave generously of his own creative imagination, encouraging them to undertake new and better things. He always freely gave credit to his designers, yet he – who played a big part in their work – never took any credit himself. The generosity, the enthusiasm, the inspiration and the concern for human beings which he brought to everything he touched will long be remembered by all of us.