The photographer recalls his years at Knoll with Massimo Vignelli
Jon Naar has enjoyed a long and prolific career in photography, in spite of a relatively late start; he made a professional switch from marketing in the 1960s, when he was in his 40s. Naar's photos, with their striking graphic composition and intense color, have captured an illusive, contemporary spirit ever since. A British transplant to New York and New Jersey, Naar is perhaps most known for his groundbreaking photographs of graffiti in 1970s New York City, although he is also well known for his images of design, architecture, fine arts and people (including Andy Warhol).
Naar contributed to a series of Knoll brochures in the 1960s and '70s. Below, he recounts a "photographic love affair" with the late Italian designer Massimo Vignelli, who sparked Naar’s fruitful relationship with Knoll when Naar was just beginning his brilliant career.
“I was lucky to have met Massimo at the outset of my career as a professional photographer.”
Jon Naar: I was lucky to have met Massimo at the outset of my career as a professional photographer, in 1966. He contacted me after seeing a photo-reportage I had done for Domus magazine entitled “Sondaggio in Germania” on the then current state of architects, designers, and other members of what was known as Germany’s Lost Generation. Massimo had recently been assigned to redesign the entire Knoll image, including logo, brochures, advertisements, and corporate identity. He said he liked my “existential”—his word—lifestyle approach to photography that included a 1965 portrait of Andy Warhol relaxing on a red sofa in the Silver Factory. The first work we did together on Charles Pollock’sExecutive Chairs was based on an idea of mine: to put the chairs in an unfinished office of a skyscraper under construction with the caption, “Our chairs are ready before your office is finished.”
One of Jon Naar’s photographs for The Pollock Chairs brochure, 1973. Image from the Knoll Archive.
I didn't know then that Massimo was acrophobic, but he bravely accompanied me up the rickety external elevator to the 32nd floor of the building on East 52nd Street. As can be seen from the photograph, which was shot in black and white, I included four of the construction workers in my picture. Massimo liked it, but when he showed it to Knoll President Bobby Cadwallader, he was told that the image was “messy.” Faced with this rejection, I was ready to resign from the assignment forthwith. But Massimo, ever the consummate diplomat as well as the consummate designer, prevailed on me to bear with him and take another shot.
“Massimo had such trust in me and his own superb graphic design skill that, as he said, he didn’t need to look through the lens of my camera.”
Harry Bertoia's Large Diamond Chair in Bally, Pennsylvania, 1973. Photograph by Jon Naar. Image from the Knoll Archive.
The rest, as they say is history. In addition to re-shooting the Pollock Collection, at ground level in front of the Seagram Building and other locations on Park Avenue, I went all over.
Left: Eero Saarinen's TWA Center at JFK Airport in New York, New York. Photograph by Jon Naar. Image from the Knoll Archive
Right: Eero Saarinen’s Tulip Arm Chair. Photograph by Jon Naar. Image from the Knoll Archive.
To Harry Bertoia's studio in Bally, Pennsylvania, and to the TWA Building at the JFK air terminal for Saarinen. [Note: This brochure is incorrectly attributed to Nils Bygholm.]
“I went all over, from the Yale campus for the Stephens Chair to a junkyard in Hoboken, New Jersey, to photograph the Albinson Stacking Chair.”
Stephens Chair at the Yale University campus in New Haven, Connecticut, 1973. Photography by Jon Naar. Image from the Knoll Archive.
To the Yale campus for the Stephens Chairs.
Photographs from the brochure for Don Albinson's Model 1601 Stacking Chair, 1973. Photography by Jon Naar. Images from the Knoll Archive.
To a junkyard in Hoboken, New Jersey, with Massimo to photograph the Albinson stacking chair.
Back to the Seagram Building for the Mies van der Rohe Collection.
“Massimo said he liked my ‘existential’ lifestyle approach to photography”
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's MR Chair in the Seagrams Building, 1973. Photograph by Jon Naar. Image from the Knoll Archive.
And to the countryside near Stamford, Connecticut, for the Schultz Leisure Collection.
Richard Schultz's Leisure Collection near Stamford, Connecticut, 1973. Photograph by Jon Naar. Image from the Knoll Archive.
Finally, to Marcel Breuer's house in New Canaan, Connecticut, for the Breuer Collection, where I caught his daughter Francesca seated on her namesake chair front-to-back.
“The brochures, advertisements and promotion pieces I did with Massimo won a number of prestigious awards and, thanks to his generosity, led me to a wide range of assignments.”
Francesca Breuer seated in her namesake chair, 1973. Photograph by Jon Naar. Image from the Knoll Archive.
Except for the latter brochure, where he joined me in person, Massimo had such trust in me and his own superb graphic design skill that, as he said, he didn’t need to look through the lens of my camera.
Examples of Jon Naar photographs on Massimo Vignelli-designed Knoll brochure covers, c. 1970s. Image from the Knoll Archive.
The brochures, advertisements, and promotion pieces I did with Massimo won a number of prestigious awards and, thanks to his generosity, led me to a wide range of assignments for IBM, Chase Manhattan Bank, SONY and other clients.
Knoll will host "Jon Naar's Photographic Love Affair with Massimo Vignelli," a panel discussion, on Thursday, September 18, 6:15 PM, at Knoll New York. Mr. Naar will be joined by Michael Bierut, Partner at Pentagram, and Suzanne Stephens, Deputy Editor of Architectural Record.