The Knoll International Planning Unit designer, 1936-2016
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1936, George Freedman took the aura of modernism to Sydney, Australia, under the auspices of Knoll International’s Planning Unit in 1969, and never looked back. Following the initial commission, he decided to remain in Australia, eventually setting up a thriving interiors practice that would have a lasting influence on Sydney’s design scene. Freedman passed away on July 21, 2016.
After studying architecture at Syracuse University in the 1950s, Freedman cut his teeth as an interior designer at Kahn & Jacobs Architects in New York, working with the prominent modern architect Ely Jacques Kahn. Following subsequent stints at firms in Amsterdam and London he joined Knoll International's Planning Unit, a division founded by Florence Knoll and uniquely devoted to commercial interior design, in 1968. Positioned to answer the design needs of the postwar construction boom and the burgeoning demand for modern interiors, the Planning Unit redefined the concept of interior decoration as a process of rigorous aesthetic and functional refinement.
Under the guidance of Florence Knoll and Peter Andes, Freedman brought his natural eye for detail and color to plans for the space-age US Pavilion at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair and the PricewaterhouseCoopers office in Buffalo, New York, before he was asked to spearhead the project for the Sydney headquarters for the Bank of New South Wales.
Executive offices of the Bank of NSW, designed by George Freedman for Knoll International, 1969. Image courtesy of George Freedman.
After his exposure to the heady corporate world of New York, Freedman sought to “Manhattanize” the Sydney bank headquarters, bringing the glamour of the American city and the vogue of the International Style to Australia. He decided to remain in Sydney after the project was finished, working part-time for Knoll International. Over the next decades, Freedman—alongside his eventual partner in life and work, Neville Marsh—worked tirelessly to inject a new exuberance into the standard pattern of modern interiors. Unafraid to play with new materials and striking palettes, he designed a myriad of homes, restaurants, and offices in Sydney, often using Knoll furniture to express a sense of sophistication and modernity.
The holistic design philosophy championed by Florence Knoll and Mies van der Rohe had a deep influence on Freedman’s output, evident in his painstaking attention to every aspect of a project. “A feature of these projects was an encompassing aesthetic of all elements, extending beyond furniture and decoration to functional fittings,” John Engelen of Australian design store dedece wrote in a commemorative post in July 2016.
Left: Early work by George Freedman and Neville Marsh, who established Marsh Freedman Associates in 1973. Right: In 1985, Marsh Freedman Associates moved their commercial office and residence to a restored 19th-century cottage in Redfern. Photograph: Willem Reithmeier
On several occasions, Freedman designed Knoll showrooms in Sydney, first at Arredorama in 1990 and then at dedece in 2013, in celebration of the 75th anniversary of Knoll, Inc. The first design was quintessential Freedman: a labyrinthine landscape of jagged white plinths that complemented the clean lines of Knoll classics, bringing elements of drama and play into dialogue with tradition. “For all the opulence in many of Marsh Freedman’s designs,” Engelen wrote, “it was always balanced with tempered restraint guided by Modernist principles.”
“For all the opulence in many of Marsh Freedman’s designs, it was always balanced with tempered restraint guided by Modernist principles.”
Freedman's design for Arredorama's Knoll collection showroom, 1989. Photograph: Willem Reithmeier
The American émigré left an indelible mark on his eventual home in the Australian city: in the exotic motifs of executive office carpets, painted dinner plates of nouveau cuisine restaurants, in the considered selection of furniture for bedrooms and dens. In the last decade, Freedman’s passion hadn’t diminished in the slightest—he continued to work on apartments, hotels, and exhibition installations, joining PTW Architects as their head of interior design in 2010. In national recognition of his achievements, Freedman Rembel won the RAIA Commendation for Interior Architecture in 2005. But it is in the countless designers whom he inspired, and in Sydney’s now firm grasp of modern design, that George Freedman’s legacy will endure.
Furniture by Gae Aulenti, Florence Knoll and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe fill the executive offices of the State Bank of NSW headquarters, designed by George Freedman in 1985. Photograph: Willem Reithmeier
Brno chairs and a custom-made carpet in the executive offices of the State Bank of NSW headquarters, designed by George Freedman in 1985. Photograph: Willem Reithmeier