Florence Knoll saw the selection of art as a crucial part of her job. In 1964, she wrote, “The interior designer’s work includes programming, space planning, relation of design to mechanical equipment, selection of materials and color, furniture design and placement and, finally, a selection of art objects and accessories.” While mentioned last, Florence did not see art as the finishing touch. Rather, artwork was an integral part of her overall design, planned concurrently with architecture, furniture, materials and color to shape the total experience of space.

In describing her design for the first Knoll showroom at 601 Madison Avenue in New York City, Florence wrote, “I initiated the use of real flowers and plants and original art.” The result was a harmonious, humanized space unlike any other furniture retailer at the time. “In those days, most furniture showrooms were like a warehouse … no style, just a whole lot of furniture in rows,” said designer Richard Schultz. “At Knoll, you felt like you were at home.”

Above image: Untitled (detail), c. 1950 by Harry Bertoia, brass-coated steel. Knoll Archives.

undefined — “I am concerned primarily with space, form, and the characteristics of metal.” - Harry Bertoia

Knoll showrooms have included works by many artists but the one most central to the company’s legacy is Harry Bertoia, Florence’s friend from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. After joining the team at Knoll, Bertoia was given a studio space and free rein to experiment with the medium of his choice. He chose to work with metal. “When it came to rod or wire, whether bent or straight, I seemed to find myself at home,” said Bertoia.

A year and a half later, Bertoia completed his first chair design for Knoll. In 1952, the chair made its debut in the Knoll NYC showroom as part of a special exhibition, titled “The Art of Harry Bertoia: Paintings, Drawings, Metal Sculpture, Chairs.” Bertoia’s work continues to be celebrated, lived with, and exhibited in museums today.

In 2024, the Bruce Museum in Connecticut hosted a new exhibition titled, “Harry Bertoia: Sculpture for Living.” Guest curated by Dr. Marin R. Sullivan, Director of the Harry Bertoia Catalogue Raisonné, the exhibition features a cross section of different decades, metals, and techniques. “It all looks so different and yet it feels like it was made by the same individual,” says Sullivan. “You can see Bertoia’s technical proficiency.”

The exhibition is in the Bruce sculpture gallery, which is a small space with a large wall of windows overlooking a grove of trees. Just as Florence designed Knoll showrooms to create harmony between architecture, art, and design, Sullivan took the same approach here, carefully considering how each sculpture is integrated into the environment. “The vast majority of Bertoia’s work was done for domestic spaces,” she says, “which made this space perfect because it’s closer to the scale of the rooms for which these pieces were designed.” Bertoia excelled at creating pieces for specific spaces in a way that makes them feel as if they’ve always been there. They become one with the overall environment.

“Bertoia didn’t title his pieces,” explains Sullivan. “He wanted the viewer to see whatever they see without any sort of framing. They’re completely abstract, and yet you make all these associations to the natural world. They have this aura around them, they radiate, and they change the space around them.”

undefined — “Bertoia wanted his artwork to be lived with, to be in people’s spaces, and be seen.” - Marin R. Sullivan, Director of the Harry Bertoia Raisonne



All artworks © 2023 Estate of Harry Bertoia / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Select photography by Patrick Sikes.