Bauhaus, Knoll & American Modernism
This year marks 100 years since the founding of the Bauhaus. The revolutionary German art and design school – which laid the foundations of Modernism, and ultimately Knoll as a leader in the rise of American Modernism – united the fields of art, design and industry in order to elevate the quality of mass production.
The ideas of the Bauhaus, and the designers who pioneered them, greatly influenced Hans and Florence Knoll to bring the beauty, functionality and benefits of Modern design to the way we live and work. These ideas continue to guide us today.
The Roots of Modernism
Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus on the powerful idea that the fusion of art, architecture and industry could be applied towards a social good. The school – repeatedly upended by political and wartime upheaval across Europe – opened its doors in 1919 and closed them in 1933. During this short period, the roots of Modernism were established by the pioneering designers who dared to push the limits of material, form and function in architecture, textile and object design.
At the same time, Walter Knoll, a furniture maker in Stuttgart, Germany, provided furniture for the 1927 Weissenhof Siedlung exhibition featuring buildings by Mies, Gropius, Peter Behrens and Le Corbusier – all leading Modernists of the period. His son, Hans, sought to bring the Modernist vision championed by the Bauhaus masters to America, establishing H.G. Knoll Furniture Company in 1938 as an importer of modern furniture.
Ultimately, Knoll’s strong ideological ties to the Bauhaus revolve around Florence Knoll. She was mentored by Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology and later worked under Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. The final director of the school, Mies brought the concept of gesamkunstwerk – the total work of art – from the Bauhaus to IIT. Greatly influenced by Mies’ teachings, Shu translated the idea of “total design” to the Knoll Planning Unit. With the Planning Unit, she completed large corporate projects and placed Knoll furniture in architectural spaces to create inspiring, Modern work environments that defined the post-war American interior.
In this sense, Knoll is founded upon the idea that furniture design is only valuable insofar as it contributes to and speaks to the “total design” of a space. Even the furniture Shu designed herself was envisioned as part of a spatial whole – she referred her pieces as the “meat and potatoes” that needed to be designed as solutions to larger problems. In her embrace of the Bauhaus principle of the total work of art, she helped define American Modernism and set a precedent for design that is holistic rather than object-focused.
In honor of the centennial, Knoll revisits the Bauhaus alumni who mentored Florence Knoll and underscore our guiding principles.
One hundred years later, the ideals formed at the Bauhaus are still felt throughout society. The school’s masters – Gropius, Breuer, Albers and Mies – held and practiced the powerful belief that the marriage of art and industry could advance social order. The concept of gesamtkunswerk, the total work of art, followed Mies van der Rohe to IIT and greatly influenced a young Florence Knoll. In her embrace and practice of “total design,” Shu defined the American post-war interior. She helped lead the next generation of Modernists, shaping the contemporary landscape we know today.