In 1938, A young Hans Knoll brings his family furniture business to the United States, setting up a small outpost at East 72nd St in New York.

His intention was to import furniture from Europe, but as the war progressed it became increasingly difficult to secure shipments. In turn, Hans began to look for domestic pieces to add to his line as well as a designer from whom he could commission original furniture.

The 1940s

As the company grew, it moved from the Upper East Side to several different locations in Midtown Manhattan. In 1940, Knoll moved to 444 Madison Avenue, where a young Florence Knoll first began to work. Two years later, the newly wed couple opened a showroom and office space at 601 Madison Avenue.

The new space became Shu's sounding board, the first in a series of showrooms that would exemplify Knoll's focus on creating thoughtful spaces for living and working, rather than simply furniture.

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Planning Unit Entrance

In 1946, Florence Knoll set up the Planning Unit as a division of the furniture company that dealt with interior and spatial planning projects. The Planning Unit cemented Florence Knoll's goal of not simply decorating space, but creating it. Never comprising more than four or five people, the Planning Unit—known fondly to some as "Shu U" for the roster of talented designers it churned out—worked with some of America's largest corporations and pioneered the inclusion of research and survey in the design process.

The 1950s

By 1951, Knoll had grown to include not only the Planning Unit but also KnollTextiles, a fabrics division that was created to fill a gap in the market for high quality contract furniture upholstery. When the company moved to 575 Madison Avenue, its office and showroom began to bear evidence of the now-robust Knoll constellation.

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Knoll575 Madison

The move to the new showroom was not easy, but a solution was eventually found.

"The space at 575 Madison Avenue in a new developer building presented nothing but problems," recalled Florence Knoll. "What emerged from the chaos of unfortunately placed columns, two levels of low ceilings and a series of utility doors not meant to be seen, was a design system that created an internal sense of order. This system created a new kind of space that was applicable in later showrooms, like Chicago and Los Angeles, with their different problems."

In order to compensate for what the architecture lacked, Florence designed a steel grid, hung from the ceiling, to which she attached brightly colored panels, delineating space and drawing attention away from the columns. The space was further divided by a shallow reflecting pool which separated the furniture displays from the textiles area.

The result, according to Olga Gueft of Interiors magazine, served to remind "the visitor that modern furniture has more to offer than utilitarian advantages of comfort and economy."

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The 1960s

The 1960s was a decade of transition for Knoll. Florence Knoll Bassett completed her last Planning Unit project for Frank Stanton at Eero Saarinen’s CBS headquarters building. Bobby Cadwallader and the new management at Knoll revitalized product development, while the company expanded its product range with the acquisition of the Italian company Gavina SpA, beginning a program of extensive import activity. These changes prompted an upshoot in the number of Knoll showrooms in the United States and around the world.

While Knoll moved its New York showroom to a new space on 320 Park Avenue, the company also opened outposts in Los Angeles and Miami in the 1960s, which added to a roster of showrooms in Paris, San Francisco, Milan, Chicago, Dallas, and beyond.

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320 Park Reception

The 1970s

Following Shu's retirement, the canvas that was the Knoll showroom became open to a series of young and experimental designers, each with a different vision.

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For the new showroom at 745 Fifth Avenue, Italian architect Gae Aulenti introduced a planning scheme based on a 45-degree angle, replacing the traditional orthogonal designs that had been in place for decades. The iconoclastic move, according to the architect, was preferred for its effect of mystery and surprise as visitors traversed the space. Platforms and steps rose from the carpeted floor and furniture designs were embedded into sculptural hollows throughout. The envelope was monochromatic, while the furniture and the views of Central Park through the windows brought color into the space. 

"Here," said Interiors, "is a furniture showroom which capitalizes on the drama of the city."

"The partitioning system which Gae Aulenti invented for a seires of offices and conference rooms," the magazine continued, "is so beautiful and ingenious that the only thing wrong with it is that it upstages the furniture."


The 1980s

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When the time came to move again, Knoll turned to architecture firm Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown to design its new space at 655 Madison Avenue. In keeping with the architects' ongoing experiments in postmodern design, the new showroom featured at its center a vibrant installation of draped textiles, conceived in direct response to the strict order of Florence Knoll's textile grid. The drama of the Madison Avenue showroom breathed new life into the Knoll brand, placing it at the center of contemporary debates in architecture and design.

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"You are in a confined space with a theatrical effect. Neon splits the darkness and green hues emerge." 
— Robert Venturi

The New York Design Center

In concurrence with the 655 Madison Avenue renovation, the company opened its first space away from the hustle of Midtown Manhattan, on a cobbled side street in the increasingly trendy SoHo neighborhood. 

Working with British designer Paul Haigh, who had recently joined Knoll to experiment with furniture design, the company conducted a feasibility study for the relocation of its design and marketing divisions to East Greenville. But when the SoHo space was acquired, the architect applied his findings to the site, working on the renovation of the space, with its distinctive cast iron columns and high ceilings.

On the design, Arthur Drexler of the Department of Architecture & Design at MoMA commented: "Haigh and Knoll have revealed the most interesting aspects of the original warehouse and at the same time set up a dialogue with the facts of utilitarian structure."

Wooster Exterior

The 2000s

For its new 56,000 square-foot showroom in the rapidly transforming Meatpacking District, Knoll asked New York design firm Frederic Schwartz architects to transform a gargantuan open space.

Chelsea Fschwartz Long

The result celebrated the structure of the original building by leaving exposed a regular sea of concrete columns, around which AutoStrada, the latest office planning approach from Knoll, was arranged.

The 2010s

After decades, Knoll returns to the neighborhood where Hans and Florence opened their first showroom.

In 2013, Knoll moves to its current space back in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. Taking up several floors at 1330 Avenue of the Americas, the office, showroom and retail shop is situated next door to the Museum of Modern Art and a block away from the CBS Building, which was designed by Eero Saarinen with interiors completed by Florence Knoll.

The new space, designed by New York-based firm Architecture Research Office (ARO) in collaboration with the Knoll Design team, includes a sprawling showroom, two floors of open plan offices and a street-level store, reflecting the latest research into the evolving workplace and the ever-expanding Knoll constellation.

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The ARO design for the Knoll Showroom won a 2014 Institute Award for Interior Architecture from the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

"Visitors to the second-floor showroom are greeted with a multimedia timeline that tells Knoll’s history through graphics, textiles, and objects," noted AIA. "Black steel rails frame views and serve as a flexible display system for drapery and panel fabrics. The close collaboration between Knoll and the architect led to the design of an interior where furniture and architecture are integrally linked, each highlighting and complementing the other."

Amidst the chaos of Sixth Avenue, the Knoll showroom stands out with its distinctive red curtains, a netted design by KnollTextiles Creative Director Dorothy Cosonas. The curtains proved to be contentious during the renovation, but have nevertheless remained in place.

"When we close the curtains at night, the upper floors ooze a beautiful red color," Knoll CEO Andrew Cogan told the New York Times. "People tell us, 'Hey, I walked by your building.' They see the red and think we own it."