Knoll Textiles: Over Fifty Years of Women in Design

Last week I toured an exhibition of Knoll Textiles (1945–2010) at the Bard Graduate Center. The fabrics and objects were beautiful, but what struck me most was the rich story of women in design — from its founding in the 1940s until the present day, almost all Creative Directors of the textile division have been women (with the exception of a brief period in the 1980s). While Florence Knoll is a household name, the women she employed and those who later followed her are less well known, so here's a brief "who's who" of over 50 years of women who helped to shape textile design at Knoll and beyond.

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Marianne Strengell (webbing) and Ralph Rapson (chair). Pebble-Weave webbing on Rapson rocking chair. Ca. 1945. Birch, cotton webbing. Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

  • Florence Knoll: The woman "behind the brand," Florence Knoll studied architecture under Eero Saarinen and Mies van der Rohe before working for Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Wallace K. Harrison. She married Hans Knoll in 1946, the same year she became his full business and design partner. Florence headed Knoll Textiles and pioneered the Knoll Planning Unit, advocating "total design" — a philosophy that closely integrated textiles, architecture, space planning, interior design, manufacturing, graphics, and branding.
  • Marianne Strengell: Florence Knoll and Finnish designer Marianne Strengell attended Cranbrook Academy in Michigan together. Marianne designed the first Knoll textile — a pattern called Shooting Stars — and her work helped to shape the company's textile division in its early years. From 1937 to 1961, Marianne worked as a professor at Cranbrook and — for most of that time — was head of the school's textile department.

  • Noémi Raymond: A successful artist and graphic designer, she was also the wife of the famous Czech architect Antonin Raymond. The Raymonds spent much of the 20s and 30s working on architectural projects in Japan, and when Noémi began designing textiles for Knoll, her work made strong references to traditional Japanese shibori (tye-dye) and katazome (stencil-dyeing).

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Sheila Hicks (upholstery) and William Stephens (chair). Inca upholstery on Stephens side chair. Ca. 1970. Oak frame, plastic shell, foam rubber, wool upholstery. Knoll Museum.

  • Sheila Hicks: Now an internationally famous textile designer with work in the collections of the Met and MoMA, Sheila Hicks began working with Knoll in the 1960s. She created a series of abstract upholstery patterns for Eero Saarinen's Pedestal Chairs, as well as a popular woven textile called "Inca" that remained in production for many years.
  • Astrid Sampe: One of several designers who Florence and Hans Knoll met on their honeymoon in Sweden, Astrid Sampe worked as director of the textile studio at Stockholm department store Nordiska Kompaniet. She collaborated with Knoll on several designs and helped to recruit work from other Swedish talents including Sven Markelius (who designed Knoll's famous "Pythagorus" pattern) and Stig Lindberg.

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Eszter Haraszty. Tracy. Introduced 1952. Cotton, screen-printed. Collection of Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Museum Purchase (CAM 1953.4).

  • Eszter Haraszty: She began working with Knoll as a part-time textile designer in 1949 and was promoted to head of Knoll Textiles in 1950. During her tenure as head of the division from 1950 through 1955, Haraszty experimented with printing techniques and bold color. She also oversaw the creation of the first Knoll Color Guide.
  • Evelyn Hill: Evelyn Hill studied under Josef Albers before Eszter Haraszty hired her to produce a series of handwoven fabrics for Knoll. She experimented with natural and synthetic textiles, using silk, rayon, mohair, horsehair, and even plastic and fiberglass in her designs.
  • Suzanne Huguenin: She started out as Eszter Haraszty's assistant at Knoll and took over as head of Knoll Textiles from 1955 through 1964. In 1955, Hans Knoll died and the company underwent significant changes as Florence Knoll strengthened her leadership role and worked to further define the company as a close collaborator with the world's best designers. Furthering Florence's mission to brand the company as cutting-edge, Suzanne focused on using innovative materials — particularly nylon, a new ultra-durable fabric in the 1960s.

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Anni Albers. Rail. Introduced 1962. Linen. Private collection.
  • Anni Albers: A former teacher at the Bauhaus school and the wife of artist Josef Albers, Anni Albers was already very well known when she began working with Knoll Textiles in the 1950s. In the 60s, she produced several open-weave casements for Knoll — these loose fabrics were popular as draperies and room dividers, and they sold well in the contract market as coverings for modernist glass walls.
  • Barbara Rodes: In 1958, Florence Knoll married banker Harry Hood Bassett. In 1959 she sold her interest in the company, she stepped down from President to Director of Design in 1960, and in 1965 she resigned entirely. Robert Cadwallader joined the company's senior leadership and hired Barbara Rodes to breathe new life into the textile division in the post-Florence era. A German designer, Rodes enlisted people like Wolfgang Bauer and Leo Wollner to design patterns for Knoll. She focused on huge prints without repeats, and she worked with new printing techniques including burn-out or etch printing, as well as large-scale screenprinting. She resigned in 1978, after the company was sold to General Felt Industries.

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Jhane Barnes (upholstery) and Ettore Sottsass (chair). Romanie upholstery on Eastside lounge chair. Ca. 1990. Steel frame, polyurethane foam, leather, wool and rayon upholstery. Knoll Museum.

  • Hazel Siegel: Following a long period of transitions and corporate restructuring in the 1980s, Hazel Siegel took over as Managing Director of Design for KnollTextiles, a position she held from 1989 to 1993. During her tenure, she collaborated with architect Peter Eisenman on upholstery collections and worked with Jhane Barnes to produce several menswear-inspired textile lines.
  • Suzanne Tick: Suzanne Tick served as the Creative Director of Knoll Textiles from 1996 through 2005, and she still designs for the company today. Under her tenure, Knoll began to focus more intently on eco-friendly fibers and cutting-edge fabrics.
  • Dorothy Cosonas: Dorothy is the current Creative Director at Knoll Textiles. A graduate of FIT, she has strengthened Knoll's connection to the fashion world, and she's collaborated with designers like Rodarte and Proenza on the Knoll Luxe collection.


From May 18 to July 31, 2011, the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture (BGC) presents Knoll Textiles, 1945–2010, the first comprehensive exhibition devoted to a leading producer of modern textile design. For more information, click here.

Images: Courtesy of Knoll Textiles and the Bard Graduate Center. Credits as captioned above.

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