A provocative chair (part two)


Durability—physical durability—is, for me, integral to the notion of “a well-designed chair.” On the other hand, physical durability is not so important to the notion of “an artwork.” I expect artworks to be fragile, even when they appear to be robust. So I asked the Knoll V.P. if the deconstruction-prone Gehry Cross Check wouldn’t be more appropriately marketed as a work of art, rather than a chair. He chuckled. “That’s an interesting idea,” he said.


Unfortunately, Knoll does not merchandise art. Knoll only manufactures and markets furniture and textiles.


Knoll was founded in 1938 by Hans Knoll, the son of a German furniture manufacturer. Eight years later he married Florence (née Schust), an architect. Together they built Knoll into a highly respected Bauhaus-inspired furniture brand. By the end of 1965, however, Hans and Florence were no longer involved with the company.


• In 1968 Knoll was acquired by an investment firm.

• Later Knoll was purchased by a pair of Wall Street veterans.

• The Wall Streeters took the company public in 1983.

• They took it private again in 1986.

• In 1990 Knoll was sold to a conglomerate.

• In 1996 Knoll was purchased by a private equity investment firm.

• Knoll went public for a second time in 1997.

• It became private again in 1999.

• It went public for a third time in 2004. . . .


How much of Knoll’s original commitment to quality design and manufacturing remains? (Would Hans or Florence have let the Cross Check go to market? If so, would they have found a way to make it durable, or remove it from the market, once they understood its deficiencies?)


Knoll’s products continue to garner prizes and honors. In 1992, when the Cross Check  was initially launched, the chair won six major design awards. The Cross Check was so appealing—and so skillfully marketed—that journalist Patricia Leigh Brown’s article in the New York Times (January 23, 1992) ran with the headline, “With Glue Hardly Dry, this Chair’s a Classic.”


With glue hardly dry, this chair’s a classic?


How can a chair be judged a “classic” before it is field tested for at least a few years?  Regardless, Time Magazine gave the Cross Check its “Best Design of 1992” award.” And in 1992 ID Magazine gave it a “Gold Metal.” Even the MoMA acquired a Cross Check for its permanent collection, also in 1992, without waiting to see if the chair really worked as intended. (See MoMAs criteria for design collection inclusion.)


Were Time, ID, the MoMA—and other design institutions—remiss in their critical due diligence?


Or is durability now a minor, even irrelevant, factor when determining a chair’s “design excellence”?