American Modernism: how Florence Knoll and Harry Bertoia revolutionised interiors
The mid-century icons and lifelong friends believed all spaces should be intellectual and aesthetic ‘complete works of art’
‘What does art do when it populates an interior?’ This question was explored by Florence Knoll Bassett and Harry Bertoia throughout their long careers, particularly in the realm of the workplace. Architect, designer, and entrepreneur, Bassett is, perhaps, best known as the creative force behind Knoll Associates, which remains an archetype of stylish and elegant office furniture to this day. Part of Knoll’s ingenuity was her penchant for collaboration and her foresight in producing not just tables and chairs but a luxurious corporate ambience.
A turning point in both her and Bertoia’s careers occurred in 1952, when Knoll Associates opened an exhibition of works by the Italian-born artist and designer. From that point, Bassett furnished both her personal and professional spaces with Bertoia’s work. A testament to their lifelong friendship and shared approach to art and design, Christie’s is offering five Bertoia sculptures from Bassett’s collection in the Design auction on 9 December in New York.
Ahead of the sale, Michael Jefferson, Christie’s International Senior Specialist in the Design department explains how the two key figures of American modernism first became acquainted and how their relationship — and work — flourished thanks to their creative exchange in aesthetics and spirituality.
Cranbrook, an ‘incubator’ of mid-century modernism
Modelled after the American Academy of Art in Rome, the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan opened at the turn of the 20th century — thanks to founders George Gough Booth and Ellen Scripps Booth. Cranbrook was largely shaped by the vision of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, who served as chief architect for the campus.
Saarinen also formulated the academy’s curriculum and was the school’s first president. He conceived a creative environment where students worked individually, advised by teachers. With a limited number of students, their chosen subjects — whether it be city planning, metalwork, textiles, or painting — were naturally integrated, resulting in fruitful collaborations.
The program produced some of American Modernism’s most preeminent figures, Bassett (then Florence Schust) and Bertoia among them. An orphan whose fascination with buildings led her to Cranbrook, Florence met Bertoia in 1937 at the home of Saarinen, who’d throw parties to encourage students to socialise and form friendships with one another.
‘These are technical marvels, for few ever master the technique of welding wires into a sphere,’ — Michael Jefferson
In 1930 at age 15, Bertoia left northern Italy and arrived in Detroit. When he was a student at Cass Trechnical High School, one of his teachers was impressed by his artistic ability and helped him apply to Cranbrook, where he received a full scholarship and was asked to direct the metals program. The exposure to nature around campus proved especially calming and inspiring to Bertoia. Likewise, key collaborations, most notably with Saarinen’s son Eero and Charles Eames, introduced Bertoia to making furniture. In 1943, Eames invited Bertoia to join his California design studio, and while the arrangement proved creatively stifling for the Italian, 1952 would mark a turning point for Bertoia’s burgeoning artistry.
The Knoll look and the appeal of Bertoia
After her time at Cranbrook, Florence became an architect, interning with Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, and later working for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. All European, these heavy-hitting titans would play instrumental roles in American Modernism and leave an everlasting Bauhaus imprint — and a further synthesis of the arts — on Florence’s mind.
In 1943, Florence joined Hans Knoll’s modest furniture company in New York, and three years later, they wed and incorporated professionally as Knoll Associates. While Hans handled financial matters, Florence was responsible for the Knoll look. Operating in a man’s world at a young age, she took the reins of the company in 1955 after Hans’s accidental death. Knoll’s lobbies and offices increasingly became a showpiece of high-quality, elegant, and powerful corporate interiors, and the furniture it produced proved that successful businesses did not have to sacrifice style.
‘It was key to the Bauhaus that you don’t really make a distinction between the architecture and the interior equipment, meaning the art, objects, or finishes. Rather, these encompass an entire vision of a building or collection,’ explains Jefferson on the rise of American Modernism. ‘The locus of this is with Knoll, which produced high-end furniture designed by the great architects practicing at the time. Knoll created the look of corporate architecture, power, and stature in the United States. One way that was achieved was by bringing art into the interiors.’
In the early 1950s Florence invited Bertoia to design furniture for the Knoll product line, which led to the creation of his ubiquitous Diamond chairs. On December 21,1952, Knoll Associated opened an exhibition of Bertoia works in its Madison Avenue showroom. Rather than the traditional row of seating, Knoll grouped the designer’s open-mesh chairs informally with his metal sculptures to emulate one’s living room. Bertoia’s designs illustrated his furniture’s kinship with sculpture, while Knoll believed that art and intentional styling helped give corporate spaces a more personal, less sterile, point of view. In essence, the idea of lifestyle marketing as it pertains to the workplace was born.
‘Florence Knoll saw the power in creating interiors that evoke an atmosphere of intellectual and aesthetic cohesion, as a complete work of art. Florence as a designer and architect, and Harry as an artist, thought about space as their medium. It’s in the space that business or life happens,’ says Jefferson, who calls Bertoia ‘not just a sculptor of aesthetic objects’ but also ‘a mystic.’
Speaking further to the duo’s synergies, Jefferson adds: ‘Harry is thinking about big, universal principles of life and creativity, even the cosmos. Florence is also thinking about the bigger picture. Art’s purpose in an interior goes beyond the functionality of the space and is about the well-being of the occupants, as well as their creativity and productivity.’
Bertoia’s sculptures: to infinity and beyond
Although Florence sold the Knoll business and married Miami banker Harry H. Bassett in 1958, she remained a friend and collector of Bertoia throughout their lives. Known to be very generous with his art, Bertoia gifted her the brass-melt-coated-over-steel Multi-Plane Construction on offer in Christie’s Design sale as a wedding present. ‘This is a work that Harry held in high esteem, enough to give it to Florence,’ says Jefferson, noting that it is a considerably larger example than the screen in Knoll’s 1952 Bertoia show.
The other four works on offer are Bush and Dandelion forms comprised of bronze rods and tips and a poured bronze bases. They vary from eight inches to 28.5 inches in height. ‘These are technical marvels, for few ever master the technique of welding wires into a sphere,’ explains Jefferson. One Bush on a tall stem likely served as a preparatory piece for the large-scale gilt Dandelion Bertoia made for the Kodak Pavilion in the 1964 World’s Fair. Further illustrating the value of these works and their provenance, a Dandelion sculpture from Florence Knoll Bassett’s personal collection currently holds the auction record for a work by Bertoia.
There is a particular spiritual significance to these nature-inspired forms, one that also appealed to Knoll. ‘They were tapping into concepts beyond the boundaries of these objects and the interiors they occupy. Bertoia saw these forms as a metaphor for infinity and the cosmos. You have the centre that everything branches out from, and every branch spawns three more branches,’ says Jefferson, adding that this concept of threes was given to Bertoia by R. Buckminster Fuller, an American architect, theorist, author, and designer.
Thus, these small-scale sculptures reflect a major evolution in the integration of large-scale installations and sculptures within architecture, one that seems almost commonplace today in corporate courtyards, lobbies, and more.
Bassett’s and Bertoia’s innovative principles also anticipate the lifestyle-oriented retail environment. ‘This lays the groundwork for what we know as Apple. Aesthetics matter. The way these things look and feel is as important as how they function,’ says Jefferson who believes the duo’s story is more relevant than ever.
‘We are seeing more recognition for women in design and architecture, an integration of the arts on a global level, and Bertoia, represents an immigrant story of making it due to his strong will and the optimism America offered him. This isn’t about uncovering an old story that people knew and then forgot about. It’s rather that now is the moment where the story is really revealing itself.’