Salone del Mobile Milano

Knoll and its Butterfly chair celebrate 80 years

Knoll’s adventure began 80 years ago, thanks to the vision and charisma of a young German who moved to the United States and the extraordinary feel for design of a young female architect, later to become his wife: Hans and Florence Knoll. Since then, Knoll has produced furniture that has become iconic, without ever betraying the sense of modernity that has always characterised its pieces. 

Knoll’s revolutionary approach was to not think about the piece of furniture per se but about the space. This informed pieces as good-looking as they were functional. In a style that transcends the borders between different eras, between domestic and office settings, between interior and exterior. 

This major anniversary is being celebrated with the re-edition of a cult piece that is as old as the brand – the elegant Butterfly chair. In 1938, when the company was set up, this extraordinary chair was conceived and was listed in the catalogue from 1947 to 1951, achieving such success that it breezed through almost a century of taste and habits with manifest nonchalance.  This is attributable to Knoll’s attitude to transformation, adaptability and evolution.

The story of the chair began at least a year earlier, in 1937, when three young architects, Antonio Bonet from Barcelona, Juan Kurchan and Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy from Buenos Aires, met in Paris and were bold (and lucky) enough to knock on the door of the most revered studio in the world of architecture: no. 5, Rue de Sèvres, belonging to Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier. The three architects studied with him for a year, absorbing teachings, stimuli and inspiration. They must also have leafed through the pages of Le Corbusier’s L'Art Décoratifs d'Aujourd'hui, in which he demolishes the idea of decorative art in favour of modern design. It is therefore hardly surprising that, back in Argentina the following year, the three architects hit upon the brilliant idea of reworking one of the great classics of military furniture, the so-called Tripolina, a light, folding chair with a wooden frame and metal joints and a canvas or leather covering, designed by Joseph B. Fenby for the British army in 1877. The three architects predominantly worked on the frame, influenced by the international diffusion of the tubular metal typical of Rationalist furniture of the previous decade.

Tripolina’s wooden frame and metal joints (too complicated for mass production) were replaced by two curved metal components, creating a single circular and continuous design. What the new version lost in flexibility it gained in decidedly more interesting features. The shape of the seat became linear, spare and continuous. This new chair incorporated the advantages of both styles into one.  On one hand, it looked versatile, light and stackable like a chair, on the other it was as comfy and roomy as an armchair. Hans Knoll decided to acquire the rights to the design in 1947, and for four years marketed it as Model no. 198. Since then the number of names by which it is known – the BFK, the Argentina, the Africana, the Hardoy chair and, more commonly, the Butterfly – is second only to the countless attempts to imitate it.

The Butterfly preceded the radical research into non-conventional and vernacular seating by almost thirty years, inventing a new way of sitting, allowing its users to dispense with social formalism and to enjoy a type of conviviality that was to inform contemporary furniture design from the Fifties onwards. The 2018 version of the chair, based on a design conceived 80 years previously, introduces new materials for an improved seating experience. Knoll’s technology and craftsmanship have ensured that the latest Butterfly is sinuous and dynamic, due also to the quality of the materials employed – the frame is made of steel and the seat of thermoformed felt. The latter in particular represents the true innovation of the chair, because thanks to its workmanship it is a fixed, self-supporting frame, with the dual role of seat and covering. What’s more, the laser shaping of the fabric, with no additional stitching, means that the seat can be fitted directly onto the steel frame, guaranteeing comfort and elegance.

Innovation, sophistication and timelessness – three principles that Butterfly encapsulates in a single design, creating a dimension suspended in time and space. 

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