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Walter Knoll’s secret of success: Looking with designers for something that has never been done before

MYchair; Design: Ben van Berkel; Foto: Walter KnollWalter Knoll (exhibitor at imm cologne 2010, 19.-24.01.2010), one of Germany’s oldest manufacturers of upholstered furniture, cultivates a close partnership with designers and architects – an approach that is key to the company’s success. “New products evolve out of thorough communication, immersing yourself in processes and clarifying ideas. We seek out gaps together, looking for the right opening for something that has never been done before,” says CEO Markus Benz.

Benz, head of the Herrenberg-based company since 1993, sets great store by communication. It is a recurring theme that is also reflected in the company’s products. Take the Ameo lounge chairs by Austrian design team EOOS, for instance: they are ideal for relaxing with friends and putting the world to rights. The island-like swivel chairs can be turned to face one another for a conversation or away from the crowd for a moment of reflection, open to new perspectives. Or Living Landscape – another EOOS design. The sides and back turn with the seat and change their position.

The result is a new angle on things, a new spatial impression. What never changes is the clear form, the solidity, stability and top-quality workmanship. MYchair is another good example. Created by Amsterdam architectural firm UNStudio, for whom co-founder Ben van Berkel also designs furniture, it unfolds its effect like a sculpture in space. Impressive from all angles, the lounge chair presents a variety of changing faces. Slanting sections alternate with rounded and straight areas. The upholstery sculpts convex and concave forms.

knoll_imm_2009Intense colours create dynamic duets. All the models are enhanced with lavish details such as hand-sewn seams of parallel stitching or fine piping and channelling. The Herrenberg company sees its furniture as inviting and prestigious, likable and distinctive. It is meant to embody perfect craftsmanship with top quality materials and outstanding design. The company’s success bears this philosophy out: today Walter Knoll products can be found at Hearst Tower in New York, the Reichstag in Berlin, the Tate Gallery, the Commercial Bank in Dubai or the lounges of international airports.

From a 1930s Dornier aircraft to the most modern university on the Red Sea
Despite the global economic and financial crisis, the company has every reason to be optimistic about the future. Sales for the first half of 2009 were up on the previous year. This success is partly due to some important major contracts in recent months, but also – and in no small measure – to the high design quality of the products. Not without reason has Walter Knoll won the renowned Red Dot Design Award no fewer than five times this year alone.

The ground for this positive development was prepared in 2008, a successful year that ended with growth of seven percent. Like so many other brand-name companies that have created a permanent home for themselves in the premium design segment, the firm is internationally positioned. Sales of Walter Knoll AG & Co. KG, including those of its Australian subsidiary and its licensed partner in the USA, amounted to 63 million euros. Exports of Walter Knoll products accounted for 54 percent of sales.

Major projects in Germany and abroad have safeguarded the company’s success even in difficult times and include the lobby seating for the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia – with a volume of 1.5 million euros, the biggest contract in the company’s history to date. One of the most modern universities in the world was erected on a site covering 36 square kilometres on the shores of the Red Sea. The quality of the seating is an apt expression of the university’s striving for excellence.

More than anything else, however, Walter Knoll regards assertive product development as absolutely crucial to its long-term success – a policy that has been sustaining the brand for years and ensures it is perfectly positioned for the future. “The only way for us to safeguard our success is to defend our position as an innovation leader,” says Markus Benz.

Foster510; Design: Foster+Partners; Foto: Walter KnollThe company, which looks back on a 140-year history, produces upholstered furniture, executive office furniture and conference room ranges for use in both residential and commercial settings. At Walter Knoll, innovative products are created in close collaboration with successful designers and architects – including Norman Foster from Great Britain, EOOS from Austria, Ben van Berkel from the Netherlands or Kengo Kuma from Japan.

The designs strive to achieve an aesthetic reconciliation between private spaces and public scenographies. Walter Knoll has been cultivating this special partnership with designers and architects ever since the company was founded in 1865: Germany’s oldest upholstered furniture brand has been creating furniture classics for six generations. Passengers who boarded the first wide-bodied Dornier aircraft DO X in the 1930s used Walter Knoll furniture, as did the inhabitants of the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart. Vostra, a beech armchair, became the first major seating line of the post-war period.

Design quality pays – especially in times of crisis
When the firm was taken over by the Benz family in 1993 Markus Benz, Rolf Benz’ eldest son, turned Walter Knoll into a modern, international company. He pulled off the difficult balancing act of reconciling commitment to the brand with the demands made of contemporary furniture. Both brand and design are intended to formulate and convey the aesthetic culture of modernism and the entrepreneurial values of a medium-sized company. Design and architecture serve as the starting point and driving force behind new developments – Walter Knoll aims to influence the way we live with intelligent design.

Markus Benz sees communication and carefully nurtured relationships as the secret to his success. The right partners and long-term collaboration pave the way for new solutions – a process, he believes, that draws its strength from the synergy between marketing, product development and design. “A shared ability to sit down and analyse things together is one of the keys to our success,” says Markus Benz.

Right now, during the global crisis, Walter Knoll is reaping the benefits of its product quality and internationally acclaimed, award-winning design more than ever before. Customers are looking for products that promise enduring quality. Durability means taking an ecological approach right from the outset – especially when it comes to design. “If something lasts and is liked for a long time, it doesn’t generate much waste and thus fosters an economic approach to natural resources,” says Markus Benz.

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