Walter Knoll and the effect of modernity

Brandland in Herrenberg Walter Knoll

Does architecture influence the motivation of the people who work within it? Yes. Can good architecture embody the philosophy of a business? Again, yes.

We’ve known what can be achieved with light-filled architecture since Walter Gropius built the Fagus Factory in Alfeld over a hundred years ago, and later the Bauhaus workshops in Dessau. The cuboid buildings with generous glass facades brighten both the rooms and the spirits of the employees, and appear open and inviting to the outside world. If you notice similarities between the Walter Knoll headquarters in Herrenberg and the Gropius buildings, you’d be right. Walter Knoll lives and breathes modernity.

This is underscored by a striking detail: the glass corner flanking the entrance area over four floors. In passing, visitors are struck by a sense of lightness and transparency, and they are able to glean something of an insight into the internal goings-on. Huge panes of glass measuring 4 by 1.88 meters have been brought right up to the corner. Behind them are rows of slim concrete pillars that are quite visible in their supporting roles, but allow the glass to enjoy the limelight.

Clear corner: the distinctive corner in the glass facade showcases some of the company’s core values – depth, diligence and openness

Sleek: the concrete in the stairway glows in the light from the ribbon windows with such silky-smoothness that you almost want to stroke it

Walter Gropius made the idea of the glass corner world-famous. With the Bauhaus building, Gropius was the first to join transparent corners, creating a continuous glass facade. Mies van der Rohe perfected the technique and called it the Curtain Wall – a glass curtain. That’s also the effect produced by the facade in Herrenberg, as though it were hung on a slim concrete frame.

The architect Hansulrich Benz built the company headquarters and two factory buildings in nearby Mötzingen between 2001 and 2012. The factories are also built around the theme of a cube. However, these are clad in titanium-zinc sheeting and include semitransparent sections in which doors, windows and loading ramps are embedded.

Corporate architecture: the factories in Mötzingen are built around the idea of a brace surrounding a transparent cube

Hansulrich Benz has created a corporate architecture that is self-referential and complementary. The fact that the buildings are influenced by the style of modernity is firstly down to the company tradition. Founder Walter Knoll worked with Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe personally. But more important is the fact that even today, modernity embodies Walter Knoll’s self-image: minimalism, clarity, transparency and aesthetic longevity. These are the principles which underpin the design process for furniture here. This applies at all levels, which the building’s transparency reveals: upholstery work goes on over the ground floor; above that is the sewing area; the administration works on the third floor; and on the top floor, customers reach the showroom. Everywhere are bright spaces made up of only three materials: glass, steel and light exposed concrete. Mies van der Rohe’s motto is still valid: less is more.

The minimalist clarity showcases the expertise that put the company at the forefront of its highly complex business – international furniture design. It also shows the intensity of what goes on here: thinking. Hansulrich Benz was tasked with linking the new building with several other historic buildings on the grounds of the Walter Knoll brandland. To that end, he effected a complete spatial restructuring of the various departments – from manufacturing, to distribution, warehousing, administration and exhibition.

A dialog between eras: aluminum panels on the new building accentuate historic features on the Walter Knoll brandland

This architectural intelligence can also be found in the energy system. The new heating installation requires 40 percent less energy for the whole brandland in Herrenberg than previously consumed by the old building alone. Photovoltaic technology and the heating system in the concrete cores, that stabilizes room temperature, make a contribution to that reduction. In summer, the cores can also be cooled with water from the sprinkler tank. The technology is elegantly concealed in the ceilings and floors.

Wherever you go, look or touch, the corporate architecture at Walter Knoll tangibly conveys how the company works: careful planning, intelligent development, a clear language of form, high-quality materials and perfection in technical detail. And a lot of love for corners and edges.

Text: Carsten Jasner