Knoll’s Benjamin Pardo on living with mid-century modern pieces

In this file photo, a lounge/TV room features a Saarinen cocktail table of Calcutta marble, the Knoll Bertoia chair, a black Venini Veronese vase, and a Minotti Leger side table. The large mixed media piece is by Thrush Holmes.
In this file photo, a lounge/TV room features a Saarinen cocktail table of Calcutta marble, the Knoll Bertoia chair, a black Venini Veronese vase, and a Minotti Leger side table. The large mixed media piece is by Thrush Holmes.

Credit: Sean Drakes, for the AJC

Credit: Sean Drakes, for the AJC

As senior vice president and design director of Knoll, Benjamin Pardo is responsible for product and showroom design worldwide. The brand, which was established in New York in 1938 and redefined the American office, has a modern design portfolio that includes furniture, textiles, leathers and accessories. Pardo joined Knoll in 2005 after 17 years with Unifor, an Italian manufacturer of high-end office furniture systems, where he served as president. Pardo lives in a mid-century Manhattan apartment house and collects the work of 20th-century Italian architect Ettore Sottsass.

Pardo joined The Washington Post’s Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.

A: Designing a modern, comfortable and affordable personalized space for remote work is important. Some people who have been working from home turn to classic designs, such as a Saarinen chair and Florence Knoll table desk. Others gravitate toward workplace-specific furniture, such as a high-performance ReGeneration desk chair and table desk by David Rockwell. Whatever your perspective, think about balance and a place for everything.

Q: What makes your home office special?

A: My home office draws on distinctly modern approaches in one space. It synthesizes the evolution of the Knoll point of view, bringing together the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen and, of course, Florence Knoll herself. Softer touchpoints drive home comfort, too. I have a space to ideate, all while being surrounded by beautiful and functional objects.

Q: What contemporary Knoll designs reference your favorite classics?

A: The Fiber chair family from our Muuto brand, which offers a new perspective on Scandinavian design, is a great example of a contemporary interpretation of a classic form. Saarinen thought long and hard about the figure of an object in architectural space. His landmark chairs reflect this idea with proper back support, which allows you to sit fully back in the chair.

Q: What’s your favorite lounge chair for a modern and comfortable living room where children also live?

A: You need a Womb chair by Saarinen. Designed as a chair for Florence Knoll to sit with her dog, Cartree, it’s a classic.

Q: We have a Finn Juhl teak dining table but have been given conflicting information about how to care for the wood. Do you have advice on using teak oil or similar products to maintain the wood?

A: Teak needs oil. It should be conditioned every three months; it’s most important when teak is outdoors. Your dining table will look wonderful after a quick treatment with the proper wood restorative. I prefer my teak tops outdoors to stay in the natural state bleached by the sun. But both are great options, so do what you prefer.

Q: Do you have a favorite piece in your home?

A: My favorite is always the most recent. I just got four classic Nakashima spindle-back chairs in a small dining nook for breakfast in the country.

Q: Is there any material that you’re partial to?

A: I love the way Warren Platner used polished steel rods as a decorative and structural element in an entirely different way from Bertoia. His table and chair designs require precise alignment. The result makes a statement in any room. Paired with Saarinen’s chairs, you can create a setting with an enduring mid-century vibe.

Q: What modern furniture do you recommend for outside?

A: I suggest the 1966 Schultz collection. These pieces were developed by Richard Schultz with Florence Knoll. She needed outdoor furniture for her new home in Coral Gables, Fla. It set the standard for contemporary classic outdoor furniture.

Q: I see you collect the work of Ettore Sottsass. What is your favorite piece?

A: I have a long history of collecting Ettore Sottsass. I started with his ceramic totems. I own “Chiara di Luna,” “Chocolate” and other untitled works. I have two Japanese Sottsass lacquer pieces in my home office. Then I moved on to glass and other manageable objects. They work well with the Mandarin chair by Sottsass for Knoll and the wonderful Muuto baskets for quick storage.

Q: Do you have any tips on how to spot an authentic piece when purchasing vintage furniture to avoid buying a knockoff?

A: Start by going to our website, knoll.com, to see the pieces, forms, materials and dimensions of works. We have an entire section devoted to classics, and the Knoll archive has a complete history of our products. Next, choose a reputable dealer. Check the labels for Knoll’s address. Some pieces even carry a distinctive label designed by the Swiss graphic designer Herbert Matter. Be sure to check back fabrics on upholstery.

Q: My home is a Scandinavian bow house. Is mid-century furniture a good fit with this architecture?

A: It is an ideal combination. Start by looking at vintage Scandinavian furniture, but also consider a new perspective on Scandinavian design with Muuto. A good eclectic mix of classic Knoll, classic Scandinavian and Muuto pieces that reflect light and protect a youthful (in spirit, not age) image are a perfect combination. Muuto Fiber chairs pair wonderfully with Saarinen tables. The Muuto Oslo chair also has a wonderful organic form and is perfect for dining and working with Saarinen.

Q: So much of the work of the Bauhaus and modernist traditions is connected to a philosophy and theory on how we should live, same for postmodern design. Where do you think we are headed in terms of design and the philosophy connected to it? What artists display this new direction?

A: This question is not so easy. Bauhaus design and American modern tradition were the prewar and postwar ideas of living and working in modern environments; this is true for work in architecture, interiors, furniture and objects. The modern idea asked architecture to create and divide space. It was important to set the stage for the figure that is the occupant of the space. This modern concept in interiors was pioneered by Florence Knoll with the establishment of the planning unit in the late 1940s. For example, these ideas are used by David Adjaye in a space featuring a Saarinen table and his Skeleton chairs from the Washington Collection. Adjaye used Mies’s cantilever form in his chair to make a classic in the making. Using this chair as an example again, think of the novel use of materials in modern design. The use of copper reflecting light in his chair can make the chair invisible at certain times of day or give it a “friend” with a shadow, similar to Harry Bertoia’s classic seating form.

Q: What are your favorite books that relate to the philosophy of design?

A: “Harold and the Purple Crayon” by Crockett Johnson. Don’t laugh at me. Read it and imagine.

Q: What tips do you have for building career longevity and endurance in creative fields?

A: It all comes down to hard work. Stay current both at work and in your specific field of design. At Knoll, I am always looking at how trends will inform the future and how they will affect the way we live and work. Seek out everything: events at local museums, online design, etc. Read and reference images as often as possible. Look for links between 2-D and 3-D design. For me, it’s reading.

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