Jonathan Olivares is working wonders at Knoll, as the brand’s Salone pavilion attests

Jonathan Olivares debuts plans to bring Knoll into the modern age, starting with its pavilion at Salone del Mobile 2023

Jonathan Olivares at Knoll New York showroom
Knoll’s senior vice president of design Jonathan Olivares at the brand’s showroom in New York’s Midtown, the same neighbourhood where Hans and Florence Knoll opened their first store in 1938. Pictured here are a pair of ‘MR’ chairs, designed by Mies van der Rohe in the late 1920s, PS (Painted Shape), 2021, an artwork by Jonathan Muecke, designed for Knoll’s 2023 Salone del Mobile pavilion, and a 2010 ‘Antenna’ desk by Antenna Design
(Image credit: Adrianna Glaviano)

When the industrial designer Jonathan Olivares was appointed senior vice president of design at US furniture company Knoll in June 2022, it felt like the turning of a tide. As an originator of American design since its founding in 1938 by Hans and Florence Knoll, with icons such as Marcel Breuer’s ‘Wassily’ chair (1925) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich’s ‘Barcelona’ chair (1929) both under trademarks in its control, the once-pioneering company had endured several years of uncertainty, including being acquired by Herman Miller for an epic $1.8bn in 2021, and keeping a relatively low profile before that.  

Jonathan Olivares takes on the future of Knoll designs

Portrait of Jonathan Olivares sitting in Knoll New York showroom

Jonathan Olivares at Knoll's New York showroom 

(Image credit: Adrianna Glaviano)

The shake-up (and wake-up) that Knoll supporters have been waiting for appears to have arrived with Olivares’ appointment. As a custodian of Knoll’s design legacy, Olivares has been tasked with overseeing future Knoll designs, which he plans to do with a community of international designers. And it all comes to fruition for the first time this month at Salone del Mobile 2023. With a pavilion designed by Belgian architecture firm Office KGDVS, a new outdoor collection by Piero Lissoni, a reissue of Eero Saarinen’s iconic round table in a new size, and a host of other renewals of classic products, including the 1966 Collection by Richard Schultz, Knoll’s presence in Milan is set to be about moving forward as much as it is about looking back. 

Furniture sketch

A sketch of Knoll’s new outdoor collection designed by Piero Lissoni

(Image credit: Courtesy Knoll)

Olivares is a veteran designer who has mostly flown under the radar, despite achieving much success. A graduate of Pratt Institute, his recent undertakings prior to joining Knoll include designing an aluminium-heavy flagship showroom for Kvadrat in New York (his ‘Square’ chair collection for Moroso also appears in the space), collaborating with architects Johnston Marklee on furniture for the Dropbox HQ in San Francisco, and realising showrooms for Vitra, together with several exhibitions, all designed in collaboration with the London-based architect Pernilla Ohrstedt. A monograph, Selected Works, was published in 2018, and his designs have also found their way into the permanent collections of institutions such as the Vitra Design Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Jonathan Olivares carrying Jonathan Muecke artwork

Olivares with an artwork by Harry Bertoia, commissioned by Florence Knoll for the first showrooms

(Image credit: Adrianna Glaviano)

Ahead of his hiring, Olivares’ relationship with Knoll already ran deep. One of his earliest projects after starting his design practice in 2006 was a survey of the US furniture industry that he wrote for Domus. This put him in direct orbit with Knoll, which, shortly after, commissioned him to develop a research project on the history of the office chair. The result, A Taxonomy of Office Chairs, was published in 2011. In 2012, Knoll introduced the ‘Olivares Aluminum’ chair – a sculptural, die-cast aluminium chair, versatile enough for both indoor and outdoor use. 

‘Knoll has always forged its own path by looking outside of furniture, to architecture and interiors,’ says Olivares. ‘Much of Knoll’s furniture is also unfinished, in the sense that a client plays an active role in completing the pieces through the selection of discerning colours, finishes and materials. These are qualities we aim to build on.’ What excited him most about the role, he says, was ‘the prospect of working with peers to build a contemporary vision of how Knoll interiors are composed and furnished and, in turn, what cultural values are enabled and expressed. At its best, Knoll acted as a platform that captured and catalysed the zeitgeist in architecture and design, and I see this role as a chance to continue that legacy.’

The Knoll Pavilion at Salone del Mobile 2023

Knoll pavilion

A render of this year’s Knoll Pavilion at Salone del Mobile, designed by Belgian practice Office KGDVS. It features 100 per cent recyclable aluminium extrusions and recycled terrazzo tiles, while its interior gardens will be rented out from a local nursery and reclaimed for further use after the fair. Artworks include PS (Painted Shape), 2021, and FS (Flat Shape), 2021, both designed by Jonathan Muecke for the pavilion

(Image credit: Courtesy Knoll)

The Knoll Pavilion at Salone del Mobile 2023 divulges how Olivares plans to bring the brand into the modern age. Designed by Kersten Geers and David Van Severen of Office KGDVS, the dynamic aluminium and glass structure showcases Knoll’s new launches alongside artworks by Jonathan Muecke, inspired by some of the Harry Bertoia artworks that were commissioned by Florence Knoll for her first showrooms. ‘Kersten and David carry a spirit that is close to many of Knoll’s values, but in a contemporary way that is not stuck in the rear-view mirror and carries the architectural spirit of Knoll forwards.

Render of Knoll pavilion for Salone del Mobile 2023

Render of Knoll Pavilion, designed by Office KGDVS

(Image credit: Courtesy Knoll)

‘My brief to them started with the Eliel Saarinen quote that is so central to Knoll’s DNA: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan,”‘ Olivares shares. ‘In that spirit, I asked them to design a pavilion that could provide a domestic and residential scale inside the massive and often alienating trade fair environment. I also asked them to use materials that were recycled and completely recyclable. The space is made of 100 per cent recyclable aluminium extrusions, and recycled concrete terrazzo tiles, which can also be further recycled.’

Even the colours used in the pavilion have been equally considered; they’ve been selected in collaboration with Salem van der Swaagh, an American designer who worked for Hella Jongerius in Berlin for a decade. Van der Swaagh, who had already worked independently with Knoll Textiles, is also currently editing the colours and materials of the Knoll portfolio globally.  

Jonathan Olivares opening door at Knoll showroom

Jonathan Olivares

(Image credit: Courtesy Knoll)

‘Collaborators like these keep Knoll alive, and connect it to our time. Their work is invaluable to the brand,’ explains Olivares. ‘In the case of the Knoll Pavilion, Kersten and David provide an architecture that recalls the rigour of Mies van der Rohe and his disciple Craig Ellwood, but with an embrace of raw materials, an aesthetic hedonism and nonchalance that is their own. Jonathan Muecke’s artworks occupy a scale similar to Harry Bertoia’s sculptures, yet play with positive and negative space in a way that reshapes your impression of the furniture pieces around them.’ 

Olivares shows an inherent understanding of Knoll’s relevance and how it can evolve. ‘Knoll has always had a strong connection to the interior. In the early years, everything was developed in response to the next largest thing: a paper tray was done with consideration of the desk, the desk in response to the office plan, and the office plan in relation to the building plan,’ he says. ‘There was also a bond with architectural tendencies: from Mies to Venturi to Gehry, the company put forth furniture that expressed the latest thinking from leading architects. These are aspects I aim to further.’ 

He adds, ‘Prior to the acquisition, Knoll needed to be a lot of things to a lot of audiences. I am most excited about bringing a new focus to Knoll that is tied to its heritage and strengths, yet is entirely contemporary.’   

The Knoll Pavilion will be on show from 18-23 April at Fiera Milano Rho, Hall 4, Stand D11/E12 

Pei-Ru Keh is a former US Editor at Wallpaper*. Born and raised in Singapore, she has been a New Yorker since 2013. Pei-Ru held various titles at Wallpaper* between 2007 and 2023. She reports on design, tech, art, architecture, fashion, beauty and lifestyle happenings in the United States, both in print and digitally. Pei-Ru took a key role in championing diversity and representation within Wallpaper's content pillars, actively seeking out stories that reflect a wide range of perspectives. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, and is currently learning how to drive.