With a furniture catalog that consists almost exclusively of headliners—including Harry Bertoia, George Nakashima, and Eero Saarinen among others—Knoll Furniture made a name for itself as the place for Mid-Century designers to cut their teeth. Knoll continues to produce many of their original designs today, but vintage Knoll furniture remains just as covetable. And it’s easy to see why—equal parts retro and futuristic, used Knoll furniture beckons to the past while working a thoroughly modern angle.
YOUR GUIDE TO KNOLL FURNITURE’S ICONIC TULIP TABLE
Remember in Clueless when Cher’s crush complimented her “nice stems” and you shook your head in utter disbelief? Well, let us introduce Knoll’s tulip table, which thanks to its swooping pedestal base (ahem, stem), will have you seriously thinking about reviving the phrase.
Graceful and futuristic, Knoll’s signature tulip table was designed by Finnish-born designer Eero Saarinen in 1956. Composed of a circular slab set atop a fluted base, the tulip table exhibits—like so many vintage Knoll furniture pieces—unassailable finesse. The tulip table is actually so effortless-looking that it’s difficult to believe that its design was a four-year labor of love.
Ranking among the most-loved pieces of vintage Knoll furniture, the tulip table has been emulated a hundred times over, though perhaps none more famously than when Burke Furniture channeled the design into a Star Trek set piece—yes, may the force be with you. If you're considering one of these vintage Knoll tables for your home, or you're just enamored with its go-anywhere attitude, read on to learn about how it was made, along with a few tips on how to style it!
HOW IT’S MADE: THE KNOLL TULIP TABLE
To lay the groundwork from which the tulip table sprung, Knoll Furniture (who owns the rights to the table) was formed in 1938 by Hans Knoll. Knoll later hired Florence Schust, a fresh-out-of-college architecture grad who had an inherent eye for interior space planning. Florence and Hans would soon wed, cementing the decades-long impact Florence would have on the Knoll Furniture company.
A childhood friend of Florence’s was Eero Saarinen. In 1946, he was contracted by Knoll and designed his first Knoll furniture piece—the Grasshopper Chair. Other vintage Knoll furniture followed, including the ultimate curl-up-and-stay awhile chair, the Womb Chair. Following the success of these vintage Knoll chairs, Saarinen began theorizing about a dining set that would “clear up the slum of legs in the U.S. home.” His solution? Pedestal bases. A pedestal was simple in theory, but one that would prove downright tricky to execute.
To design the tulip table, Saarinen first penned drawings, followed by a series of ¼ size models, which he staged in dollhouses to tee-up proportions. Finally, he moved onto full-scale models sculpted from clay. Saarinen wanted to construct his table and chairs of fiberglass, but structurally, the medium wasn’t sturdy enough. Ultimately, he settled on a base made of cast aluminum with a Rislan coating and a customizable tabletop (customers' options were marble, wood veneer, or laminate).
While the tulip table is an icon today, it reportedly wasn’t as well-received in 1958 when it was first released as part of Knoll’s Pedestal collection—some even went so far as to say it lacked soul. Thankfully, this vintage Knoll table has since earned a legion of fans and has been recast as the LBD of the design world. To put it in perspective: the tulip table has hit its bloom.
WHAT TO PAIR YOUR USED KNOLL TULIP TABLE WITH
When Saarinen released his Pedestal collection it included both the tulip table and tulip chairs. While obvious soulmates for the tulip table, tulip chairs paired with a tulip table can tip the scale into USS Enterprise territory. To give your used Knoll table a fresh feel (and not a Trekky one), try matching it with an eclectic troupe of chairs. We’ve outlined a few favorites below.
Thonet Café Chairs
Nothing plays down the modernity of a vintage or used Knoll table like set of Thonet bistro chairs. Thonet chairs’ open framework allows the tulip table’s sculptural beauty to peep through, while the chairs’ gracefully outturned legs mimic the tulip table’s sinuous stem. If you’re using your vintage Knoll table to seat four or more, stick with the armless Thonet chairs, but for a true bistro table where you only need to seat two, consider Thonet’s armed café chair.
Modern Windsor Chairs
Tulip tables are curvilinear masterpieces, which makes a straight-backed Windsor chair seem like a jesting choice, but like they say, opposites attract. The straight lines of the Windsor chairs allow the tulip table’s curves to shine, while the chairs’ spindle backs are a radiant-like play on the circular tabletop. Choose black Windsor chairs for a bold, clean look.
Hans Wegner Wishbone Chairs
To turn your vintage or used Knoll table into an installation piece, try syncing it up with Hans Wegner’s artfully bowed wishbone chairs. Wishbone chairs are unique in that their arms double as their back. As a result, wishbone chairs have a low height, and their highest point levitates just below the edge of a tulip table. The overall effect is that your Italian marble top will be on full display, while the base of your table is surrounded by the gracefully sculpted wishbone backs. The look is Scandinavian perfection.
Louis XVI Side Chairs
While a prim Parisian chair and a futuristic Knoll table might sound like an unexpected mash-up, you’d be surprised at how well these two opposites hit it off. While there’s a definite generation gap, both Louis XVI chairs and tulip tables have an underlying femininity which makes them a match.