2012 Legend: Carl Magnusson

Image courtesy Carl Magnusson

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Carl Magnusson’s place in the design world defies categorization and simple labels. With an education in engineering and architecture, he is an industrial designer, as well as a curator, lecturer, mentor, inventor, organizer, talent scout, and visionary. And his influence has spread out in multiple directions around the globe. Much of his career was spent in various roles for the furniture manufacturer Knoll, where he collaborated with heavyweight designers and architects to produce world-class products that have extended the legacy of the American, mid-20th Century architect and furniture designer Florence Knoll. 

From light fixtures to seating to systems furniture, the products he has helped bring to market—whether designed by himself or in collaboration with others—have broken new ground, enhanced the style and function of corporate interiors, and earned numerous awards over the last four decades. Yet his underlying passion—and unique gift to the world—revolves around cultivating a cultural context for design and promoting this larger vision to both the design community and the broader public.

The seeds of his enthusiasm for design were planted in Malmo, Sweden, where Magnusson was born and where well-designed objects are integral to daily life. “Everything in our home—from the sofa to the cutlery—was modern,” says Magnusson. Though design may be in his genes, his path has never been linear. Urged by his father to study engineering, he attended the University of Idaho, where his two roommates were studying architecture. Observing their contentment in making models all night long, Magnusson switched to architecture and later completed his training at Chalmers Institute of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, his father’s alma mater. “I was very grateful that I studied engineering, as it is essential to the thinking of good design,” he says. “And also architecture, because of its cultural aspect. But I never loved architecture like I loved design. Architecture is site specific, whereas industrial design is more egalitarian in that products compete and customers can choose.”

California and the Eameses
Magnusson continued to follow his instincts. While producing public graphics in the early 1960s for the Swedish firm Klemming & Thelaus Architects, he was inspired by an article he had read in Art & Architecture magazine on the work of Ray and Charles Eames, whose Venice, California, office was producing future classic furnishings and cutting-edge exhibitions. “I wrote a letter to Charles Eames and told him,’I would very much like to come and work for you,'” remembers Magnusson. With an invitation from Eames to join the firm, Magnusson left placid Sweden for Venice, California in the 1960s.Once immersed in the vibrant creative and political energy of southern California, he honed his skills with exhibition designs, including IBM’s landmark Mathematica exhibition. “IBM was like the Apple of today,” he says, and fostered “a culture of curiosity.”

Indeed, a spirit of curiosity is what his friends and colleagues often point to as one of his most notable qualities. “He has a very keen eye to seek out the extraordinary and beautiful in a seemingly ordinary environment, of making you see that little detail that enriches your perception of a space, place, or object,” says Erik Wintzell, director of Wintzell & Associés, a Paris-based consultancy specializing in business development for the design and luxury industries. “Through Carl’s eyes, inanimate things spring to life, take on new meaning, become what they really are or could be. Nothing is quite fully done to him as he endlessly sees new possibilities,” says Wintzell, who met Magnusson in the late 1970s while regional director for Knoll International Scandinavia when Magnusson was director of design for Knoll International Europe. The two men collaborated on product development and corporate development efforts, such as acquisition assessment and the hunt for new design talent.

Discovering new design talent
Among the emerging talents whom Magnusson discovered while in this role at Knoll was Ross Lovegrove, who worked with Magnusson to develop the successful Alessandri office system for Knoll Europe, among numerous other products. A sculptor and industrial designer, Lovegrove met Magnusson for the first time in 1983 at Lovegrove’s degree show at The Royal College of Art. At the outset, Lovegrove valued Magnusson for his vast knowledge of design, but that respect has been sustained over time by Magnusson’s enthusiasm, generosity, and skill as a teacher. “Carl has a beautiful, relaxed, but committed nature as a designer, cross-referencing and fusing technology with elegant solutions,” says Lovegrove, who left Frogdesign in Germany while working on prestigious accounts to join Magnusson as the first in-house designer at Knoll in Paris.

After working for Eames, Magnusson set up his own design practice in the California home of architect Rudolph Schindler, shot a photo-documentary for the Los Angeles Times, and curated “Origins of the Modern Chair,” a traveling exhibition produced with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1972, Magnusson joined Knoll USA, where he was invited to serve as head of graphics and exhibits. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as head of design for facilities and exhibits for Knoll Europe, he collaborated on product commissions with European design luminaries, such as Ettore Sottsass, Gae Aulenti, Ross Lovegrove, Gianfranco Frattini, and Hans Hollein. Later, as director of design worldwide for Knoll USA in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he oversaw product commissions with American design stars like Maya Lin, Frank Gehry, Emilio Ambasz, Donald Chadwich, and Jeffrey Burnett. During these years, he also designed a few pieces of his own, including the Spello executive storage system, the Magnusson wooden desk collection, and the ergonomic RPM task chair.

A legacy at Knoll
Many of the products Knoll produced during this time under Magnusson’s design direction—from classics in the Krefeld Collection (designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1927 but never manufactured until it was introduced by KnollStudio in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art in 2004) to serviceable pieces like the Roscoe Award–winning Ricchio side chair (introduced in 1991) to systems furniture like the spine-based, Best of NeoCon® award-winning AutoStrada (2004)—remain in the Knoll line and reflect Magnusson’s skill in bringing world-class products to the market to this day. 

Those who worked closely with him over the years know him as an inspiring manager with a charming sense of humor that has enabled him to lead with ease. “Carl is extremely witty and entertaining, has boundless enthusiasm, and completely immerses himself in the process with a continuous flow of inspiration,” says Annette Schaich, vice president of marketing at Maharam, who worked with Magnusson while she was a product manager at KnollStudio and he was executive vice president of design. “With that, of course, comes the madman pace that is sometimes hard to follow for those around him,” she says, noting her admiration of his fluid decision making and deep understanding of materials and manufacturing processes that always helped him find ways to speed up the development process.

While Magnusson’s wit, technical expertise, and attention to detail are valued by those on the creative side of the design process, his problem-solving abilities have always impressed those on the manufacturing and business sides. “Carl was terrific at bridging the gap between product development and designers,” says Peter Cohen, who was president of Knoll International in the mid-1980s, while Magnusson was head of design. “It’s a tricky business, taking the vision of brand-name architects or designers and turning it into a real product. Carl knows about materials, costs, methods, and time cycles,” says Cohen. “He’s a rare talent who can translate across the divide of commerciality and design excellence—he’d go and create the product that could come to market and be saleable.” Cohen also credits Magnusson’s resourcefulness for part of Knoll’s success in securing and servicing major clients. “He helped customize Knoll’s bestselling Morrison system for GTE in Texas, for example, a colossal order at the time. He also worked with Ross Lovegrove to turn his ideas into useable systems products for Europe, and he found a way to get products made in Slovenia to solve a problem for Coke,” says Cohen, who adds that the cola company had set up an office there and needed to find ways to conserve money. “Without Carl’s contributions, we wouldn’t have gotten these orders.”

Respected as he may be for keeping both feet firmly planted on the ground, Magnusson’s mind floats effortlessly through the realm of ideas, too—and those who know him well also cherish his curatorial bent and interest in the cultural context of design. Among them is Albert Pfeiffer, who was in charge of real estate and construction for Knoll Holdings when he met Magnusson in the mid-1980s. After working with Magnusson and his wife, architect Emanuela Frattini, on various corporate and residential projects, he cofounded the Knoll Museum with Magnusson in East Greenville, Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s and eventually became Knoll’s vice president of design and curator of the Museum. Pfeiffer also assisted Magnusson, who by then was Knoll’s executive vice president of design, in launching the Knoll Symposium at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. An annual event developed to explore the borders of design, the Symposium series included over 100 speakers and 1,000 guests over the nine years that it lasted.

“Lectures were given from various sectors of the design world—and they were diverse,” says Pfeiffer. “For example, a talk given by the director of design for Mazda might have been followed by a historian who published a book on the evolution of the zipper. The attendees left with a broader perspective of the world of design and had been given (by no one else at the time) an opportunity of celebrating their professionalism together.” Indeed, the juncture at which culture, commerce, form, and function meet is what, according to Magnusson, good design is all about. “I believe that design is function with cultural content,” he says. “Cultural content imbues the item with our history, our inescapable style of our time and its values. Yet, a designed object must meet the functional and manufacturing cost requirements that allow customers to afford it. If the price is prohibitive then what function does it perform?”

Recent work with BMW and Teknion
An emphasis on the cultural significance of design that Magnusson cultivated with the Cranbrook symposia continues to be central to his professional pursuits today. In the few years before he retired from Knoll in 2005, he created several lecture series including, among others, “3,500 Years of Design in 2,000 Seconds Flat” and the “Alpinum Colloquium Speaker Series” at Lyceum Alpinum School in Switzerland, which were attended by corporate, student, and museum audiences around the globe. A member of the board of trustees for the Miami-based Wolfsonian Institute, Magnusson has also produced and hosted various design events and exhibitions, including a recent talk about innovation at Apple’s headquarters and an annual “Design Talk & Exhibit” for BMW at the Concorso D’Eleganza in Villa d’Este, Italy. “As an elder statesman of design and eminence grise with the knowledge of a connoisseur, Carl is exactly the kind of person we would envision to enhance our brand,” says Thomas Girst, head of cultural engagement for BMW Group. “He serves as a trustworthy and authentic media relations affiliate for us at a variety of events—from Art Basel in Miami to the Frieze Art Fair in London.”

In 2005, Magnusson founded his own design consultancy, Carl Gustav Magnusson Design, and has since designed a wide array of exhibitions and products for a variety of companies, including the office furniture manufacturer Teknion. “Carl showed up at Teknion in 2006 with three items—a small hammer, a screwdriver, and an Allen key—in a neat leather case as well as a small sample of an aluminum, triangular truss, and a’limited-edition numbered’ brochure for a benching system concept he called Marketplace,” says Steve Delfino, vice president of corporate marketing and product management for Teknion. Since then the company has worked with Magnusson to produce Marketplace and five other product lines, it has won 16 international awards, many of them for the Marketplace benching and high-performance eco-friendly Conflux LED lighting products.

Though his colleagues admire him as problem-solver, historian, mentor, and champion of design, many of them wind up valuing him most as a friend. “Carl’s encyclopedic memory of design, his knowledge of the global market, and his curiosity allows a professional conversation to quickly move to the personal, flowing from one detail to something absurdly off-topic, so it’s easy to spend long times together,” says Neil Frankel, a former partner at SOM and Perkins+Will, who worked with Magnusson on his signature Frankel Collection of seating for Knoll in 1999. “He’s a great defender of design and he’s fiercely loyal to his friends,” Frankel says.

Underlying Magnusson’s charismatic lightness of being is a sense of gravitas that infuses his thinking on design today. “I recognize that design has a social and moral responsibility that needs to be exercised more than ever as the glut of products engulfs us,” Magnusson says. From his seasoned and culture-driven vantage point, he also sees nothing but possibilities—and challenges—for product designers of the future. “Industrial design, compared to architecture, is in its nascent era, having its roots in the industrial revolution and only being declared a profession in the last half century, thanks to Henry Dreyfus,” Magnusson points out. “Functional and cultural aspects are continuously becoming more complicated, so the designer must be aware of these nuances and fold them into the ever lengthening equation,” he says.

Ideas such as these—along with the energy and inspiration he has shared with those who have worked with him—continue to ripple with influence. “He introduced me to humanity and the value of being a leader, even in the face of failure,” says Lovegrove. “My inspiration comes from letting Carl’s energy remain omnipresent like an invisible godfather of quality floating in the air of my studio.” Surely many of the other lovers of design whose lives he has touched feel the same.