Since 2008, Knoll Associates have offered a biennial prize to architects through the World Monuments Fund, for the conservation of a modernist building which was under threat of demolition. For this year’s competition, a relatively modest local example has been entered, in the form of the former West’s furniture showroom in Fortitude Valley, whose history has a tangible connection with Knoll.
The Knoll company was established in New York in 1938 by a German immigrant Hans Knoll. He started to manufacture furniture in Pennsylvania in 1941 by a range of designers including Mies van der Rohe, Saarinen, Bertoia and Risson, before opening the company’s first showroom in 1951 in New York. As the company expanded, more showrooms were opened in the US and then in Paris, Milan, Stockholm, Madrid and Stuttgart.
In Australia, the situation post-war had restrictions on the import of furniture to protect local manufacturing. In Brisbane, Laurence West, a former architecture student, was a passionate advocate of design and started to sell furniture by the best Australian designers from the likes of Featherston and Snelling, but wanted to offer a more international range. He negotiated a licence arrangement with Knoll Assoc. to manufacture their range in Brisbane which was done from samples and drawings Knoll supplied. West had the exclusive rights in Australia to Knoll designs until 1962 when a Melbourne competitor also obtained a licence. Until then West supplied all the furniture by Mies, Betoia and Saarinen among others and his customers included architects Harry Seidler and James Birrell.
In 1952, West commissioned the Viennese architect Karl Langer to design a suitable showroom for his furniture which he assembled behind the showroom in Wickham St Fortitude Valley. Langer had already designed West’s home in Fairfield and West knew he was the man for the job. His brief to his architect was for it to be built “with the utmost economy in the contemporary manner” and what Langer gave him was quite extraordinary. It was widely published at the time because of its radical modernist design including copious natural light, gardens and water in a serpentine shaped pond.
Once the Knoll products were available locally in Sydney and Melbourne, West’s business deteriorated and the showroom was sold in 1964. Through a succession of occupants the building was dumbed down to be almost unrecognisable. When it came up for sale as a redevelopment site in 2008, it was purchased by the partners of Riddel Architecture, who recognising its significance, carried out an exemplary conservation of its fabric. By doing so, it was assumed that its original use could be resumed and it would be rented as a showroom once more. However, the repercussions from the GFC meant it was not going to be rented until the industry could recover. Rather than see it stand empty, RA relocated to the former Wests and the showroom as well as the building behind it, were adapted to house the practice and in 2011 they occupied it. RA subsequently merged with Conrad Gargett and the premises are now occupied by a law firm. In 2015, the Langer portion of the site was entered onto the Heritage Register of Queensland (#650008).