Growing Up Modern with Richard (Dick) Schultz


Peter Schultz


Newsletter, docomomo, Growing up modern, special edition
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Born in late 1958, I was almost two years old when my father’s Petal Table was introduced by Knoll in the Los Angeles showroom in 1960, and almost 6 years old when Knoll introduced his now iconic “Leisure Collection” in Miami in 1966 (He has always disliked the name Leisure Collection, so long after Knoll ceased production in the mid 1980’s and when we resumed production on our own in 1992, we renamed it the 1966 Collection.) Because I was so young at the time I don’t remember the specifics of the development of those designs. It does make me think though about how this time in my father’s life was so productive and creative.


My parents met while working at Knoll in New York City in 1950. As my father tells it, he walked into the Knoll New York City offices and was seen by Florence Knoll, who everyone called Shu because her maiden name was Schust. He showed her the general sketchbook of his travels that he had kept while traveling in Europe that summer, just after having graduated from the Institute of Design in Chicago. She hired him right away, apparently calling in Hans Knoll to close the deal. Hans asked my father what he wanted to earn, and my father as is typical of him had no idea what a reasonable salary was, so accepted whatever Hans offered him. 


His first task with Knoll was working in their New York offices on small scale models of furniture for a presentation that Hans needed to make to the State Department. According to him he really didn’t know what to do in an office environment and couldn’t sit still at a desk. During this time he met my mother, who had been hired previously to work with Shu in the planning department as a general assistant. One of her favorite tasks was going to the flower district in New York to buy flowers for the showroom, then arranging them just as Shu prescribed in tight arrangements in vases. Shu definitely did not want large loose showy flower arrangements in her showroom.


Shu convinced Harry Bertoia, who she knew from her days at Cranbrook and had left the Eames office in California, to move east to Bally, Pennsylvania near the growing Knoll manufacturing facility in East Greenville. Harry rented and later bought a former car garage in Bally to use as a design and sculpture studio. Given my father’s poor performance in the office he was quickly dispatched to Pennsylvania to work with Harry as an assistant on his project for Knoll, designing a line of furniture. As my father tells it, Harry was not quite ready yet to have an assistant because he did not think the project was far enough advanced, but Dick managed to integrate himself into Harry’s process. I think these were some of the most exciting years of my father’s life, as he was able to work with someone whom he admired immensely for his creativity and skill and genuine human qualities. Eventually Knoll also hired Don Petitt who was Dick’s roommate at school and had been working in New York with George Nelson. Don and my father shared a rented farmhouse near East Greenville and my mother would take the train out on the weekends to visit.


At the time that the Bertoia furniture design was complete my parents decided to marry and wanted to spend some time in Europe. My father told Hans that they would marry and leave Knoll to travel to Europe and Hans famously replied, “You can’t do that!” which my father took to mean that they could not get married. Hans actually meant that he could not leave Knoll and suggested that my father might work with Knoll licensees to set up production in Europe, particularly France, Belgium and Sweden. He also hired my mother to help with showroom design and layout. The Knoll showroom in Paris was situated at street level, and above it just under the roof Hans had rented and elegantly furnished an apartment with Knoll products. Hans allowed them to live in the apartment and they stayed for two years, during which time they traveled throughout Europe setting up production of Bertoia chairs.

When my parents returned to the states they found an old farmhouse for sale on the hill above Bally. No one wanted it, as most of the two miles of road up the hill and then the driveway itself were unpaved, and the house seemed too isolated. The fields were beginning to grow over with small saplings and bushes, although there were parts that had larger old trees. It was here that my sister and two brothers and I were born and grew up. The property had not only the main house, but also a small stone house across the driveway which we called “the Other House”. The Other House had only one room per floor, no bathroom, and no running water. Don Petitt lived there for a bit in the beginning, and afterward the first floor became a shop for my father, and the upstairs became a design studio with a large drawing board.


Typically, we never had new furniture, always using prototypes or something that my father made. He built all the beds in the house and built a pair of dressers for himself and my mother from some welded frames and drawers that he liberated from the Design and Development Unit (D&D) where he worked. Our dining table was designed by Florence Knoll, and during my parent’s cocktail hour we would lie upside down under the Saarinen coffee table and draw on the underside. We had almost no traditional furniture, other than a rocking chair and an old dresser that my father inherited from his father. My parents did have old Turkish carpets that my father inherited from his grandfather, and I remember thinking as a child how wonderful it was to live in an old stone farmhouse with all walls painted white, old Turkish carpets and modern furniture. 


My mother made the curtains from a fish net material that Shu must have used somewhere in the showrooms, and my father made doors for the cabinet in the living room from a raffia material that he used to upholster the headboard of the bed that he designed for Knoll as one of his first design projects for the company. Most of the lamps we made ourselves using rice paper lanterns that we found in the Asian import store in New York or by folding drafting mylar into a pleated shape. Even later in life, when my father was busy making a set of free standing bookshelves for his home in Vermont I remarked to him that he could buy some nice shelves in various stores. His typical remark – “Really?  They make bookshelves?,” then go on with his project. He never imagined that there was anything on the market that was better than something we could make ourselves.

In his shop in the Other House my father had various machinery including a large band saw and a sander and a welding torch. As a child, before Dick set up his shop with the equipment I enjoyed so much going to Knoll D&D with him and using the professional tools. I made a set of boats by cutting out the silhouettes from a board and adding dowels to make chimneys and cranes. Later on, I made a trivet from teak rescued from the scrap pile at Knoll, using brass brads to nail it together and finishing it with the special mix of linseed oil and turpentine that my father taught me to use to finish wood. He taught me how to cut a piece of metal on the shear or glass with a glass cutter and use it to scrape a piece of wood to achieve a fine finish, and then how to apply the finish using a fine wet or dry sandpaper. 


Most of my parent’s friends were other Knoll designers, and occasionally I played with their children.  My parents would have parties for the Fourth of July, or for New Year. Brigitta Bertoia would come over and inevitably give us a book of her poetry. We played with the Pearsons, who lived not far away in Powder Valley.  In 1972, when Knoll laid off their entire staff of designers, Max Pierson worked with my father on a project to design a line of cardboard furniture for Tenneco. My father used most of his severance pay from Knoll to buy the bandsaw, drill press and sander to set up his shop in the Other House. It was always fun for anyone in the area to come to visit and see what Dick was cooking up in his shop, and what my mother was cooking in her kitchen.


Dick never concerned himself with money, and still does not to this day. It was my mother who accounted for every penny and shopped using coupons, carefully planning out the week’s meals so that she could stay in budget. My father always told us that we must do something we loved as a career, and for him his love of design was infectious, even though being poor was troubling to me. Because we could never afford new tires, the car always had retreads, which would give way at moment’s notice. I remember wishing that we could at least have enough money to buy good tires so that we wouldn’t have to deal with flat tires all the time. Dick was always suggesting business ideas though, and at one point discussed seriously buying a nearby building to turn into a bed and breakfast. When my mother made a delicious pie, he would suggest starting a company to sell pies.

After graduating from architecture school and running an architecture practice in New York building low income housing I found myself intrigued one weekend while visiting my parents in their house in Pennsylvania. Dick had been working on a design for an outdoor chair that he called “Topiary” because it was made of sheet metal punched with random holes designed to recreate the sort of dappled shade created by sunlight shining through shrubbery. He had tried to show the design to some of the major outdoor furniture companies at the time, but none of them were interested, thinking that the product was just to strange to be of interest. It was then that I told my father that I thought we should start a company to make that furniture.


We started with no money, but with high hopes of being able to make really beautiful furniture that would be original and fresh, different than anything that was on the market. It was only after we got deep enough into the process that I learned how difficult it was not just to design a product, but also to manufacture, inventory, market and sell it. We had every problem one could imagine, including vendors suddenly going out of business, and shipping damage and technical problems resulting in breakdowns that needed to be replaced under warranty. Through it all Dick remained focused on design, constantly pushing to improve the product, constantly pushing himself and me and our employees and vendors to do better. And through all of this we both shared a sense of joy at being able to create something new and beautiful to give to the world.

About the Author


Peter Schutz is the son of Richard Schultz, designer of the iconic 1966 Collection and Petal Table for Knoll.  Born in 1958 in Pottstown PA, Peter attended Yale College (BA 1980) and Yale Architecture School (MArch 1984). After working at Chermayeff and Geismar, Edward Larrabee Barnes and Glen Fries Architects he began his own architecture practice in New York City. In 1992 he and his father started Richard Schultz Design, Inc. with the intention of designing original innovative modern furnishings for the exterior. In 2012 the company was acquired by Knoll. Peter divides his time between Los Angeles and Princeton, NJ.