When introduced in the World War II era, their clean, functional, modern pieces were revolutionary.
Now, they are the norm.
"Modernism believed that this was the design of the future," Unger said. "It's a big deal because it is still here."
In 1938, Hans Knoll founded Knoll Inc., now one of the top U.S. office-furniture designers and manufacturers.
Its headquarters are in East Greenville, Montgomery County, where, in 1945, Knoll found a good wood mill and quality craftspeople.
Knoll was influenced by the famous Bauhaus school of design in Germany, started in 1919. The concept centered on the idea that art and design should be merged to be responsive to the engineering needs of the industrial world.
"It was a utopian vision of honesty and transparency," said Unger, a former Knoll designer.
Knoll's business shifted after he married designer Florence Schust in 1946. She pioneered the idea of office design, integrating furniture, function, lighting, and fabric.
Before that, Unger said, office furniture was a commodity, ordered out of a catalog.
Florence Knoll is the subject of the university's exhibit, which closes Dec. 15.
Exhibit photographs picture her interviewing executives about how they did their work, then using that information to create scale models to show clients.
It seems so ordinary now, but "that never happened before," Unger said. "They changed the way the interior-design business happened."
The duo developed a business model of contracting with the best designers of the day - among them Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Marcel Breuer, and Harry Bertoia.
Then, in-house engineers would make the designs feasible for manufacturing.
That model, which remains today, continued even after Hans Knoll died in 1955 and Florence Knoll, 94, took over the company. She now lives in Florida.
So important and renowned was the company's commitment to design that the Louvre museum in Paris exhibited Knoll's work in 1972. In 2005, the Philadelphia Museum of Art also featured Knoll's work. And in October, the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum presented Knoll with its prestigious national design award for corporate and institutional achievement.
As a business, Knoll's fortunes roughly followed the economy's. Starting in 1983, Knoll vacillated between private and public control - going public three times, most recently in 2004, led by current chief executive Andrew Cogan.
Cogan pushed a major investment in design and manufacturing and was at the helm for the introduction of Knoll's big-selling Life chair.
These days, the company assembles the majority of its furniture in factories in North America - two in Michigan, one in Toronto, and one in East Greenville - relying on components manufactured in the United States and elsewhere.
Contact staff writer Jane M.
Von Bergen at 215-854-2769