One of the early, and deeply influential, forces behind the rise of Knoll Associates as a leader in American modern design was Michigan born Ralph Rapson (1914- 2008). An architect, designer and entrepreneur, Rapson was educated at the University of Michigan and then Cranbrook Academy of Arts. At Cranbrook he met Florence Schust who would later become Hans Knoll's wife and would introduce him to the Knoll company. Over a long and productive career, it was this connection that probably brought him the broadest recognition and made his furnituredesigns iconic of the new postwar style.
As an architect, Rapson served as one of the leaders of the New Bauhaus in Chicago, and established an early reputation for his experimental concept houses like the 1939 "Cave House" and "Fabric House," and the 1945 "Greenbelt House" which was the magazine Arts & Architecture's Case Study House #4. A residual trace of this push towards nontraditional forms can be found in his 1974 "Glass Cube" house in Wisconsin. Rapson served as the Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota from 1954-1984, and is known for his 1963 design of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. He also worked for the U.S. Government's Department of Foreign Buildings in the1950s, after striking a deal that any work he did would be furnished with Knoll furniture. From thisperiod, Rapson is best known for the U.S. Embassy buildings in Stockholm and Copenhagen.
Rapson's furniture designs employed pioneering materials and processes developing at the time for mass production. He expressed his commitment to these emerging materials in a 1945 Christian Science Monitor interview by saying that "these new things are not breaking with tradition, but are returning to the very best tradition. In any period, good design was the outgrowth of that civilization, an expression of the times." In 1945, with this in mind, he helped Knoll launch their 'Equipment for Living' series of furniture, created to pique the interest of a public distracted by the war. The program was commissioned by the Kellett Aircraft Corporation, who requested that the pieces be made in metal. Rapson's proposal for an outdoor line featuring a tea trolley, side table and lounge proved to be overwhelmingly successful, and the Knoll Planning Unit created 'Thermalware' accessories like cocktail shakers and ice buckets to accompany the furniture. Knoll then released the Rapson Line in 1945, which included his now classic "Rapson Rocker." The pieces were solid and playful organic designs, elegantly executed under the wartime materials restrictions. Knoll sold the line to Bloomingdale's in 1945, who then took out a full page advertisement for the rocker in the New York Times, holding it up as an example of aninnovative and attractive modern take on a traditional piece.
Throughout the 1950s, having achieved some household recognition, Rapson and his wife Mary became local arbiters of modern taste with their Boston store, Rapson, Inc. The couple sold Rapson's furniture, as well as George Nelson furniture and objects, Harry Bertoia jewelry and pieces from both the Knoll and Herman Miller collections. They also imported pieces that they found to be integral to the energy of modern design like porcelain from Germany and Marimekko textiles from Finland.