Architect Ralph Rapson may be a household word, especially among aficionados of mid-century modern architecture. But few likely know of the creative talents of his first wife, Shirley Fletcher. Just out of high school in 1941, Shirley enrolled in the Intermediate School at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Like many other students of the day, she spent time in various departments, but found her niche in the weaving department under Marianne Strengell. While here, she developed a series of block-printed textile designs. Though she did not continue past her first year (she left to marry Ralph!), Shirley continued to design textiles after she left Cranbrook.
In 1944, Hans Knoll and Ralph Rapson (who was designing furniture at the time for Knoll) discussed the formation of a textile division within Knoll. Their idea was to introduce contemporary textiles that would complement the modern furniture being produced by the company. The following year, Rapson brought Shirley’s designs to the attention of Hans Knoll and her textile “Isles” became one of the earliest printed fabrics at Knoll. Marianne Strengell may also have contributed to Knoll’s decision to feature “Isles” which was published as part of an assemblage of Academy of Art student “textile studies” in the July 1945 issue of Arts and Architecture.
In October, Hans Knoll wrote Rapson that even though they were “very anxious to do something with Shirley’s fabrics,” due to the shortage of materials during the war, they had to wait until adequate supplies of cloth could be acquired. The pattern was slightly altered (notice the solid in-fill blocks) when Florence Schust Knoll used “Isles” for drapery in the Rockefeller family offices at Rockefeller Center in 1946.
The Knoll Textile Division debuted in February 1947 in a new Knoll showroom in New York. Shirley Rapson textiles were part of the collection (a slightly different version of “Isles” was offered in four different color ways), along with designs by Cranbrook’s Marianne Strengell and Antoinette “Toni” Webster Prestini.
– Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist