August 01, 2019
Strength + Vision ~ Kneedler | Fauchère
A vintage image of (above) pioneering design purveyor Dorothy Kneedler Lawenda.
DOROTHY KNEEDLER LAWENDA’S DESIGN LEGACY
More than seventy years after Kneedler | Fauchère was founded, several lines that were discovered, brought into the fold, and mentored by the company’s founder, the late Dorothy Kneedler Lawenda, are still thriving. The showroom has represented Clarence House for more than half a century, Glant Textiles and Gregorius | Pineo for close to four decades, and Ironies furniture for 35 years. “It’s a testament to Dorothy’s exquisite eye and unwavering loyalty,” says Rocky Lafleur, a fifteen-year veteran of Kneedler | Fauchère. “When she brought a designer into the fold, they felt anointed. She, and her taste, were that revered.”
A San Francisco native, Dorothy was born in 1914 into the kind of privilege where women considered opera-length gloves and parasols de rigueur. By the age of 24 she was already a seasoned traveler, and after she married Edgar Kneedler, they took up residence in Manila to manage the Bayview Park Hotel, a luxury property owned by his father. In 1941, however, life changed abruptly and dramatically: after Japan invaded the Philippines, the couple and their daughter, Ann, were sent to the Santo Tomas Internment Camp. For the next four years, the family would be confined there, and in a French compound outside of Manila. It was in the compound that her path would cross with Lucien Fauchère. The young Parisian was living in Manila after her husband had been killed in the war; Fauchère befriended the Kneedler family, smuggling food into the compound and helping them through difficult times. When the war ended, the Kneedlers returned to San Francisco, and Fauchère chose to join them.
Unfortunately, the Kneedlers marriage did not survive the post-war transition, and they divorced soon after their return home. Now in her early thirties, and a single parent with three young children, Dorothy had life experience well beyond her years. She had endured World War II and experienced extreme wealth followed by extreme deprivation, but she was philosophical about it all. “She had a ‘take life as it comes’ attitude, and it made her adventurous,” says Doug Kinzley, Kneedler | Fauchère’s current president, who, along with co-owner and creative director George Massar, greatly admired Dorothy. “But like many innovators, she was modest about her accomplishments. She shrugged off her entrepreneurial successes as mere practical solutions.”
In 1948, Kneedler and Fauchère launched a tiny shop filled with hand-woven wall coverings imported from Asia that Dorothy had discovered when decorating the Bayview Hotel. The store’s popularity, along with Dorothy’s discernment and acumen, led her to pioneer the multi-line showroom concept and expand into upholstery, case goods, and lighting. Once she married Harry Lawenda in 1950, the inventory widened even more under his creative direction and included works by such design icons as Sam Maloof, Angelo Donghia, and Jack Lenor Larsen. In each of its incarnations, Kneedler | Fauchère has been a destination for design cognoscenti who appreciate the high standard of craftsmanship in its sophisticated yet earthy offerings.
“Dorothy and Harry enjoyed uncovering and nurturing new talent. They demystified the selling aspect for any number of up-and-coming designers who went on to become very successful,” recalls Larsen, who had just left graduate school and referred to himself as a weaver when he met the Lawendas. “They immediately treated me like an adopted son. I was made to feel important when I was anything but. Our main commonality was that we didn’t feel as if we were in the design business; we felt as if we were a part of the design movement.”
Holly Hunt remembers Dorothy as a force of nature. “She had a curiosity, a generosity, and a professional camaraderie that’s so rare. She thought of the lines she represented as her children, and when I left Kneedler | Fauchère in the Pacific Design Center to open my own space, there were no hard feelings,” says Hunt, who is still under the Kneedler | Fauchère umbrella in San Francisco and Denver. “In fact, I think part of her was proud, like I was a kid leaving home.”
“If I had to pick one word to describe Dorothy, it would be fearless,” says Gina Dewitt, president of the Kneedler | Fauchère showrooms. “I mean, she asked Harry out on a date the first time she met him. That was pretty forward in those days. She ran the company in the same instinctive, intuitive way. She constantly looked to the future and was always scoping out whatever was on the horizon. We still consider that to be a staple tradition.”
“Dorothy’s presence is still very much with us,” says Kinzley. “Sometimes, if we’re at an impasse during a meeting, one of us will ask, ‘What would Dorothy and Harry do?’ And of course, Dorothy loved to leap into new territory, so she’s still giving us permission to go for it and take risks.”