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A Brief History of Knolling, AKA Overhead Photography

by Caitlin Kelch

I can’t tell you how many moments I spend reframing overhead object photography in mind. Can we suspend these objects from the ceiling with string? Can we line them up vertically on floating shelves that blend into the background, or is that just creepy? Seeing beautiful images from an overhead view is generally a lovely experience. But how many can I truly appreciate after a full day on the Internet? I find myself asking, “Is that all there is?” and, more importantly, where the heck did this ubiquitous method come from? So I did some research. (Image above by Alea Toussaint for our digital wallpaper series. Download it for your device here.)

Flat lay photography has actually been kicking around for nearly 30 years. With its pretty, clean presentation, it turns objects into specimens — ripe for the viewer to project a piece or two onto her own inner landscape. It must be one of the brain’s truly favorite image styles, allowing us to mix and match a macaroon onto our decidedly unremarkable countertop. So satisfying in a fantasy context — these images tickle our desire response when we see the objects in real-life.

Here’s what I found out about this trend.

Flat lay photography is nicknamed “knolling,” and technically speaking, involves objects arranged at a 90° angle from each other and then photographed from above. The nickname “knolling” came from a custodian at architect Frank Gehry’s furniture store. Really. You see, at the time (1987) Gehry was designing furniture for Knoll and that custodian, one Andrew Kromelow, would roam the store after it closed, searching for and collecting any tools that were left out. Instead of quickly putting the tools in their place, he would arrange them on a flat surface at right angles to one another. He called this “knolling” because it reminded him of the angles in Florence Knoll‘s furniture.

Portrait of Florence Knoll. Courtesy of Knoll, Inc. via Artsy.net / Furniture shown is available on Knoll.com

Shortly after Andrew Kromelow coined the term “knolling,” artist and sculptor Tom Sachs picked it up. Sachs, who also worked with Frank Gehry, turned the then little-known technique into “a thing.”

Tom Sachs’ 2009 zine “Ten Bullets” (source)

With the rise of the Internet and social media, “knolling” became the standard to present everything from DIY materials, to recipe ingredients, tabletop designs and, of course, products for sale.

Image above by @davidgrr on Instagram

We’ve seen knolling incorporate objects of all shapes and sizes that didn’t lend themselves to 90° placement, and so the trend continues to morph. The once-standard neutral backgrounds circa 1987 have made way for colorful, pattered backgrounds where just about anything goes.

Image above: Art directed by Alea Toussaint, Client: Zespri Kiwi / Target, Agency: Colle+McVoy, Credits: Ed Bennet, Michael Seitz

While Andrew Kromelow’s symmetrical knolling allowed for each individual object to be seen in a purely formal way, modern day knolling has become a lifestyle vibe, as in “these objects = my lifestyle.” Artists have also taken to the technique to create images of thoughtfully arranged collections and assembled found-object tributes.

I’ll continue ruminating on what may come after knolling, but it sure looks like it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. If anyone is working on or imagining a viable “knolling” alternative, let me know in the comments. Seriously — I need to know what’s next! –Caitlin

Some favorite flat lays:

Donut flat lay by @taramilktea on Instagram

Magnolia leaf flat lay by @emilyblincoe on Instagram

Floral deconstruction flat lay by @emilyblincoe on Instagram

Popsicle flat lay by @thepinkdiary on Instagram

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