Hommage to Florence Knoll
I sadly learnt this January 25, that we lost the woman who created the corporate American style: Florence Marguerite Knoll Bassett. Florence Knoll was an architect and furniture designer that heavily influenced modernism, furniture design, and American office space. Florence was also known for her part in Knoll, Inc which created some of the most tasteful and notorious pieces of furniture that remain a success to this day.
Born May 24th, 1917 in Saginaw, Michigan, to a baker, Florence Schust is orphaned at age 12. At a very early age, Florence seemed to demonstrate an interest in design and architecture around her. She later went on to attend the Kingswood School for Girls. The school happened to be adjacent to the Cranbrook Academy of Art where architect Eilel Saarinen ( father of Eero Saarinen) worked. Over time, Florence started befriending this architect who would later be her professor. She was always accepted by the Saarinen family and sometimes even traveled with them to their country of origin: Finland. She was experiencing the constant company of their accomplished friends and formed a very close relationship with the Saarinen son, Eero.
This relationship and education of design submerged young Florence into a world of drawing and she developed an obsession for studying the spaces around her. Florence surely became skillful and well connected in the architecture sphere early on and went on to study under great 20th-century architects including Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She then enrolled at the Illinois Institute of Technology where she was mentored by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
After her studies, Florence moved to New York City in 1941 and met Hans Knoll who was in the process of establishing a furniture company. The two married in 1946 and with Florence’s design skills and Hans’ business acumen and salesmanship, the company grew successful. Eventually, with the contributions of her friends Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, and Mies van der Rohe, Knoll became an international arbiter of style and design.
The Knoll Planning Unit
By creating the revolutionary Knoll Planning Unit, Florence Knoll redefined the standard for the modern corporate interiors of post-war America. With the knowledge she had acquired from her background in architecture and the style her mentors instilled in her, Florence brought in the modern ideas of efficiency and simplicity into American offices. She never saw herself as decorating spaces but rather creating them.
The Planning Unit was a Knoll organization that was responsible for researching and surveying the needs of each client. This unit had to define patterns of use and understand the company’s structure and hierarchies before presenting a comprehensive design. These designs were always dominated by the principles of modernism and beautifully executed in signature Knoll style. Florence Knoll and the Planning Unit were responsible for America’s largest offices, including IBM, GM, and CBS.
Remembering Florence Knoll
After the tragic death of her husband, Hans in 1955, Florence Knoll led the company as president until 1960 where she resigned the position and devote more of her time on directing design. Although her work had always been important and revolutionary, Florence was a humble woman and said her designs were only fillers to the creations of the other designers she collaborated with. After pioneering an industry and defining the landscape and aesthetic of the corporate office, Florence Knoll Bassett (who had remarried) retired from the company in 1965.
Her contributions to Knoll, and to the rise of modernism in America, are immeasurable. I am personly touched by her death, I have always had high admiration for this historical figure of modern design. I remember when my mother used to work for Knoll in France an I would play with my little brother in the furniture showroom. Knoll had always been a part of my life and it pains to hear that the creator of the objects that surrounded my childhood has passed.
Although her life was long-lived, her creations remain immortal.