First Lady of Modern Interior Design
By Don West
It is difficult to encapsulate in one phrase all the beauty and distinction that attend the name of Florence Knoll. She forged a place for herself among the greatest designers of the 20th century, and was noted for her association with so many who occupy that rank. Mies van der Rohe. Eero Saarinen. Charles Eames. Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Hans Knoll, whose own name she added to hers by marriage at mid-century.
(She will be known forever to this writer for the desk at which he sits today, and for a chance meeting in a New York elevator when she turned to him with a smile and said: “I like that tie.”)
Florence Marguerite Schust Knoll Bassett (known as “Shu” among friends and family) was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on May 24, 1917. As she related in an early interview, “my father was Swiss and emigrated to the United States as a young man. While studying to become an engineer, he met my mother at college. Unfortunately, they both had short life spans, and I was orphaned at an early age. One of my strong memories of my father was when he showed me blueprints on his desk. They seemed enormous to a five-year-old, but nonetheless I was enchanted by them.” Arrangements were made for her education at Kingswood School and the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where she studied under Eliel Saarinen. “My interest in design and future career began there,” and she went on to study furniture making with Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames. Later, at the Architectural Association in London, she was influenced by Le Corbusier’s international style.
She received a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the Armour Institute (now Illinois Institute of Technology) in 1941. Later, she worked for Gropius and Breuer and studied under Mies van der Rohe. Hans Knoll had founded his furniture company in New York in 1938 and she joined him in 1943. They married in 1946 and founded Knoll Associates. She would take over that company when he died after an automobile accident in 1955, and many of her designs are still featured to this day. (She would later marry Harry Hood Bassett, a prominent Miami banking executive who died in 1991.)
Knoll and the planning unit she headed from 1943 to 1971 had a radical influence on American office environments, beginning by replacing the traditional, heavy, carved mahogany desks with lighter designs, and redesigned conference tables into a boat-shape so that people could see one another. Knoll said she was not a furniture designer but designed pieces only when the existing collection didn’t meet her needs. Almost half of the pieces in the Knoll collection were her designs, including tables, desks, chairs, sofas, benches and stools.
Florence Knoll’s own most famous architectural creations are the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company headquarters in Bloomfield, CT, and the interior of the CBS Building in New York City. Among her honors are the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal for Industrial Design (the first woman recipient), the International Design Award of the American institute of Interior Designers, and the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest award to artists, presented by President George W. Bush in 2002.
In recognition of her long career with that company and design in general, the Knoll company prepared a special presentation noting that “as 2017 comes to a close, we’re looking back at a year of celebrating Florence Knoll, who turned 100 in May.” It referred to her as “the First Lady of Design” who had succeeded in a field dominated by men and became “the arbiter of modern design in mid-century America and built a brand that continues to lead the way.” A link to that presentation is presented here for the benefit of readers who will want to know more about one of their most distinguished contemporaries.