Design Profession: Furniture Designer, Interior Designer
Building Types: Commercial, Cultural
Florence Knoll (Bassett), the woman who served as president and creative director of the Knoll Furniture company from 1955 to 1965, one of the companies most inventive periods, was born Florence Schust in 1917 to an affluent family in the former lumbering town of Saginaw, Michigan. Knoll’s father passed away at a young age in 1922, and her mother in 1929, leaving her an orphan. While in search of a school to attend, Knoll and her guardian visited the newly opened Kingswood School for Girls at Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan designed by Eliel Saarinen. Inspired by the beauty of both Saarinen’s design and the exquisite interiors created by Cranbrook’s faculty artists, Knoll chose to enroll at Kingswood.
At Kingswood, she encountered architect Rachel de Wolf Raseman, a graduate of Cornell University, who served as art director at Kingswood. As one of only two hundred practicing female architects in the United States, Raseman became a mentor to Knoll, encouraging her to pursue her interests in architecture and design. As part of her studies Knoll created a house design in 1932. “My first impression was of Eliel Saarinen because he’s the person who came down to Kingswood to see this little girl who was designing a house; and he was charming, and modest, and thoughtful in talking to me,” recalled Knoll. Impressed by her talent, Eliel Saarinen encouraged her to stay at Cranbrook and enter its Academy of Art upon her graduation from Kingswood School in 1934. From that point on she became a de facto member of the Saarinen family, spending summers with them at their home in Finland and traveling with them throughout Europe. She was “Dear little Florence” to Loja Saarinen, Eliel’s wife and an accomplished weaver, whom Knoll said “stimulated my interest in texture and color.” She was “Shu” to Eero Saarinen, who treated her like a sister and encouraged her in her work, and suggested she design the furnishings for her Cranbook dorm room. The Saarinen family was a fundamental influence on Knoll's development as a designer, her work, design philosophy, and aesthetic.
Knoll studied at Cranbrook for a year before attending the Columbia University School of Architecture as a special student in the Town Planning Program from 1935-1936. After which she returned to Cranbrook to continue her studies in the school’s architecture program.
In 1936 while staying with the Saarinens in Finland, Knoll spoke with architect Alvar Aalto about advanced architectural training. At his suggestion, she entered the Architectural Association in London where she studied until the impending war with Germany forced her to return to the United States. For a short time she apprenticed with Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, whom Joseph Hudnut had just brought to the Harvard Graduate School of Design from Europe. She then entered the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) to study with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whom she acknowledged as one of the “profound” influences on her design approach. Knoll graduated from IIT in 1941 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture.
By the time she was twenty-four, Knoll had trained with the greatest modern designers and architects of the twentieth century. Ready to unleash her own talents, she moved to New York City in 1941 to pursue architectural work. It was there that she met Hans Knoll, the owner of a fledgling furniture company dedicated to modern design.
Hans G. Knoll came from a furniture manufacturing family in Stuttgart, Germany, founded in 1865. The family business produced traditional furniture until Walter Knoll, Hans’ father, took the helm and reinvented the company based on the design principles of the Werkbund and the Bauhaus. In 1927 Walter Knoll worked with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius to produce furniture they had designed for the Werkbund’s Die Wohnung exhibition in Stuttgart. This association with the Bauhaus laid the foundation for Hans Knoll’s interest in producing modern furniture. With war imminent, Hans left Europe and arrived in New York City in 1937. There he started his own furniture company, the Hans G. Knoll Furniture Company. He acquired the rights from a few small companies in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to distribute conventional style chairs. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Grand Rapids had been known as the “furniture capital of America” producing popular period reproduction furniture pieces.
Hans Knoll and Florence Schust met while working on government contract work for the war, which included designing an office for United States Secretary of War Harry Stimson. Hans hired Florence to moonlight on projects for the Hans G. Knoll Furniture Company. In 1943, Florence Schust came to work for Hans Knoll full time. Her roll within the company was to refocus and provide a new direction for Knoll and the Knoll furniture portfolio, ultimately taking on the role of director of design.
In 1946 Hans and Florence were married and the Hans G. Knoll Furniture Company was renamed Knoll Associates. One of Florence Knoll’s most significant contributions to the new company was the establishment of the Knoll Planning Unit, for which she held the role of director. “The mission of the Knoll Planning Unit was to create the visual language of the modern office interior and to make it inhabitable.” The Knoll Planning Unit revolutionized the way architects, designers, and businesses thought about building interiors and how people use and interact with them. Knoll and her work with the Knoll Planning Unit helped to establish a new profession, that of the interior designer. Design professionals were needed to fill the void left during the building boom of modern commercial towers after the Second World War.
The Knoll Planning Unit was pushed to the forefront of modern design thanks to Howard Meyers, then-editor of Architectural Forum.
With Meyers’ vocal support, the Knoll Planning Unit received a high-profile commission—designing the Rockefeller family offices in Rockefeller Center in 1946. Nelson Rockefeller was more than pleased with Florence’s work, which he praised for its rare and “effective blending of good taste, originality, and administrative ability.” Of the many commissions the Knoll Planning Unit received, some of the most notable are: Connecticut General Life Insurance Company Headquarters in Hartford; Heinz Research Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Southeast Bank of Miami, Florida. For the next nine years, until Hans Knoll’s death in an automobile accident in 1955, their combined talent and skills took Knoll Associates to the vanguard of international modern design.
The “Knoll Look”
Florence Knoll brought a unique outlook to Knoll Associates. The combination of the total design training received at Cranbrook and the design clarity obtained from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more” philosophy was the impetus for her to reinvent the American corporate office. According to curator R. Craig Miller, “She learned the lessons of industrial design from the Bauhaus, a purity and elegance from Mies, and the concept of total design from Eliel Saarinen. The resultant style—the “Knoll Look”—was so pervasive that it came to symbolize American interior design in the 1950s and sixties.” The “Knoll Look” was based on Florence Knoll’s innovative design approach to furniture, textiles, color, space planning, and graphics. It was enhanced by the artists that she and Hans brought into the production process.
Much of Knoll Associates success came from the relationships Knoll had forged during her years at Cranbrook. She remained strong friends with the student and faculty designers she had met there and asked them to create new designs for the company soon after she joined it. One of the first was Ralph Rapson, with whom Knoll produced the Rapson line featuring the iconic Rapson Rocker. Later she brought in Henry Bertoia whose classic Diamond wire chairs were first produced by Knoll in 1952. Undoubtedly her most successful collaborations were with Eero Saarinen. In 1946 Knoll produced Saarinen’s Grasshopper Chair, a laminated wood frame with webbed seating made from parachute straps. What followed became a modern classic—Saarinen’s Womb Chair (Model 70) introduced in 1948. This large lounge chair was an immediate critical success and became a signature piece for both Saarinen and Knoll Associates.
Saarinen asked Knoll to assist with the furnishings for his groundbreaking General Motors Technical Center commission in 1950. For that project, Knoll Associates fabricated Saarinen’s fiber-reinforced polyester resin chair, Model 72, which was used in the Technical Center’s employee cafeteria. Saarinen’s Model 71 chair, on a swivel base, became a staple in American offices. One of Saarinen’s most recognizable designs for Knoll is the Pedestal or Tulip chair introduced in 1958. Over the years other Cranbrook associates worked with Knoll including: Don Albinson, Niels Diffrient, and Don Knorr. Hans and Florence Knoll also brought significant designers from around the world to work with the company: Hans Bellman of Switzerland, Pierre Jeanneret of France, Franco Albini of Italy, and Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy from Argentina, who designed the ubiquitous “Butterfly Chair” which Knoll marketed in the late 1940s. In 1950 Florence Knoll worked with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to update and reintroduced his classic Barcelona chair.
Knoll was accomplished at designing furniture in her own right, with pieces that made up a significant portion of the Knoll Associates portfolio. Though, she never wanted to be limited to the title of “furniture designer,” Knoll’s most famous pieces include a series of tufted pieces (sofa, lounge chair, bench), desks, coffee tables, conference tables, end tables, credenzas and other case goods.
Florence Knoll’s search for total design caused her to focus not only on the architectural frame of a furniture piece but also on its textile covering. Having trained with weavers Loja Saarinen and Marianne Strengell at Cranbrook, Knoll was sensitive to fabric texture and color. She wanted to create something modern that differed from the standard damasks and flower chintzes popular at the time. During the war years, she experimented with the use of men’s suiting materials, upholstering her furniture designs in the English tweeds and flannels and Scottish linens she came to love while studying at the Architectural Association in London. After the war she brought numerous textile artists and designers to work with the company including Strengell, Noémi Raymond (wife of architect Antonin Raymond) and Swedish designer Josef Frank. Her work with Eero Saarinen on the General Motors Technical Center spurred Knoll to experiment with the use of synthetic fibers in textiles. With Hungarian designer Eszter Haraszty, Knoll created “transportation cloth” in 1950. Recognized as the “the first industrial fabric,” it was later widely used as automobile upholstery.
The “Knoll Look” was defined, in part, by the Swiss graphic artist Herbert Matter whom the Knoll’s hired in 1946. Knoll worked closely with him on all marketing related to the company to create a brand that was easily recognizable and that encompassed the modern ideology the company embraced. In 1951 Knoll designed the first Knoll Showroom on Madison Avenue in New York City. The outstanding modern space served to brand the look of Knoll Associates. R. Craig Miller former curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art once said, “Along with the Eames installations for Herman Miller, the Knoll Showroom established ‘a new look in American interior design’ in the 1950s. Charles Eames, a friend and competitor, wrote admiringly of Knoll’s showrooms and work in general, “Each time I go East I see something you have done. It is always good, and I feel grateful to you for doing such good work in a world where mediocrity is the norm.”
When Hans Knoll died in 1955 Florence took over as president of the company and continued to serve as its creative director. In 1959 she married banker Harry Hood Bassett and moved to Florida. Though she sold her stock in the company and retired as Knoll’s president, she continued to work with the company as creative director until 1965. During that time she brought renowned designers like Warren Platner, Charles Pollock, and Richard Shultz to the company. Her final corporate commission for Knoll was the CBS Building in New York, designed by Eero Saarinen and completed by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo after Saarinen’s death in 1961.
Florence Knoll passed away on January 25, 2019 at age 101.