In January, the design icon known as Florence Knoll Bassett, “Shu” to her friends, and a leader in modern American design – passed away at 101 years young.
We wanted to pay homage to her in the only way we knew – tell her story, share her work, and reflect on all she’s contributed to design as we know it.
Florence was an orphan who through her foster family found herself attending a boarding school in Michigan designed by Eliel Saarinen. Through her interest in architecture, she ended up being taken under the Saarinen family wing (yes, that Saarinen family).
After Kingswood, Florence worked alongside Harry Bertoia at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and continued throughout her education to study and befriend most of the leading architects you know from the time – Aalvar, Breuer, van der Rohe, the list goes on.
According to Knoll Inc, “some of these early mentors would come to figure prominently in her future work at Knoll, but it was Mies who had perhaps the clearest influence on her signature approach to design: rigorous and methodical.”
Knoll Inc Beginnings
You may know that the beginnings of Knoll Inc (or early days, Knoll Associates) started as a partnership between Florence and her husband, Hans Knoll, developing their company from his family’s own furniture manufacturing mecca. Hans brought his experience and a true passion for bringing European modernism into American business ventures.
Florence, on the other hand, brought relationships from the design world that greatly influenced the company’s scope of product – all those friendships and mentorships came in handy! She also created two structural aspects of Knoll’s business that helped launch the company to success and gave footing for the rest of the industry to follow.
The Knoll Planning Unit
First up, is the Knoll Planning Unit, which was an interior design division of Knoll that Florence instituted to streamline projects for the company, and in turn, created standards that the design community still follows today. Modern A&D happenings that run smoothly and efficiently have Florence to thank.
She was prolific with visual planning techniques to attune to clients needs – think sketches, cardboard models called paste-ups, and passion that ran for outlining meticulous details. Post-War America was no match for the organization of Florence, and corporate design all the better for it – designing the spaces of big power players like IBM, GM, & CBS.
She instilled that good design was key to a functioning workplace, and it’s where she thrived. Because decorating space with accouterment wasn’t the goal in Florence’s mind, creating space anew was.
Due to this groundwork and close contact with clients, she began to notice gaps in the Knoll portfolio and designing to fill them. This led her to establish that second key sect of the business, a textile program that we know now as Knoll Textiles.
Florence revolutionized small fabric swatches (simply putting fabric on cardboard) for client presentations and their success led her to create a more formal sample and display system that became standard for the industry.
Stylistically and artistically, Florence laid the foundation for Knoll’s practices, but not without streamlining administrative and business tasks.
And her designs, follow a similar trajectory.
She frequently referred to the pieces she made as the “meat and potatoes” of the Knoll lineup, leaving other designers to tackle more artistic feats. She wanted her designs to solve problems, and embody the structural beauty of her architecture background.
“I designed the architectural [elements] that were needed to make the room work, things like the walls, [tables] and sofas.” – Florence Knoll
Many of Florence Knoll’s designs came about as solutions to commercial contract projects, before being brought on full-time for the Knoll lineup. By 1950, over a third of the 63 products offered by Knoll Associates had been designed by Florence. She designed tables, desks, chairs, sofas, benches, and stools.
Most widely known, perhaps, is her Lounge Collection consisting of a chair, settee, and sofa which celebrate Bauhaus tenets with a clear homage to her love for geometric, rational design. She also designed a series of end tables while casually revolutionizing the postwar American office, that are perfect representations of scaled-down, slim modernity.
Her contributions to Knoll, the design world, and women in business are simply incalculable. We’ll be waiting for Knoll to pull even more inspiration from the archives of her genius, but for now, just admire the complexity of her career and life.