The Ultimate Mom: Florence Knoll The Design Pioneer

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We’ve touched on Florence Knoll’s legacy before and we thought there was no better mom to highlight this Mother’s Day weekend – there’s just so much to reflect on! Her endless contributions to women in the workplace, modern product design, and scope of the interior design industry have changed the game for all of us.

Navigating the male dominated Post-War world within the confines of a traditionally woman dominated industry turned the design world on its head. She proved that women and mothers, can do it better and with a little more finesse – showing her children and nine grandchildren that balance of work and life is possible.

So let’s learn her design story

KNOLL BEGINNINGS

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 – acquiring licenses to produce the furniture of other designers which at the time was a pretty uncommon practice. Think the likes of Mies van der Rohe, Breuer, Bertoia, all her friends and her teachers were eventually part of her meticulous system to share pieces from independent designers.

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 Revitalization of the Post-War Workplace

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.

“The Planning Unit existed because of my background in architecture, it was the very first furniture company [that] ever had a planning department.” – Florence Knoll

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.

An example of a pasteup

The unit never surpassed eight designers, and Florence felt like it couldn’t have worked with a larger group of people. This created an intimate environment for clients and a place for those on the team to learn from Florence’s prowess.

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.

A New Textile Standard

Vintage Knoll Textiles Swatches

Due to this groundwork and close contact with clients, she began to notice gaps in the Knoll portfolio and designing to fill them. As she once said: “It became apparent to me that suitable textiles were not available for our furniture and interiors.” This led her to establish that second key sect of the business, a textile program that we know now as Knoll Textiles.

Florence invented the use of small memo 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 interior design industry.

Fun fact: A separate Knoll showroom devoted entirely to textiles opened, initially including fabrics intended for men’s suiting sourced from Florence’s time at the Architectural Association in London. She realized the need for a memo sample by requesting that her custom sourced European style menswear fabrics had samples attached to the spec sheets.

Stylistically and artistically, Florence laid the foundation for Knoll’s creative 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

FLORENCE’S DESIGNS

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 a wide variety of 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.

In January, the design icon passed away at 101 years young. Her contributions to Knoll, the design world, and women in business are simply incalculable.

REMEMBERING FLORENCE KNOLL BASSETT, 1917-2019.

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