Florence Knoll Bassett
Written by Peggy Deamer, Yale School of Architecture
Born on May 24, 1917, in Saginaw, Michigan, Florence Knoll (also known professionally as Florence Knoll Bassett) became one of the most influential architects and designers in postwar America. Architect, interior designer, furniture designer, textile innovator, production impresario—she was all of these things, yet her imprint on American modern design transcended any one of these specific fields.
Early Life and Education
Florence Margaret Schust (or “Shu,” as she was known to her family and friends), the only child of an engineer, Frederick E. Schust, and his wife Mina, was orphaned when she was fourteen and became the ward of the Second National Bank in Saginaw and its president, Emile A. Tessin, who was a friend of the family. Offered a choice of schools to attend, she chose the Kingswood School, associated with the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, thereby setting her future path. The close relationship she forged there with Eliel Saarinen (the father of Eero Saarinen) and his family became the foundation of her design aesthetic and the contacts she would draw upon in the future. After graduating from high school in 1934, Florence attended Cranbrook Academy for two years—on Eliel’s advice— and then went to New York to study architecture at Columbia University. She pursued further studies at the Architectural Association, London, for two years, and traveled with the Saarinens in Europe during the summers. In September 1939, as World War II was breaking out in Europe, Knoll returned to the U.S. and worked briefly for Walter Gropius and his Bauhaus protégé Marcel Breuer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the fall of 1940, she enrolled at the Armour Institute of Chicago (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) to complete her bachelor of architecture degree, which she received in 1941. As she later said, her time there studying with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was “a year, a very valuable year.”
After graduating, Florence worked at various offices—Herbert Bayer, Raymond Loewy, and Richard Marsh Bennett—before she got a job with the newly formed firm of Harrison, Abramovitz, and Fouilhoux, the architects of Rockefeller Center. She was assigned to their interiors department, which was standard for women architects in those days. At that time, she also began moonlighting for Hans Knoll, who had come to the U.S. in 1938 and, in 1940, had founded his modern furniture company, Hans G. Knoll Furniture. He offered her the assignment of designing the office of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, and she soon became Knoll’s interiors specialist.
Career in Architecture
In 1943, when she began working full-time at Knoll, World War II limited production work for anything unrelated to the war effort: it was difficult to find clients and to manufacture furniture. Wood was the only available material, glues were poor, and suitable fabrics were difficult to obtain. Struggling with her designers to overcome the scarcity of materials, she established the company’s style of clean lines and bright colors. She also convinced Hans to bring architects into their firm to help generate business in the wartime economy, since the two of them knew many architects. This strategy also addressed her frustration with the Knoll company’s collection and showrooms, which she regarded as too “Danish.” They assured the architects that each of them would be credited by name and paid royalties for their designs.
They founded Knoll Associates, Inc., in 1946; two months later, they got married, and she became a full partner in the business that same year. Hans was the charismatic salesman, while Florence was the arbiter of taste. In 1950, they established a new furniture factory in East Greenville in eastern Pennsylvania, a region chosen because it was populated with skilled German-American craftsmen, as well as with many young men returning home from the war. The early years were difficult, but the business eventually took off. They had been correct in assuming that modern architecture, taking root in America after the war, would require modern furnishings—and that the major showcase of this modern furniture would be the corporate offices, a symbol of modern American economic achievement.
Florence Knoll ran the Knoll Planning Unit, which was the locus of the interior design department responsible for the company’s showrooms and design projects. Never staffed with more than six to eight designers, it was the engine of the firm’s corporate success and aesthetic achievement. It brought architecture, furniture, fabric, and spatial planning together, probably for the first time in American design culture. The May 1945 issue of Arts and Architecture described the Knoll Planning Unit as “the force which integrates all the various related activities” of the company, with the objective of placing “well designed ‘equipment for living’ within the reach of a large consumer market.” Over the following decade, Knoll Associates kept expanding: Knoll Textiles was established in 1947; the first showroom, designed by Florence Knoll, opened in New York in 1948, with others in Chicago, San Francisco, and Dallas soon following; factories and showrooms were opened in Stuttgart, Paris, and Milan, taking advantage of U.S. funding available through the Marshall Plan (funds that could only be spent in Europe); and Knoll’s furniture was displayed in the Museum of Modern Art.
In 1955, Hans died in a car accident in Cuba, and Florence Knoll took over the operations of the company until 1960, when she retired as the company’s president and became director of design (she left the company entirely in 1965). Young people with talent flocked to the firm in order to work with her, and sales rose steadily until 1971, the year the Planning Unit closed. She proved against skeptics that the business would not only continue after Hans’s death, but prosper. The General Motors Company Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1955–56, gave the firm its biggest commission to date, with Saarinen collaborating on all the furniture. The firm’s next largest commission, the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, was completed in 1957. Here, Florence Knoll managed the whole interior package, and the entire Planning Unit vision—spatial organization, furniture choice and design, fabric samples, and color palette—was on full display. As Richard Schultz, one of the principal designers working with her on the General Life project, said, “We were going along doing what we wanted to do and we didn’t know we were making history. . . . (Mrs. Knoll’s) attitude about product development was ‘we do what we want to do’—she never looked round and saw what other people were doing.”
Beyond contributing to what might be seen as the postwar Americanization of European labor and aesthetics, Florence Knoll regendered, literally and symbolically, the various design fields in which she worked. Aesthetically, her Planning Unit transformed “interior design” from interior decoration (often associated with women) to spatial architecture, which in the 1950s was almost exclusively a male arena. The Planning Unit replaced traditional office design of heavy, carved mahogany desks with modern, lighter designs. It also changed the heretofore pervasive office formula—a desk placed at a diagonal with a table set parallel behind it, a few scattered chairs around the edges and glassed-in book case—for more dynamic spatial arrangements. The walls themselves were coded by bold material distinctions: an entire wall of glass or marble, a plastered ceiling with recessed lights, a light beige wood floor. Interiors described the Planning Unit as “a proving ground for a group of young designers with architectural and engineering background, who refuse to compromise with the taste of a dictatorial public.” It attracted the top designers of the period, both men and women.
Professionally, Knoll brought a new level of standards and ethics to interior design as a profession. Many of the contemporary principles of the profession—supporting the program of a space, comprehending the scale and detailing appropriate for a building’s interior, understanding human behavior and how building spaces are used, contributing to office workers’ satisfaction and productivity, and collaborating with others to create interior environments within a business structure—were established by her and are still operative today. One of her most important contributions was the introduction of “open plan work stations,” which offered clients great flexibility and liberated secretaries from dark, interior office cells. She also originated the now-common interior design practice of providing “paste-ups”—the use of boards showing the plan of the space with fabric swatches, wood chips, and other materials attached to it, allowing clients to better understand the arrangement and tactile qualities of the space; in this way, she changed the professional mode of communicating with clients as well as what interiors would look like.
In the Textile Division, begun in 1947, she hired a number of talented women, both Americans and European émigrés, who introduced innovative weaving techniques and designs into the American design economy. The textiles of Eszter Haraszty (who headed the division from 1950 to 1955), Anni Albers, Evelyn Hill Anselevicius, Suzanne Huguenin, Noémi Raymond, Astrid Sampe, Gunta Stölzl, Marianne Strengell, and Ilse Voight became staples of the division. These women were celebrated in the design industry not just as weavers but as design visionaries. Indeed, textiles became central to Knoll’s marketing. Many of the ads for Knoll displayed fabrics featuring a variety of abstract qualities; they made perfect graphic specimens. Florence Knoll also understood that in her “paste-ups,” the fabrics’ textural appeal provided a seductive counterbalance to the challenging minimal design, leading the client to agree to the overall spatial proposal.
In the Furniture Division, Knoll also brought in the designs of the European émigré architects/designers for which the firm is well known: the Barcelona and Brno chairs by Mies van der Rohe; the Womb, Grasshopper, and molded “#71” chairs by Eero Saarinen; the Bertoia side chair by Harry Bertoia; the “Albini” desk and leather armchair by Franco Albini; the Scissor chair by Pierre Jeanneret; and the Cesca and Wassily chairs by Marcel Breuer. But her role was greater than mere furniture commissioner: she was the one who saw how classic and new designs might fill the gap in the corporate furniture market. The Barcelona chair provided large-scale lobby furniture for new corporate office buildings; the Saarinen Womb chair was needed, Knoll explained, “because I was sick and tired of those chairs that held you in one position.” And when the famous designer chairs didn’t answer the spatial needs of the office, she designed the pieces herself, making them, as she said, “the meat and potatoes” of the collection. “Eero and Bertoia did the stars and I did the fill-in. . . . I did it because I needed the piece of furniture for a job and it wasn’t there, so I designed it.” She designed nearly half the collection. The pieces she created—clean, geometric objects that displayed their structural supports—have themselves become classics.
Knoll also possessed remarkable business acumen, and used art as a form of marketing in its own right. The Knoll showrooms, which she thought of as research labs, received design awards and were featured in magazine articles; they made the showroom a kind of aesthetic model, not just a salesroom, thereby establishing a standard for an overall interior aesthetic, not just for a style of furniture. The Knoll ads devised by graphic designer Herbert Matter (an émigré artist known for his pioneering work in photomontage)—the company’s design consultant for graphics from 1946 to 1966—were likewise works of art, raising the bar for corporate sophistication, originality, and consumer appeal. At the production end, as Bob Longwell, manager of quality control at the East Greenville plant, said, “Having worked with Shu, I knew what a stickler she was. She had the greatest design eye of anybody in the business. . . . She was . . . ,” he paused, “she was something else.”
In 1958, Florence Knoll married Harry Hood Bassett, a Florida banker, and a year later sold her interest in Knoll Associates, Inc. to Art Metal. In 1960, she retired from the presidency but continued to work for the company as a consultant and as its design director. Her last big project began when CBS president Frank Stanton asked her to finish the interiors of the Eero Saarinen-designed CBS Building on Sixth Avenue and Fifty-Third Street in New York (1961–64). He believed that she alone had the vision, taste, and ability to put “The Rock” on a par with Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building. The interiors she designed for CBS in 1963 were the culmination of a career that both defined an aesthetic for American corporate modernism and placed a woman as a leading innovator of American culture. Her spatially minimal but visually vibrant aesthetic had never been sharper than at CBS. In the president’s office, the natural materials forming the walls and floors of the rooms—wood, marble, hemp, wool—disengage the six planes of the enclosure to deemphasize volume and stress surface. They create the backdrop of the abstract composition formed by the objects—the chairs, paintings, shelves, cabinets, the sculpture—that play against these surfaces. The furniture and art objects—the suspended credenza, the single-slab desk, the two Brno chairs, the abstract sculptures—are reduced to the simplest profiles, which establish exacting spatial geometries or utilize curves to provide a contrast with other architectural lines. The height of the furniture is low, allowing the vertical body to occupy a free, unencumbered space. The executive staff office is defined not by the planes of the walls—all dark brown—but by the light-colored furniture pieces that stand out independently. Conference rooms are entirely beige, with only the center of activity—the conference table itself—in contrasting dark brown mahogany.
The testimony of Lawrence R. Ryan, who became president of Knoll International in 1963, is telling:
I was brought to New York in 1963 . . . at the time of the CBS project. Until then, I didn’t know Mrs. Knoll except by reputation. This was a huge job, and she was completely in charge of every phase of it. The thing that struck me then was the awe in which everyone held her. Affection? From where I stood I would have to say not affection. Her objective was to produce absolute perfection. She was very professional, very cool, very self-contained. . . . (S)he wasn’t what you would call difficult. She was demanding. She demanded as much from everyone else as she demanded from herself.”
Although the company has changed since her time, the continued success of the Knoll Company today is an indication of Florence Knoll’s remarkable marketing and aesthetic vision. Widely recognized for her enormous contribution to American modern design, Florence Knoll Bassett was inducted into the Interior Design Magazine Hall of Fame in 1985. In 2002, she was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Medal of Arts for her contributions to architecture and design. After Harry Bassett died in 1991, she became president and chairperson of the Bassett Foundation, actively campaigning for land conservation until her death in January 2019 at the age of 101. As Virginia Lee Warren wrote in The New York Times in 1964, Florence Knoll was the “single most-powerful figure in the field of modern design.”