Florence Knoll Bassett (born May 24, 1917) is an American architect and furniture designer who studied under Mies van der Rohe and Eliel Saarinen. She was born in Saginaw, Michigan as Florence Schust and is known in familiar circles simply as "Shu". She graduated from the Kingswood School before studying at the Cranbrook Academy of Art (both institutions are located on the same campus in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan). Knoll also received a bachelor's degree in architecture from Armour Institute (now Illinois Institute of Technology) in 1941 and briefly worked with leaders of the Bauhaus movement, including Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and the American modernist, Wallace K. Harrison.
Early Life & Education
Florence Marguerite Schust was born May 24, 1917 in Saginaw, Michigan to Frederick E. Schust and Mina Haist Schust. Frederick was born circa 1882 in either Switzerland or Germany, was a native German-speaker, and the 1920 United States Federal Census describes him as a superintendent at a bakery factory. Mina was born circa 1887 in Michigan, although her parents had been born in Canada. Frederick died relatively young, some time before the 1930 United States Federal Census.
From 1932-34 Florence Knoll attended Kingswood School in Cranbrook, and the Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1934-1935, where she studied under Eliel Sarrinen, father of Eero Saarinen. In 1935 she studied town planning at the School of Architecture at Columbia University. From 1936-1937 she explored furniture-making with Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames. Then in 1928-1939 she was at the Architectural Association in London, and was influenced by Le Corbusier’s International style, but she left as World War II was spreading. In 1940, Florence Knoll, moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and worked for Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, and was influenced by the Bauhaus school and Marcel Breuer's steel-tubed modern furniture. This led to the Illinois Institute of Technology (Armour Institute) in Chicago, where she studied under Mies van der Rohe.
Florence Knoll had many mentors that influenced her design:
"Rachel de Wolfe Raseman, the art director of Kingswood and a graduate architect from Cornell University. She guided me into the world of architecture and design. I learned the basics of planning and drafting and my first project was to design a house."
"The Saarinens befriended me and took me under their wing. They asked my guardian for permission to accompany them to Hvitrask, their home in Finland for the summer....One summer at Hvitrask, Eero decided to give me a course in architectural history. He talked and drew these sketches simultaneously on sheets of stationery beginning with Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods. He discussed each detail as the drawings appeared on the paper."
"Mies van der Rohe had a profound effect on my design approach and the clarification of design."
In 1938, Hans Knoll founded his furniture company by that name in New York. In 1943, Florence Schust convinced Hans she could help bring in business to his company even in America's wartime economy by expanding into interior design by working with architects. With her architectural background and design flair, she succeeded. They married in 1946, she became a full business partner and together they founded Knoll Associates. A new furniture factory was established in Pennsylvania and dealers in Knoll's furniture were carefully added over the next several years.
Florence Knoll felt architects should contribute their design ability to furniture as well. Some of these furniture designs would become design icons of the 20th century and have remained in the Knoll line for decades due to their timeless design. When Hans Knoll died in a car accident in 1955, Florence Knoll took over operation of the company. Florence Knoll herself designed chairs, sofas, tables and casegoods during the 1950s, many of which remain in the Knoll line to this day. In 1958 she married Harry Hood Bassett.
Her American interpretation of minimalist, rationalist design theories is clearly evident in Knoll's storage pieces. She mixed woods and metals to great effect and added laminates as they became popular. Dressers and desks are all square in design but never lack for quality. Hanging cabinets have glass shelves, sliding doors and drop down fronts that can be used as bars.
In the 1950s Florence Knoll's work was often displayed at the Museum of Modern Art's "Good Design" exhibits. Although Knoll did a great deal of residential work, the International Style she worked in was especially successful in corporate offices.
Knoll's vision for the new office was clean and uncluttered, and the corporate boom of the 1960s provided the perfect opportunity for her to change the way people looked at work in their offices. Her open plan layouts created clean, uncluttered spaces a perfect venue for her furniture. Companies like H. J. Heinz, CBS, and Connecticut General Life Insurance all embraced this new way of organizing business space.
Knoll retired as Knoll president in 1960, but remained with the company as the director of design until 1965 when she retired completely.
The Knoll Planning Unit
Florence Knoll directed the interior design service of Knoll Associates, The Knoll Planning Unit (1943–1971). Knoll and the Planning Unit were important figures in the development of interior design from the 1940s to the 1970s. They created some of the most innovative design for office interiors during the post-war period, largely due to Knoll’s rational thinking and humanized modernism ideas. Knoll applied her architectural knowledge and techniques to the design of interior spaces. For example, she used the architectural method of setting and solving design problems to create spaces with a unity of function and design, which met client needs. The Planning Unit aimed to fuse architectural space and its contents by not only creating a consistent visual language of the modern office space, but also making it inhabitable and responsive to the changing needs of everyday living and working. Knolls choice of furniture, textured fabrics and vibrant colour scheme (primary colours used against black, white and beige) not only became part of the Knoll look, they addressed the human desire for comfort, texture and colour. However she did not want to be confused for an interior decorator, insisting ‘I am not a decorator… the only place I decorate is my own house,’ signifying the developing profession of interior designer during the 20th century. This saw the move away from decorating rooms and towards designing. Knoll and the Planning unit had a radical influence on American office environments, beginning by replacing the traditional heavy, carved mahogany desks with modern, lighter designs, as well as, straightening the common diagonal positioning of the executive’s desk. She redesigned conference tables into a boat-shape so that people could see one another to meet requirements for group discussions. Perhaps her largest contribution to the design of office space was the Introduction of open plan workstations, which offered clients advantages of cost and flexibility over traditional private offices. This approach is still widely used today. The Planning Unit not only specified furniture models and arrangements but also corresponding textiles, carpets, window treatments and office accessories.
Knoll communicated and presented the designs of the Knoll Planning Unit through what she referred to as ‘paste-ups.’  The paste up was a small representational plan of the space with fabric swatches, wood chips and finishes attached to represent furniture and other details. This communicated both the materiality and arrangement of sofas, chairs, desks and credenza. The paste-ups were abstract and balanced, so if a large element such as a desk was placed on one side of the collage, it would be balanced by an element of a similar proportion such as a sofa at the opposite end of the board. These collages convey the feeling of a space and proved to be an effective client presentation tool. This technique was successful because it expressed the experience of a space more accurately than a drawing and was simple to understand. Because texture was a significant element in Knoll’s designs, by placing samples of fabrics onto the paste-up board, she was able to visually and tactilely show her ideas which reinforced her vision for creating stimulating, humanised interiors. This communication method was vital in convincing clients to move towards modernised workspaces. Paste-ups present a correspondence between their graphic elements and the spatial elements of furniture layouts, textures and colours of her complete office and showroom spaces.
The Knoll showrooms embodied their humanised modern designs, showing the customers how to use their new furniture. Their first showroom was opened in 1948 in New York followed by showrooms in Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, Los Angeles and others. These showrooms did not exhibit office interiors but rather living room and lounge arrangements to show different solutions in interior design through the Planning unit and Knoll furnishings. Residential customers were more experimental in their colour, texture and shape selections of Knoll designs, whereas the corporate clients preferred more functional looking design. In Central America, Panama Republic, Geteca Group install their newest Showroom (July, 2013) a great space LEED Gold Certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Knoll has also showrooms in Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela with national partners.
Florence Knoll stated that she was not a furniture designer, perhaps because she didn’t want her furniture pieces to be viewed on their own, but rather as an element of her holistic interior design. Knoll only designed furniture when the existing pieces in the Knoll collection didn’t meet her needs. Almost half of the furniture pieces in the Knoll collection were her designs including tables, desks, chairs, sofas, benches and stools. She designed furniture not only to be functional, but also to designate the way she wanted the interior space to function as well as relating to the architecture of the space and the overall composition. This was inevitably part of her concept for ‘total design’ where she aspired to work in a broad range of design fields including architecture, manufacturing, interior design, textiles, graphics, advertising and presentation. The distinctive features of Florence Knoll’s furniture designs were the sleek silhouettes and geometries. This reflected her architectural training and interests. Her furniture was designed with the notion of transforming architecture into furniture, which she achieved by translating the structure and language of the modern building into a human-scaled object. An ideal example of this is her 2544 credenza, which was a marble topped, rectangular case with metal legs. Its structure was clearly influenced by the Mies’ Seagram Building and Corbusian columns. She mostly kept the upholstery colour palate in black, brown and beige to let the vibrant colours and rich textures in the interior spaces remain the focus (some pieces did come in bright red).
In 1960, Florence Knoll retired as President of Knoll to become Director of Design then resigned five years later. Although several experienced designers remained in the Knoll Planning Unit, without her guidance the company’s intentions changed and conflict of ideas arose between staff members. Due to this, the company’s success went down hill and The Planning Unit ceased operation in 1971.
Knoll is still in operation, selling furnishings, office systems, seating, files and storage, tables and desks, wood casegoods, textiles and accessories internationally.
- Ashley, Stephanie. "A Finding Aid to the Florence Knoll Bassett Papers, 1932-2000". Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
- "Florence M Schust; 1920 United States Federal Census". Ancestry.com.
- "Florence M Schust; 1930 United States Federal Census". Ancestry.com.
- "The Architect Designer with the Stainless Steel Legs". About.com Home. Retrieved 2015-10-16.
- Rae, Christine; Matter, Herbert (1971). Knoll au Louvre: Catalog of the Exhibition held at Pavillon de Marsan Musee des Arts Decoratifs, January 12 to March 12, 1972. Knoll International.
- Lifetime Honors - National Medal of Arts
- V. L. Warren, ‘Women Who Led an Office Revolution Rules an Empire of Modern Design,’ The New York Times, 1 September 1964, p.40
- ‘Florence Knoll Bassett Papers’ 1999 Archives of American Art Journal, vol. 39 no 1 pp.59-61
- Alexandra Lange 2006, ‘This Year’s Model: Representing Modernism to the Post-war American Corporation,’ Journal of Design History, vol. 39 no. 3 pp. 233-247
- Bobbye Tigerman 2007, ‘I Am Not a Decorator: Florence Knoll, the Knoll Planning Unit and the making of the Modern Office,’ Journal of Design History, vol. 20 no. 1 pp. 61-73
- Transcript of interview with F. Knoll Bassett, n.d., p. 9, Knoll Archives.
- Knoll, 2011, Designers: Florence Knoll Bassett, viewed 15 September 2011, <http://www.knoll.com/designer/designer_detail.jsp?designer_id=83>
- Official site of the Knoll Design Company
- University of Vermont Honorary Degree Recipient FLORENCE KNOLL BASSETT
- Florence Knoll Bassett: The Conversation - metropolismag.com
- The Florence Knoll Bassett Papers Online at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art
- Florence Knoll: Defining Modern, CH+D Magazine