m not a decorator”, she stated. And indeed she became a legend.
Visionary architect and pioneer of modern design, Florence Knoll has revolutionized the homes and offices of postwar American and European generations by turning interior decoration into veritable spatial architecture. And now, at the age of one hundred and one, she is really gone. We had lost count of her age, because Florence Knoll had already been a legend for a long time, since she unexpectedly withdrew from the scene in 1965, at the age of forty-eight, leaving behind a legacy of acclaimed projects that are still shining in the design firmament. Created over a period of only twenty years, those design projects are flashes of brilliance in Florence’s long life, studded with huge tragedies and great successes.
The only daughter of a humble family, Florence (née Schust) was orphaned of father and mother at the age of twelve and placed under the care of a foster guardian. The turning point for Florence came when she met Eliel Saarinen, who was the chief architect of the school campus in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where she studied. But instead of lessons, what interested her most were the campus buildings. She then went on to study at the Cranbrook Academy of Art – adjacent the high school campus – where Saarinen, president and teacher, took her under his swing. Her classmates at Cranbrook included, among others, Harry Bertoia. Eliel Saarinen encouraged her to first attend Columbus University in New York and then to pursue further studies at the Architectural Association in London. Together with Eliel‘s family, Florence visited Europe and especially Alvar Aalto‘s Finland, and she became a great friend of his son Eero, with whom she later designed some of Knoll's most iconic collections, such as the Tulip and the Womb chairs and the Saarinen tables.
The break out of the Second World War forced Florence to return to the United States and at that time Eliel introduced her to two exceptional immigrants: Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, who had fled Germany (through England) when the Nazi regime closed The Bauhaus. After working briefly for Gropius and Breuer in their New York studio, she later chose Chicago to complete her studies. This is no coincidence: she enrolled at the Armour Institute of Chicago (now ITT) where she studied under Mies van der Rohe, another famous German émigré. In a few years, Florence managed to meet the greatest masters of modern architecture.
Graduated in 1941 at the age of twenty-four, two years later she began working full-time at Knoll, the modern furniture company young Hans Knoll had moved from Germany to New York, and she soon became Knoll’s interiors specialist. Times were hard, wood was the only available material – even fabrics were difficult to obtain – so, with her practical genius, Florence convinced Hans to focus on essential lines and simple bright colors. Since the two of them knew many architects, she also convinced Hans to bring architects to work on various furniture projects. They also assured the architects that each of them would be credited by name and, this is new for the time, paid royalties for their designs. That's how Knoll Associates, Inc. was born: it was 1946, the war was finally over. Just like a fairy tale coming to life, a few months later Hans Knoll and Florence Schust got married and two children were soon to follow.
Her new life as an entrepreneur was marked by constant research and innovation. She founded the Knoll Planning Unit (KPU), the interior design department where, together with other architects and interior designers, she developed the increasingly important and complex projects that Knoll was commissioned. As shown in a picture of those times, she was leading meetings being the only woman among men.
In order to provide clients with a better understanding of projects, Florence pioneered a sensorial approach. She originated the design practice of providing “paste ups “ – the use of plastic collage with paper, fabric swatches and colour samples – giving clients an overall idea and feel of the furnished space.to.
And if the top designers at Knoll, the archistars, were creating iconic designs to fully satisfy the customers' needs, functional pieces were often lacking. In her own words:" 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". Simple and clear, precisely like the pieces she created.
A new textile division, Knoll Textiles, was established in 1947 and a series of showrooms designed by Florence herself opened in both the USA and Europe. What’s more, the Knoll showrooms were not just salesrooms but they established a standard for an overall interior aesthetic. And that is another innovation that was soon to become iconic.
Florence and Hans' professional and sentimental partnership was working well, the brand was in full expansion and in 1951 the brand was changed into Knoll International. Everything added to the success of the brand: refined advertising campaigns, style manuals, prestigious exhibitions, a skilful talent scouting, not to mention the brilliant idea of acquiring licenses to manufacture furniture by other designers - modern-day classics like the Barcelona chair (Florence managed to convince Mies van der Rohe to sell them!), the Diamond chair and the Cyclone table, all of which remain in production to this day.
But unfortunately, in 1955, Hans Knoll died in a tragic car accident while on a business trip to Cuba. Florence took over the company. We will never know how hard it was for her, and yet she proved against skeptics that the business would prosper. Over the following years, she led the company towards its largest commisions, such as the General Motors Company Technical Center in Warren and the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company.
Among many projects, the brand was also commissioned to design the offices of the First National Bank of Miami. During her stays in Florida, Florence met the banker Harry Hood Bassett. She married him in 1958 and from that moment on, year after year, her life would take her (and Knoll) from New York to Miami. In '59 she sold her company, in the '60 she left the presidency and in 1965, at the age of forty-eight, she gave her final farewell to the hectic world of American business and retired to Florida where she occasionally worked on private projects and dedicated herself to her big family (two children from Hans Knoll and three from Harry Bassett).
In 1991 she lost Harry and remained active with the Bassett Foundation, which was established by her husband to campaign for land conservation. And in 2002, at the age of 85, she was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts by the President of the United States for her contribution to architecture and design.
For us, she had always been a shining talent, not only for her art, innovation and genius, but also because she was a woman who navigated with courage and energy the many difficulties of her life without ever giving up, always finding a solution.
“Schu” Florence Knoll Bassett
May 24th 1917, Saginaw, Michigan – January 25th 2019, Coral Gable, Florida
Photo credits: Courtesy of Knoll