If you know Sterling Cooper Draper Price, you know Florence Knoll. At a time when corporate design was heavy drawers-to-the-floor desks and olive green metal furniture, Knoll gave us the Cold War diplomat’s office and the Mad Men executive suite. “Every time you see Barcelona chairs and a table in a lobby, that’s her,” Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Kathy Heisinger told the New York Times in 2004, when she managed to coax 87-year-old Knoll out of retirement to curate the first solo exhibition of her work. It was thanks to Florence Knoll that the modern furniture design movement came within reach of the average American. Knoll’s pioneering interiors, characterized by simple, clean floor plans, rich textures and vivid colors, profoundly influenced post-World War II design and forever changed the look of America’s corporate interiors.
Florence Schust (affectionately called ‘Shu’) was born in 1917, in Saginaw, Michigan. Orphaned by the age of 12, she attended the Kingswood School for Girls, designed by Eero Saarinen and adjacent to the renowned Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Her fascination with the building itself led her to meet the Saarinen family, with whom she became close friends. Loja Saarinen fostered Florence’s interest in textile design and encouraged her to attend Cranbook, where she studied architecture under Eliel, and met Charles and Ray Eames, as well as Harry Bertoia. As a woman, Florence was steered into fashion design but resolutely returned to architecture, continuing her studies at the Architectural Association in London before completing her formal training at the Illinois Institute of Technology under Mies van der Rohe—whom she credits with having “a profound effect on my design approach and the clarification of design.” She started her professional career working with the architectural firms of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer in Boston, and Wallace Harrison in New York.
In 1943, Hans Knoll, a German who had recently established Knoll Furniture Company with designer Jens Risom, hired Schust to design the office of the Secretary of War in the newly completed Pentagon. With the credo “good design is good business,” Schust persuaded Knoll to hire her to bring in business, despite America’s wartime economy, by expanding into interior design and working with architects. The two married in 1946. “Florence Knoll, 35, who has done many Knoll pieces, came to work for Knoll as a designer, after two years married the boss,” reported a 1950s Life magazine article, framing Florence as a young secretary making good. In reality, she was an equal business partner in the newly renamed Knoll Associates; finding talented collaborators, covering her husband’s early business blunders with $50,000 of her personal assets, and providing necessary capital during the firm’s expansion. More importantly, as an architect, interior space planner, and furniture designer, Florence quickly established and headed the Knoll Planning Unit (1943-1971), the company’s interior design service, where her belief in “total design”—architecture, manufacturing, interior design, furniture, textiles, graphics, advertising and presentation—meant that she integrated all aspects of spatial planning, furnishing and decorating into one seamless package. “Everything I did was based on my architectural training,” Ms. Knoll maintained.
Believing that architects should address furniture as well, Knoll used her connections to bring some of the great modern architects to Knoll Associates. Friends from Cranbrook—Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia and Ralph Rapson—were among the early designers to contribute to the furniture collection, along with Jens Risom, George Nakashima, Pierre Jeanneret, Hans Bellman and Isamu Naguchi. She even convinced Mies van der Rohe to let her reproduce his iconic Barcelona chair, originally created for the Barcelona Exposition in 1929. In turn, Knoll was asked to design the interior spaces for Saarinen’s CBS headquarters in the Seagram building in New York City. Under Florence’s guidance, the company was soon transformed into an international arbiter of style and design. “To be accepted by Knoll is to have made it […] And while Knoll has a committee to pass upon such submissions, it is Florence Knoll, as director of design, who makes the final decision,” the New York Times reported in 1964.
Ms. Knoll proved equally pioneering in the field of textiles, launching a separate division in 1947, which by the early ’50s was known as Knoll Textiles. Her talent was in taking unconventional fabrics used by an industry and repurposing them as interiors: flannels and tweeds from men’s suit fabrics became upholstery on executive chairs, where their sturdy weaves and subtle textures came to define the 1950s office. Due to the limitations of traditional fibers, Knoll turned to synthetics developed for military use, like Saran, produced by Dow Chemical, or DuPont’s Orlon acrylic. In addition to impressive promotion, branding and product design, a large number of Knoll’s fabric designers were women, including the prolific Eszter Haraszty, Gunta Stadler-Stölzl, Suzanne Huguenin, Antoinette Lackner Prestini and Anni Albers, among others.
In 1955, following the tragic death of her husband in an automobile accident, Knoll took over the operations of Knoll Associates. Though she never considered herself a furniture designer, she created what she called “fill-in” pieces—sofas, chairs, tables and case goods— throughout the 1950s to complement the company’s existing furniture line. Many of her creations, from sofas and executive desks to coffee tables and credenzas, continue to be staples of the collection today. Under her leadership, Knoll’s Planning Unit had many major interiors to its design credit, including the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, Look Magazine and the CBS headquarters in New York, and the Heinz headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In 1958, Knoll was remarried to Harry Hood Bassett, a Florida banker. Florence Knoll Bassett retired as company president two years later, but stayed on as director of design until 1965. She would spend the next 40 years in Florida in virtual seclusion, accepting only a handful of private commissions and refusing almost all interviews and appearances. Nevertheless, her legacy speaks for itself. Knoll’s total design approach was a radical departure from the standard practice of the 1940s and ’50s, changing the way we design and work. In recognition of her extraordinary vision, Florence Knoll was awarded the prestigious National Medal of the Arts in 2002. She died on April 10, 2005.