Florence Knoll Bassett was an American architect and furniture designer who studied under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Eliel Saarinen. She was born Florence Schust in Saginaw, Michigan and graduated from the Kingswood School before studying at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. 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 Wallace K. Harrison.
Florence Knoll was a pioneering designer and entrepreneur who created the modern look and feel of America’s postwar corporate office with sleek furniture, artistic textiles and an uncluttered, free-flowing workplace environment. Influenced by Bauhaus school of design, she promoted the Modernist merger of architecture, art and utility in her furnishings and interiors, especially for offices.
In the 1940s, she married and became a business partner of the German-born furniture maker Hans Knoll, and over 20 years she was instrumental in building Knoll Associates into the largest and most prestigious high-end design firm of its kind, with 35 showrooms in the United States and around the world.Knoll Associates become the leading innovator of modern interiors and furnishings in the 1950s and ’60s, transforming the CBS, Seagram and Look magazine headquarters in Manhattan, the H. J. Heinz headquarters in Pittsburgh and properties across the United States, Europe, Asia and South America, including American embassies.
Knoll's total design favored open work spaces over private offices, and furniture grouped for informal discussions. It integrated lighting, vibrant colors, acoustical fabrics, chairs molded like tulip petals, sofas and desks with chrome legs, collegially oval meeting tables, and futuristic multilevel interiors, more architectural than decorative, with open-riser staircases that seemed to float in the air. She brought designers and their friends and former teachers into the fold by acquiring rights to their creations, paying them commissions and royalties, and giving them credit for their designs.
After her husband died in a car accident in 1955, she succeeded him as president and held that post until 1960. Although she sold her interest in the company, she remained as its design director until 1965, when she retired to a private practice in architecture and design in Florida. She donated her papers to the Smithsonian Institution in 2000. In 1961, she became the first woman to receive the Gold Medal for Industrial Design from the American Institute of Architects, and in 1983 she won the Athena Award of the Rhode Island School of Design. In 2003, President George W. Bush presented her with the nation’s highest award for artistic excellence, the National Medal of Arts.
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