FLORENCE KNOLL BASSETT: Modern Design’s Pioneering Woman

Florence Knoll Bassett - photo by Todd Eberle | Architect Magazine

Florence Marguerite Knoll Bassett is considered to be one of the most influential designers and architects in America in the decades after World War II.

Childhood and Education

She was born Florence Marguerite Schust in Saginaw, Michigan on May 24, 1917. She was the only child of Fredirick E. Schust, a baker, and Mina Haist Schust. Unfortunately, she was orphaned at a very young age.

In 1932, Florence Schust was enrolled by her foster guardian, Emile A. Tessin a banker and close friend of the Schust family, in the Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills. Kingswood School was a girls’ school that was part of the Cranbrook Educational Community. The head of the school at the time was world-renowned designer Eliel Saarinen. Saarinen took notice of the young Schust, particularly in her interest in the buildings around campus. Saarinen and his family took Schust under their wing and became a de facto family for her.

Florence Knoll as pictured in Interiors Magazine, July 1957 – photo by Knoll, Inc.

Florence Schust graduated high school in 1934 and went on to Cranbrook Academy of Art soon after. There, she studied for two years. She then continued her education at Columbia University in New York where she studied architecture. Afterwards, she studied at the Architectural Association in London for another two years.

As the war was breaking out in Europe in 1939, Florence Schust went back to the United States. Upon her return, she worked for Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer for a short period before going back to school. She enrolled at the Armour Institute of Chicago (now known as the Illinois Institute of Technology) in 1940. There, she studied under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. She graduated in 1941 with a bachelor’s degree in Architecture.

Early Work and Career

After graduating, Florence Schust worked for some offices before settling to a job with Harrison, Abramovitz and Fouilhoux, the architectural firm that had designed the Rockefeller Center. She worked for the firm’s interiors department. It was also around this time that she met Hans Knoll. In 1943, she started to work for Knoll full-time.

Hans Knoll

Hans Knoll was a German American who came to the United States in 1938 and started a modern furniture company, the Hans Knoll Furniture Company. He met Florence Schust in 1943 when she offered her services to his company. She convinced him to expand his company to include interior design and architecture. The venture was a success, and she became Knoll’s interior specialist. The two eventually fell in love and married in 1946. Florence Knoll became a partner in the company, and its name changed to Knoll Associates. Their partnership proved to be successful with Florence Knoll handling the design side of the business and Hans Knoll taking care of the business aspect.

Knoll Associates, Inc.

Knoll’s San Francisco showroom in 1954, designed by Florence Knoll – photo by Azure Magazine

A number of factors contributed to the success of the Knolls’ company. One is that Florence Knoll convinced her mentors and other designers to design or contribute furniture designs for the company. Luminaries like Jens Risom, Eero Saarinen, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe contributed their services to the company.

Another factor is the creation of the Knoll Planning Unit. This was the interior design service unit of the company. Headed by Florence Knoll herself, the unit was made up of six to eight designers. This group was responsible for the showroom and design projects of the company. The group’s designs became very influential, dictating the styles that became prevalent in the design culture of the time. The unit continued its task until its dissolution in 1971.

The company also expanded to other fields. In 1947, it established Knoll Textiles as an answer to the lack of suitable textiles that can be used to match the interior designs that its Knoll Planning Unit was creating. In 1950, the firm moved to East Greenville, Pennsylvania to tap the potential of the large number of skilled German artisans living there. The firm also opened offices all around the world, morphing into Knoll International.

Death of Hans Knoll and After

In 1955, Hans Knoll passed away in a car accident. He was only 41. This left Florence Knoll in control of the company they created. From 1955 to 1960, she served as the president of the firm, guiding it through a very difficult time. During that time, she married Harry Hood Bassett, a Florida banker, in 1958. In 1959, she sold her interests in Knoll Associates Inc. to Art Metal. She stepped down as president of Knoll Associates in 1960 but continued to work for the firm as a consultant and its design director. In 1965, Florence Knoll Bassett retired from the company that she and her first husband made.

Furniture Design

Florence Knoll Sofa, 1954 – photo by Knoll, Inc.

Knoll Bassett often downplays her contributions as a furniture designer. She had often said that her furniture creations were made as part of a holistic interior design and were not just individual pieces. She used to call her furniture designs as “meat and potatoes”, fillers among the pieces of such great designers as Bertoia, Saarinen and van der Rohe. Still, even with such big names designing furniture for Knoll, her furniture creations weren’t overshadowed. In fact, some are still admired and produced to this day. It should also be noted that if you perused a Knoll catalogue, almost half of the furniture in the catalogue is of her design. Her designs reflected her architectural training and interests. They were architecture turned into furniture. Large-scale shrunk down to human-scale — that was her design philosophy.

Contributions to Design

Florence Knoll, CBS Building interiors, New York City, 1965 – photo by Robert Damora | Damora Archive

Perhaps Florence Knoll Bassett’s greatest contribution is the introduction of the modernist aesthetic to mainstream American design. Her time with the Knoll Planning Group contributed a lot to this. She also transformed the interiors of workspaces and offices, giving them a sleeker look rather than the stuffy overburdened look that was conventional in the 1940s. By the 1960s, before her retirement, Florence Knoll Bassett was considered a design powerhouse and one of the most influential designers of the era.

Post Retirement

In 2004, Florence Knoll Bassett, at the age of 87, came out of retirement to design a mini-retrospective of her work. It was exhibited in the Philadelphia Museum and was titled: “Florence Knoll Bassett: Defining Modern”. In 2017, Florence Knoll Bassett celebrated her 100th birthday.