On The Square

Designing Her Own Path

By Michael Ingham; Director, Rago Unreserved Department

Feb 25,2019 | 10:05 EST

Florence Knoll Bassett, who passed this year at the age of 101, was a legendary designer and entrepreneur. Her work helped to define the essence of the clean, functional forms that are synonymous with Modern Design. Knoll International remains a major player in the world of modern design to this day.

Florence Knoll Bassett was born Florence Shust in Saginaw, Michigan in 1917 and orphaned at the age of 12. She was enrolled by her foster guardian at the Kingswood School, a boarding school for girls that was part of the Cranbrook Educational Community, which was and is a renowned center for the study of art and architecture. Her talents were noted early on by the President of Cranbrook, Eliel Saarinan, a world-renowned Finnish designer and architect of Cranbrook’s campus.

Tulip Dining Set by Eero Saarinen for Knoll International

Saarinen and his wife Loja took Florence under their wing, bringing her with them on their summer vacations to Europe and raising her alongside their son, future master architect Eero Saarinen. Her peers at Cranbrook included Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames, and, of course, Eero Saarinen himself. After graduating from Cranbrook, she studied at the Architectural Association in London, but returned to the United States at the beginning of World War II.

Pair of MR armchairs by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe for Knoll International

Florence apprenticed for a year at Gropius & Breuer in Boston, studied at Columbia University’s School of Architecture, and earned her bachelor’s degree in architecture from the Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) in Chicago in 1941. After leaving IIT, Florence worked for architect Wallace K. Harrison who helped to design New York City’s Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center and the headquarters of the United Nations.

In 1943, she was hired as a designer by Hans Knoll who had just established his own furniture business in New York in 1938. The two married in 1946 and Florence became his partner at Knoll Associates. Through the connections she made over the course of her extensive education, the company expanded rapidly.

Set of model no. 420 chairs by Harry Bertoia for Knoll International

Hans Knoll managed business affairs while Florence took on the role of the firm’s Chief Designer. In short order the company had designed offices for CBS television network, and Look Magazine, and the iconic Seagram building. Florence also was responsible for commissioning designs from her talented friends and former teachers, including Saarinan’s iconic womb chair and Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chairs.

Bent maple Icing table by Frank Gehry for Knoll International

When Hans Knoll was killed in a car accident, Florence Knoll took over the company and ran it until her retirement in 1965.