Florence Marguerite Knoll Bassett was an American Architect, Interior Designer, Furniture Designer and entrepreneur whose contribution to the field of design is impeccable. One of the only women in the profession at the time, she not only championed the field of mid-century design but also broke stereotypes along her way. With a modernist approach, she set up trends in the world of furniture by her brand Knoll Furniture, which remains one of the biggest furniture design brands in the world today. 

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She revolutionized the office interior designs and pioneered open-plan offices. With her vision of ‘total design’, she gave rise to the idea of open workspaces.

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Florence Knoll Bassett_©Courtesy of Knoll, Inc.

Born as Florence Marguerite Schust on May 24, 2017, in Michigan to Frederick Emanuel and Mina Matilda, Knoll was orphaned at the age of 12.  She went to the Kingswood School for Girls in Michigan and came in contact with the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, who was the designer of the school building. She later went on to attend architecture at Cranbrook Academy of Art, of which Eliel was President

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Pioneer of mid-century design

Over the years, Knoll maintained close relations with the Saarinen Family and eventually became friends with Eero Saarinen. In between, she also went to Columbia University to study architecture for one year. While in Michigan, she explored furniture making with Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames. Knoll also studied at Architectural Association in London and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she was mentored by Walter Gropius, before completing her bachelor’s degree from Illinois Institute of Technology under the guidance of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. 

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Courtesy of Knoll, Inc.

In 1941, she came to New York and met Hans Knoll. This is where a lifelong partnership began not just as life partners but as business partners too in the Knoll Associates, Inc., where she also founded the interior design service, The Knoll Planning Unit. The company went on from a small furniture business to a thriving design legacy we are all aware of. She also influenced Eero Saarinen to design some of the well-known designs for the company and also convinced Mies to bring Barcelona Chair to Knoll Associates. 

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Courtesy of Knoll, Inc.

Knoll Planning Unit

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With Knoll Planning Unit, she introduced planning services into the realms of furniture design. Being an architect, she fused the ideas of modernism in the interior designs, as she realised the functional aspects of the approach. Knoll believed spaces must be created in total sync with its user’s needs and this revolutionized the industry. 

Throughout her life, her works were inspired by the International Style and often reflected the design approach from Bauhaus School. This was mainly since she was mentored by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and later worked under Walter Gropius, both of which were former Bauhaus directors.

With a multidisciplinary approach to design, Knoll followed the philosophy of ‘total design.’ This meant design thinking in its whole, and not in categories. From the exterior to the entire environment of the space, colour, graphics, functions and included every aspect of design in its true sense. At a time when corporate interiors were characterised by monotonous walls adorned with hefty drawers, she introduced the concepts of ‘open’ offices which most of the time included flexible spaces with utmost functionality and were filled with light.

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This was beyond the stereotypical boundaries and gave office interiors a new identity. By applying architecture principles of modernism, she revolutionized the workspace culture and reduced everything to its bare minimum as taught by her teacher Mies van der Rohe.

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Courtesy of Knoll, Inc.

Along with ground-breaking ideas in the expanse of Interior Design, she also collaborated with her effective circle of designers such as Eero Saarinen, and Charles Eames. She commissioned and licensed pieces of iconic furniture which are now termed classics. Eero Saarinen’s Tulip series to Harry Bertoia’s wire side chairs could all be due to Knoll Basset’s influence. Furthermore, she acquired the license of iconic furniture designs such as Cyclone table, Barcelona Chair, Diamond Chairall of which remain in production to date.

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Courtesy of Knoll, Inc.

Besides defining the ubiquitous open-plan office and several other achievements in her hand, she is also the first woman to receive the Gold Medal for Industrial Design from the American Institute of Architects in 1961, while in 2003 she was presented with the National Medal of Arts. However, in 1960 she resigned from the presidency of Knoll, Inc. to focus on design and development. In 1965, after an unprecedented career worldwide with futuristic concepts and aesthetics, Florence Knoll Bassett retired from the company. 

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To commemorate her achievements, in 2004 after much persuasion by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Knoll Bassett at the age of 87 curated and designed a small exhibition of her work. The work culminated into, “Florence Knoll Bassett: Defining Modern,” in collaboration with the curator Kathryn Hiesinger. Her contribution to the industry is immeasurable and remains an inspiration for many such women.  

Author

Kanika Trivedi is an architect and a writer who believes in Design Activism. Architectural writing can be a strong means to spread awareness about the underlying issues in architecture fraternity. She also believes that a space is nothing without its context and so there is a lot to learn while you incessantly explore new circumstances and their interpretations.

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