Workspace planner and furnishings designer Florence Knoll Bassett (known as “Shu” to her friends, for her maiden name Schust) was a design pioneer. At the pinnacle of her career in 1965, she withdrew from the design world after completing the interiors of the CBS headquarters.
Under her leadership, many modern masters created iconic pieces for Knoll, including Eero Saarinen’s Tulip chairs and pedestal tables (his tables sit in front of a Knoll sofa in her Miami home), Isamu Noguchi’s coffee table, Harry Bertoia’s wire furniture and Richard Schultz’s outdoor collection. She bucked tradition, attributing design credits and paying royalties to designers, an unusual practice in the furniture industry.
Knoll’s distinctive furniture designs (her signature bench is among several of her designs still in production today) were marked by sleek silhouettes and geometries that reflected her architectural training. Knoll won four of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Good Design” competitions, and the company’s designs are still displayed today on MoMA’s top floor.
Florence Schust was working at a New York architecture firm when Hans Knoll asked her to design an office for the U.S. Secretary of War. In 1943, Florence convinced Hans she could boost business by expanding into interior design and working with architects. After they married in 1946, she became a full business partner and together they founded Knoll Associates. When Hans died in a car accident in 1955, Florence took over the company and designed chairs, sofas, tables and casegoods. She founded Knoll textiles and designed the company’s regional showrooms.
This Mad Men-esque image of a lone woman in a 1950s boardroom depicts Florence surrounded by insurance execs in dark suits scrutinizing her paste-ups. Her vision for the new office was clean and uncluttered, and the corporate boom of the 1960s provided an opportunity for her to change the way people looked at the workplace.
Florence’s open-plan layouts were the ideal venue for her furniture. Because texture was a significant element in Knoll’s designs, she placed swatches of fabrics on the paste-up board to reinforce her vision of stimulating, humanized interiors.
This 1961 marble-top credenza was influenced by Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and Corbusian columns. Florence mixed woods and metals and incorporated laminates as they became more popular.
This 1954 Knoll showroom in San Francisco embodies the look she championed for modern office spaces: the lines are clean and spare, and textiles add life and vivid colour.
Outside of reception areas, Florence Knoll Bassett’s classic sofa remains a staple of good design in homes, and still looks fresh despite being over 60 years old. Today, on May 24, the ground-breaking designer herself turns a magnificent 96.
For more timeless designs, see our gallery of Iconic Furniture A-Z.
1. The North Elevation blog
2. Florence Knoll Bench, Knoll
3. Suite 101
5. Miniature Chair Man blog
6. Knoll Low Filing Cupboard, ArchiExpo
8. All Roads Lead to Home blog