Florence Knoll: A tribute to a visionary in contemporary interior planning
Interior architect, designer and entrepreneur Florence Knoll passed away on 25 January 2019 at the age of 101. As one of the most influential artists of the American post-war era, she led furniture brand Knoll to worldwide fame and developed the idea of open-plan offices, which are now standard across the world.
The path to modern architecture
Although designer Florence Knoll enjoyed great fame in later life, her early years were fraught with tragedy.
Born as Florence Schust on 24 May 1917 in the US state of Michigan, Knoll lost both her parents at the age of 12 and ended up at the renowned Cranbrook Academy of Art, where she met head of design Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero Saarinen. Schust became very close to the family, travelling with them on trips to Europe on which she met architects and designers such as Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto.
Florence Knoll and Bauhaus designers
Her early contact with famous personalities from the world of modern architecture shaped the young Florence Knoll’s future career. When she finished school, she dedicated her time to studying architecture in America and Europe. Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who taught and guided Knoll, were among her major influences.
In 1941, Florence met German entrepreneur Hans Knoll. The Stuttgart-based furniture manufacturer had come to the United States with the aim of sharing European furniture design concepts further afield. Florence not only joined the company, but also married Hans Knoll five years later. Their partnership would ultimately make Knoll one of the most successful modern furniture manufacturers in America.
Like the proponents of Bauhaus she so admired, Florence Knoll defined good design as the product of interplay between craftsmanship, art and architecture. However, she went one step further than her counterparts to apply the Bauhaus concept to room planning. For Knoll, rooms and the furniture in them also formed an inextricably linked, single entity.
While other designers attempted to fill empty rooms with furniture and accessories, Knoll concentrated on the practicalities of a space and a harmonised interior concept. In the company, she founded a planning department to realise her visions for open-plan offices and living spaces.
Knoll develops the open-plan office
One of the highlights of Knoll’s career is undoubtedly the open-plan office concept, which she developed for clients including IBM and General Motors. In open-plan offices, dividers and clusters of furniture replace walls and dark, dingy individual offices. Heavy desks and chairs are replaced by lightweight furniture. Knoll relied on colour, materials and texture to structure open-plan offices into smaller, more manageable units. When she set up the textiles department at Knoll, the designer worked with well-known colleagues including Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl, who had studied in the Bauhaus textiles workshops.
Functional industrial design that continues to influence style today
To kit out rooms with practical chairs, tables and shelving, the entrepreneurial Florence Knoll reached out to some of the most talented designers of her era, including Eero Saarinen, with whom she had a very close bond. He went on to design the legendary Womb Chair for her company, when Knoll gave him the brief of designing a chair that looked like a basket full of pillows. The Womb Chair is still a best-seller today.
Knoll also partnered with Bauhaus designers and filed patents for exclusive chair designs, including the Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer and the Barcelona Chair by Mies van der Rohe, which was the first licensed product to be released by the Knoll company. When selecting furniture, one of Knoll’s criteria was that the piece had to both look good and fulfil a role in the room concept.
The Florence Knoll Sofa from 1954 is one of the products that Knoll herself designed for the company. The sofa is a prime example of the austere, minimalist design language that epitomises Knoll’s works. The design is also clearly influenced by the style of Bauhaus master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
A multi-faceted business woman
In 1955, tragedy struck Florence Knoll for the second time in her life, when her husband Hans Knoll was killed in a car accident. She took over the reins of the company in an industry dominated by men, and dedicated herself to growing the business – building the brand, advertising and even attending trade fairs. Three years later, Knoll married banker Harry Hood Bassett and adopted the double-barrelled surname Knoll Bassett. After selling the company to new owners in 1959, Knoll remained in the business as creative director until 1965. In 1961, she became the first woman to win an award from the American Institute of Architects.
The death of Florence Knoll marks the loss of one of the most influential visionaries of the 20th century. The talented artist will be remembered for her spectacular office concepts and her flair for exclusive furniture design
and her legacy of straight, clean lines and austere design language will be enjoyed for generations to come.
Which exclusive furniture designs do you associate with the Knoll brand? Let us know in the comments.