Modernist Master Florence Knoll Dies at 101
"I feel grateful to you for doing such work in a world where mediocrity is the norm."
—Charles Eames in a letter to Florence Knoll (the two studied together at the Cranbrook Academy of Art)
Florence Knoll Bassett, known as Florence Knoll, died on Friday, January 25, 2019 at 101. Knoll invented the concept of "total design," revolutionizing interior space planning by embracing all elements in a room. She set the standard for midcentury modern interior design, one which is still followed today.
The daughter of a Michigan baker, Knoll was an influential architect and furniture designer. Her keen eye for talent led to collaboration with many modern masters who developed iconic pieces for Knoll Associates—the company she ran with her husband, the German-born Hans Knoll, for over two decades. Eero Saarinen’s Womb and Tulip chairs, Isamu Noguchi’s coffee table and Harry Bertoia’s wire furniture are just a few of the pieces she helped birth.
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Best known for revolutionizing the office space, Knoll brought her "total design" concept to the staid corporate spaces of CBS, General Motors, IBM, Rockefeller Center, and Heinz in the 1950s and '60s. Open floor plans, spartan desks, and colorful furnishings were her trademarks, along with the overriding influence of simplicity.
"[Knoll] probably did more than any other single figure to create the modern, sleek, postwar American office, introducing contemporary furniture and a sense of open planning into the work environment," wrote New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger in 1984.
Knoll’s mid-20th century designs represent the core of the genre’s clean, functional forms. "Transcending design fads, they are still influential, still contemporary, still common in offices, homes and public spaces, still found in dealers’ showrooms and represented in museum collections," wrote the New York Times in her obituary.
An architect by training, she brought the concepts of exterior design inside the building. "I designed the architectural [elements] that were needed to make the room work, things like the walls, [tables] and sofas," she said. Introducing modern notions of efficiency, space planning, and comprehensive design to office planning, Knoll always believed that she did not merely decorate space. She created it.
However, it was furniture that was to be her legacy. Her 1961 Table Desk (which she describes as the "meat and potatoes" that had to be provided), went on to sell more than three million pieces. "I did it because I needed the piece of furniture for a job and it wasn’t there, so I designed it," she said.
The desk, and her iconic 1954 sofa, are just two examples of the influence her mentor and pioneer of modernist architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, had on her work. When Vogue interviewed her in 1998, telling her that her 1954 sofa was back in fashion she said, "Why shouldn’t it be? It’s good design."
One of Knoll's greatest furniture collaborations was with her de facto brother Eero Saarinen. After being orphaned at just 12 years old, Knoll attended a boarding school in Michigan designed by Finnish architect and Eero’s father, Eliel Saarinen. She quickly became close with the family, vacationing with them in Finland.
Knoll moved to New York in 1941, where she met her future husband Hans Knoll. She began working for his furniture company Hans Knoll Associates in 1943 and quickly brought Eero in to design for them. He went on to create many of the most recognizable Knoll pieces, including the Tulip Chairs and Pedestal Tables, the Womb Chair, and the 70 Series Executive Seating Collection, helping establish Knoll Associates’ design identity.
Today, much of this furniture is still being produced by Knoll Inc., the billion-dollar business that has grown from the humble East 72nd Street office Hans Knoll opened in 1938.
In 2017, to mark her 100th birthday, the company revived Florence Knoll’s Model 75 Stool, 70 years after its initial introduction. Now called the Hairpin Stacking Table, its early design was based on work she did as a student at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Alongside the table, the company released a new set of residential designs inspired by the seminal products, so now everyone has the opportunity to enjoy Florence Knoll’s genius.