Modernist Master Florence Knoll Dies at 101

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By Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / Photos by Knoll, Inc.
Florence Knoll Bassett, whose interior “architecture” and iconic furniture designs set the standard for the midcentury modern interior, passed away Friday at age 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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Florence Knoll's Planning Unit approached interior design as architecture, designing new spaces for some of the biggest names in mid-20th century corporate America. It has been credited with revolutionizing the American business environment. 

Florence Knoll's Planning Unit approached interior design as architecture, designing new spaces for some of the biggest names in mid-20th century corporate America. It has been credited with revolutionizing the American business environment. 

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.

Florence Schust met and married German furniture maker Hans Knoll in New York. Their professional and personal lives were intertwined; even their Old English Sheepdog, Cartree, appeared in advertisements for the company.

Florence Schust met and married German furniture maker Hans Knoll in New York. Their professional and personal lives were intertwined; even their Old English Sheepdog, Cartree, appeared in advertisements for the company.

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.

The Florence Knoll Sofa, first designed in 1954, was reintroduced in 2017, and manufactured according to her original specifications.

The Florence Knoll Sofa, first designed in 1954, was reintroduced in 2017, and manufactured according to her original specifications.

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."

Florence Knoll's Table Desk completely upended the concept of what a desk should be. Gone were the drawers, ornate carvings and heavy, imposing presence of its corporate predecessors, replaced instead by a design that  has become the gold standard of executive offices. 

Florence Knoll's Table Desk completely upended the concept of what a desk should be. Gone were the drawers, ornate carvings and heavy, imposing presence of its corporate predecessors, replaced instead by a design that  has become the gold standard of executive offices. 

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. 

Florence Knoll and Eero Saarinen were childhood friends whose collaboration and designs helped Knoll Associates become one of the pillars of midcentury modern furniture design.

Florence Knoll and Eero Saarinen were childhood friends whose collaboration and designs helped Knoll Associates become one of the pillars of midcentury modern furniture design.

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. 

The Saarinen Collection, first developed in the late 1940s, includes the iconic Womb Chair. Knoll asked Eero Saarinen to design a chair "like a great big basket of pillows that I can curl up in." 

The Saarinen Collection, first developed in the late 1940s, includes the iconic Womb Chair. Knoll asked Eero Saarinen to design a chair "like a great big basket of pillows that I can curl up in." 

Iconic Knoll Designs That Shaped the Modern Interior
Knoll Bertoia Side Chair
Knoll Bertoia Side Chair
Though Italian-American artist Harry Bertoia had long harbored an interest in mesh and metal forms, it wasn’t until he joined the studio of Charles Eames that he developed his signature techniques for working with steel rods. He brought this knowledge to Pennsylvania in 1950, where he designed...
Knoll Saarinen Tulip Armchair
Knoll Saarinen Tulip Armchair
Eero Saarinen called himself a “form giver,” and everything he designed – from the Gateway Arch in St. Louis to his Womb™ Chair to his Pedestal Table – had a strong sculptural quality. “The underside of typical tables and chairs makes a confusing, unrestful world,” said Saarinen.
Florence Knoll Table Desk
Florence Knoll Table Desk
Florence Knoll described her designs the fill-in pieces which had to be provided.
Saarinen Womb Chair
Saarinen Womb Chair
Eero Saarinen arrived at the concept for his 1948 Womb Chair when challenged by Florence Knoll to design a chair of supreme comfort – one she could really "curl up in".
Florence Knoll Sofa
Florence Knoll Sofa
 Florence Knoll Bassett took a holistic view of interior space planning. As director of the Knoll Planning Unit in the 1950s, her "total design" approach embraced everything about a space – including the furniture.
Knoll Wassily Chair
Knoll Wassily Chair
At the age of 23, Marcel Breuer first began experimenting with bent tubular steel while he was still at the Bauhaus. He was intrigued by bicycles and how the form of the handlebars hadn’t changed for thirty years.