It’s March, which means it’s Women’s History Month! Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring the lives of female designers, artists and architects who have made mid century modern design what it is today.
Born Florence Schust in 1917 in Saginaw, Michigan, Florence Knoll is most known for her work as an architecturally minded innovator of design, particularly in corporate spaces, and for her role in curating the Knoll company’s classic staple of mid century modern furniture icons.
Florence’s life was one filled with architecture and design and close, productive relationships punctuated by loss. Orphaned at the age of 12, she expressed early interest in architecture and enjoyed close relationships with the Saarinen family (yes, those Saarinens!). She vacationed with the family to Finland and recalls on one of those summer trips, Eero Saarinen drew and explained the history of architecture to her.
Her relationship with the Saarinens was a fruitful one, and after graduating, Eero encouraged Florence to design a dorm room and its furnishings. This was an influential project for her and a foretaste of her later work in the Planning Unit.
Florence married and became an equal partner in business with Hans Knoll, who founded the eponymous furniture firm, Knoll. Florence saw herself first and foremost as an architect. Her approach was always guided by her vision of the space as a whole, translating and reflecting the architecture in the furniture and spaces she designed and pieces she commissioned from her talented friends for the Knoll staple of products.
She headed Knoll’s Planning Unit, designing private and corporate spaces. In her biographical portfolio, she describes her vision of this work: “My principal work as director of the Planning Unit encompassed all visual design—furniture, textiles and graphics. My roles as interior designer and space planner naturally led to furniture to meet the needs of varied projects from domestic to corporate. I thought of these designs as architectural pieces that defined space as well as meeting the functional requirements, while designers, like Eero Saarinen and Harry Bertoia created sculptural chairs.”
While she viewed her own furniture designs as “meat and potatoes,” the furniture she designed is still elegantly efficient and enduring, especially in office settings. Florence Knoll brought corporate settings into a more streamlined and efficient aesthetic by separating desk and storage with table desks, which then had room underneath them for others to pull up a chair and conference without storage drawers in the way. She designed credenzas to provide the necessary storage space near but apart from the desk to free up the desk to become a conference space as well.
Another one of her innovations from her role in the Planning Unit was her paste-up method of sharing design plans with clients. Rather than presenting blueprints, she used boards to give a more tactile and intuitive impression of the design. For instance, she would use fabric swatches for sofas or chairs, wood chips for tables, leaves for potted plants.
She encouraged talented friends to design pieces for Knoll. These included iconic mid century designs like Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona line, Harry Bertoia’s wire chairs and Eero Saarinen’s Tulip and Womb chairs and pedestal tables.
Sadly, her husband Hans Knoll died in a car crash in 1955. She later remarried Harry Hood Bassett but continued her work at Knoll as president and then Director of Design until 1965. Knoll lived until the age of 101 and passed away in 2019. Her legacy is still seen today, as her designs are still available for purchase at Knoll.