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Design Hero: Florence Knoll

Celebrating the visionary who helped shape 20th-century interior design and fostered the creation of some of its most iconic pieces

florence knoll furniture designer
Florence Knoll

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Florence Knoll Bassett changed the way we live and work. As a designer and co-founder of Knoll, her name is synonymous with modernity, innovation and the concept of open-plan living and working.

florence knoll bassett's 'relax' chair
Knoll Bassett’s ’Relax’ chair
Ezio Prandini

Born in Michigan in 1917, Knoll Bassett showed an early interest in architecture and design. After being tragically orphaned aged 12, she was enrolled at the Kingswood School for Girls, a boarding school that was part of the renowned Cranbrook Academy of Art. Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, president at Cranbrook, soon noticed her talent and took her under his wing. She became a close friend of the Saarinens, striking up what was to become a lifelong friendship with their son, Eero. The two studied together at Cranbrook, alongside Harry Bertoia and Charles and Ray Eames, and she then went on to complete her training under some of the 20th century’s greatest architects, including Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

florence knoll sofa
Florence Knoll

After moving to New York in 1941, she met and married Hans Knoll and together they established the furniture company Knoll. With an eye for talent, Knoll Bassett brought in the most exciting names in design, including her former classmates Eero Saarinen and Harry Bertoia, who created some of the period’s watershed pieces, including the ‘Tulip’, ‘Womb’ and ‘Bertoia Diamond’ chairs.

florence knoll office design sketch
A sketch for an open-plan office
Florence Knoll

She also contributed her own designs, which she humbly described as ‘meat and potatoes’ compared to the work of her peers; today the ‘Florence Knoll’ sofa (above) is often described as ‘the perfect sofa’. Not wanting to limit her reach, Knoll Bassett drew on her architectural background and founded the Knoll Planning Unit, with which she reimagined the way offices were laid out. Nothing short of revolutionary in post-war America, she introduced the idea of open-plan working, efficiency and space planning, and was responsible for the interiors of corporations including IBM and CBS.

After her husband’s death in 1955, Knoll Bassett (the latter added in 1958 after she remarried) led as the company’s president until 1960, when she stepped aside to focus on development and design. In 1961, she became the first woman to receive the Gold Medal for Industrial Design from the American Institute of Architects and a few years later, after reshaping the design landscape, retired. She passed away on 25 January 2019 aged 101, but her influence is still felt across the industry – her contribution will continue to inspire architects and designers for generations to come. knoll-int.com

This article appeared in ELLE Decoration June 2019

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