In 1964 The New York Times hailed Florence Knoll (later Florence Knoll Bassett) as the “single most powerful figure in modern design.” A lofty yet deserving title for the architect and interior designer who defined the approach of modern design in postwar corporate America building the now iconic Knoll Inc., design firm. The world as we see it today would not be the same without Florence Knoll. While many know Florence as an arbiter of international style for the mid-20th century, her inspirational story is not often told and few realize how much of an impact she made.
In 1917, Florence Knoll was born Florence Schust in Saginaw, Michigan, and hence the nickname “Shu” which stuck from her childhood. The beginnings of Shu’s rise to design fame were marked by tragedy, at the age of 12 she was orphaned and moved to the home of her new guardian. Yet, luck was on her side as Shu’s new guardian sought to provide the best education, and in 1932 she left Saginaw for Bloomfield Hills and the Kingswood School for Girls on the idyllic, sprawling campus of Cranbrook.
It was at Kingswood that Florence developed an interest in architecture and design and quickly she was taken in by one of modern design’s most famous families, the Saarinens. Eliel Saarinen, architect of Cranbrook’s campus and president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, encouraged Florence to explore her love of buildings and interior spaces. She would dine with the Saarinens at their iconic home on Cranbrook’s campus and spend summers with them in Finland, learning architectural history and drawing plans for the houses and buildings she dreamed to one day build. Through the Saarinen’s a whole new world was opened up to Florence. A long way from Saginaw, Shu traveled to Europe and learned the modern design philosophies of the Bauhaus movement which encouraged the concept of ‘total design.’ This concept resonated with Florence and after completing architecture studies at Cranbrook in 1935, she sought the company of those behind the Bauhaus.
Studying and working with Bauhaus masters, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, Florence began to think about architecture as a setting for furniture and how we use it at home and at work. And this is how Florence became interested in furniture. The timing could not have been better – in 1941 she met Hans Knoll. Florence began working with Hans, eventually marrying him and, together with him building the furniture company, Knoll Inc., to be the most successful purveyor of American Modernism in the world.
Florence developed a keen eye and unique approach to furniture, enlisting famous friends to design pieces for Knoll that would revolutionize furniture design. It was at her request for “a chair that was like a basket full of pillows – something she could really curl up in” that Eero Saarinen created the iconic Womb Chair which is still in production today and as popular as when it debuted in 1948. Florence was quick to say she was no interior decorator. She did not select interesting furniture for interior spaces but determined how certain pieces fit into the overall architectural plan. And though she herself designed a large catalogue of furniture specifically to fill gaps in these plans, she shunned the title of furniture designer.
For Florence, her sense of design developed beyond just ‘architecture’ or ‘furniture’ to encompass both, embodying ‘total design,’ the credo she learned from the Bauhaus masters. In the mid 20th century this was a truly groundbreaking way of thinking, designing space around use, efficiency and the purpose of the objects within. This design approach led Florence to develop the Knoll Planning Unit. Revolutionizing space planning, and office design, Florence’s Planning Unit was responsible for the interiors of some of America’s largest corporations, including IBM, General Motors and CBS.
Florence’s dedication to a modern design approach integrated furniture and architectural design into one process, a process centered on function and use. Florence’s approach not only defined the style of American Modernism but paved the way for the field of interior design. Planning methods and tools, such as Florence’s infamous ‘paste-ups’ depicting both the materials and plan of a space, are still used by interior designers today.
In 101 years, a person can see a lot of change, but it takes conviction, dedication and whole lot of moxie to create as much change as Florence Knoll Bassett. As you walk into the lobby of a mid century building, or sit in a mid century lounge chair – even if it is an “inspired by” reproduction you found at Ikea – take a moment to thank Florence for ushering us into a new way of design. And wish her a happy birthday.
Learn more about Florence Knoll Bassett at
FLORENCE KNOLL: A WOMAN OF HER OWN DESIGN
May 15 | 6:30-9:00PM
TOM GIBBS STUDIO | 2014 Hilton Road – Ferndale, MI 48220
Presented by TOM GIBBS STUDIO, NEXT:SPACE and DECASO. Featuring special guest speakers Michael Poris, Architect and Principal at McIntosh Poris & Associates and Tod Donobedian of DECASO. In honor of Shu’s 101st birthday this month, TOM GIBBS STUDIO and NEXT:SPACE present a special MDI Design Talk as part of the international DECASO Seminar Series. Discover the history and enduring design philosophies of Florence Knoll and toast her lifetime of achievements with the “Shu” Cocktail.
Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org by May 12th.