Chances are if you have spent any time in sophisticated office environments, you have experienced the gifts of Florence Knoll Bassett. Knoll Bassett was an interior architect and designer, credited with modernizing the post-World War II American corporate office space. Knoll Bassett was a protegé of the legendary architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, bringing many Modernist sensibilities to her work. She was heavily influenced by Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, fostering a mixture of architecture, art and utility in her furnishings and interiors.
Florence Knoll Bassett was born Florence Schust, on May 24, 1917, in Saginaw, Michigan. Her father died when she was five and her mother when she was 12, leaving her orphaned. Her legal guardian enrolled her into a private girls’ school, where her fascination with architecture came to the attention of Eliel Saarinen, then headmaster of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, as well as an acclaimed architect. Saarinen and his family virtually adopted Schust, who spent summers in Europe with the Saarinens, allowing her to experience a world of art and culture. As an adult, she was able to study under Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1941.
Florence forged a partnership with furniture maker Hans Knoll, whom she later married, in 1943. The company was known as Knoll Associates, with Henry running the business and Florence serving as design director. Over a 20 year period, Knoll Associates became the most prestigious high-end design firm of its kind, with 35 showrooms across the United States and around the world. It was the leading innovator of modern office spaces in the ‘50s and ‘60s, transforming corporate headquarters’ across the country, including CBS, Seagram, and Look Magazine and H.J. Heinz.
After Hans Knoll died in a car accident in 1955, Knoll Bassett took the reigns as president of the company until 1960. At this time she sold her interest in the company but remained design director until 1965, when she retired to a private architecture and design practice in Florida.
[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.
In 2003 she was presented with the National Medal of Arts by President George W. Bush.
Knoll Bassett was best known for reimagining interior space, as she cleared the heavy desks and draperies that had cluttered offices for years. Her “total design” concept called for an absolute devotion to aesthetic simplicity. Trademarks of her design approach included open workspaces, integrated lighting, vibrant lighting, acoustical fabrics, multilevel interiors, sofas and desks with chrome legs, and large oval meeting tables. Well connected in the design world, Knoll Bassett also collaborated with famed designers, paying them commissions and providing them credit for their designs; Isamu Noguchi’s cyclone table and Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair are examples of pieces that were originally designed for Knoll Associates. Knoll Bassett’s design can be found in museum collections around the world, including Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
Knoll Bassett died January 25, 2019, at her home in Coral Gables. She was 101. Irvine Company Chicago extends condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of this iconic figure in the design world. She was an inspiration to Modernists everywhere and we feel the loss of her passing.
Portrait of American architect and furniture designer Florence Knoll Bassett, 1961. The LIFE Images Collection/Getty