Florence Knoll, Designer of the Corporate Board Room

b. 1917

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Craven, Jackie. "Florence Knoll, Designer of the Corporate Board Room." ThoughtCo, May. 23, 2017, thoughtco.com/florence-knoll-designer-corporate-board-room-177364. Craven, Jackie. (2017, May 23). Florence Knoll, Designer of the Corporate Board Room. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/florence-knoll-designer-corporate-board-room-177364 Craven, Jackie. "Florence Knoll, Designer of the Corporate Board Room." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/florence-knoll-designer-corporate-board-room-177364 (accessed October 23, 2017).
Black and white photo of businesswoman Florence Knoll in the mid-1950s
American architect, furniture designer and President of the Knoll design firm, Florence Knoll, circa 1955. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images, ©2009 Getty Images

Trained in architecture, Florence Margaret Schust Knoll Bassett designed interiors that transformed corporate offices in the mid-20th century. Not merely an interior decorator, Florence Knoll reconfigured space and developed many of the iconic furnishings we see in offices today. 

Early Life

Florence Schust, known as "Shu" among her friends and family, was born on May 24, 1917 in  Saginaw, Michigan.

Florence's older brother, Frederick John Schust (1912-1920), died when she was only three years old. Both her father, Frederick Schust (1881-1923), and her mother, Mina Matilda Haist Schust (1884-1931), also died when Florence was young [genealogy.com]. Her upbringing was entrusted to guardians.

"My father was Swiss and emigrated to the United States as a young man. While studying to become an engineer, he met my mother at college. Unfortunately, they both had short life spans, and I was orphaned at an early age. One of my strong memories of my father was when he showed me blueprints on his desk. They seemed enormous to a five year old, but nonetheless, I was enchanted by them. When my mother became seriously ill, she had the foresight to appoint a banker friend, Emile Tessin, as my legal guardian....[A]rrangements were made for me to go to boarding school, and I was given the opportunity to make the selection. I had heard of Kingswood, and we went to check it out....As a result my interest in design and future career began there."— FK Archives

Education and Training

  • 1932-34: Kingswood School, Cranbrook
  • 1934-1935: Cranbrook Academy of Art; studies under architect and furniture designer Eliel Saarinen, father of Eero Saarinen
  • 1935: School of Architecture, Columbia University, NYC; studies town planning
  • 1936-1937: Cranbrook Academy of Art; explores furniture-making with Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames
  • 1938-1939: Architectural Association, London; influenced by Le Corbusier's International style; left England as WWII spread
  • 1940: Moves to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and works for Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer; influenced by the Bauhaus school and Marcel Breuer's steel-tubed modern furniture.
  • 1940-1941: Illinois Institute of Technology (Armour Institute), Chicago; studies under Mies van der Rohe

New York City

  • 1941-1942: Harrison and Abramovitz, NYC
"...being the only female, I was assigned to do the few interiors required. That was how I met Hans Knoll who was beginning his furniture business. He needed a designer to do interiors and eventually I joined him. This was the beginning of the Planning Unit."— FK Archives

The Knoll Years

  • 1941-1942: Moonlights on special projects at Hans G. Knoll Furniture Company. Hans Knoll, the son of a German furniture-maker, came to New York in 1937 and established his own furniture company in 1938.
  • 1943: Joins Knoll Furniture Company full time
  • 1946: Establishes and becomes Director of the Knoll Planning Unit; company reorganized to become Knoll Associates, Inc.; Post-World War II building boom begins and old Cranbrook friends are enlisted to design furniture; Hans and Florence get married.
  • 1948: Mies van der Rohe gives Knoll exclusive rights to manufacture the Barcelona chair
  • 1951: H.G. Knoll International formed
  • 1955: Hans Knoll killed in automobile accident; Florence Knoll named President of company
  • 1958: Marries Harry Hood Bassett (1917-1991)
  • 1959: Resigns as President of Knoll International; remains as design consultant
  • 1964: Last major project, the New York City interiors for the CBS Headquarters designed by Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) and completed by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo
  • 1965: Retires from the Knoll company; private design practice
"My principal work as director of the Planning Unit encompassed all visual design—furniture, textiles and graphics. My role 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 the space as well as meeting the functional requirements, while designers like Eero Saarinen and Harry Bertoia created sculptural chairs."— FK Archives

Major Awards

  • 1961: AIA Gold Medal for Industrial Design, being the first woman to win the Industrial Arts Medal. Inscription begins: "You have abundantly justified your training as an architect as well as the rare fortune of being a protégée in Eliel Saarinen's family, and also a student under Mies van der Rohe."
  • 1962: International Design Award, American Institute of Interior Designers; Knoll's most notable design is the elliptical table-desk, the archetypal boat-shaped conference table most of us have frequented.
  • 2002: National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists by the United States government

Mentors

  • "Rachel de Wolfe Raseman, the art director of Kingswood and a graduate architect from Cornell University. She guided me into the world of architecture and design. I learned the basics of planning and drafting and my first project was to design a house."
  • "The Saarinens befriended me and took me under their wing. They asked my guardian for permission to accompany them to Hvitrask, their home in Finland for the summer....One summer at Hvitrask Eero decided to give me a course in architectural history. He talked and drew these sketches simultaneously on sheets of stationery beginning with Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods. He discussed each detail as the drawings appeared on the paper."
  • "Mies van der Rohe had a profound effect on my design approach and the clarification of design."

Learn More:

Knoll Websites:

Sources: "Biographies of the Artists," Design in America: The Cranbrook Vision, 1925-1950 (Exhibition Catalogue) by New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and Detroit Institute of Arts, edited by Robert Judson Clark, Andrea P. A. Belloli, 1984, p. 270; Knoll Timeline and History at knoll.com; www.genealogy.com/users/c/h/o/Paula-L-Chodacki/ODT43-0281.html at Genealogy.com; Florence Knoll Bassett papers, 1932-2000. Box 1, Folder 1 and Box 4, Folder 10. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. [accessed March 20, 2014]

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Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "Florence Knoll, Designer of the Corporate Board Room." ThoughtCo, May. 23, 2017, thoughtco.com/florence-knoll-designer-corporate-board-room-177364. Craven, Jackie. (2017, May 23). Florence Knoll, Designer of the Corporate Board Room. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/florence-knoll-designer-corporate-board-room-177364 Craven, Jackie. "Florence Knoll, Designer of the Corporate Board Room." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/florence-knoll-designer-corporate-board-room-177364 (accessed October 23, 2017).