MODERNIST MONDAYS: Florence Knoll

Welcome back to #ModernistMondays! At TTC, we are constantly inspired by modernist architects and artists from past and present. To showcase some of our favorites, we launched #ModernistMondays, where we highlight one modernist a month to explore with ten quick facts. You can keep up with #ModernistMondays on the TTC Blog, or our Instagram page! For February, our Modernist pick is one of interior design’s pioneering women, Florence Knoll.

Florence Knoll 1917-2019

  1. Knoll was born Florence Marguerite Schust in Michigan, and was orphaned at the age of 12. Her new guardian enrolled her in at the Cranbrook Educational Community, a boarding school where Eliel Saarinen — the famed Modernist architect — was the president.
  2. Florence spent a lot of time over summers with Saarinen and his son, Eero. There, she explored architecture and furniture design with the younger Saarinen and Charles Eames, both of whom would become famous designers in the future. As a student, she interned under Marcel Bruer and Mies van der Rohe, both iconic 20th century architects. Her studies were interrupted due to health reasons and World War II, but she graduated in 1941 from the Illinois Institute of Technology.
  3. After graduation, she moved to New York to work in the interiors department of several architectural offices. Through those jobs, she met Hans Knoll, who owned the Hans G. Knoll Furniture Company. She helped him expand the company exponentially; eventually the two married in  1946, and became partners at the newly renamed Knoll Associates, Inc.
  4. Florence Knoll helped to develop interior design as a respected profession. She preferred the title “interior designer” over “decorator,” as the process required an expertise and skill that “decorator” did not convey at the time. She designed office spaces for prolific companies such as IBM, GM, and CBS in the 1950s. At the time offices were usually decorated with catalog furniture and without much thought, so her design focus opened up a previously unexplored area .
  5. To better humanize the importance of office design, she provided “paste-ups” – flat models attached to boards with pieces of materials to show layouts and textures. This was the first time such a method had been used for interiors, and it often helped to sell her services to large offices. Today, most designers use some method of mood boards or “paste-ups,” inspired by Knoll.
  6. Knoll believed that architects should apply their design abilities to furniture design. As an executive at Knoll Inc., she encouraged her architect connections, such as Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe, and Isamu Noguchi to create pieces for the brand, which are now some of the most recognizable and beloved pieces of modernist furniture.
  7. Florence Knoll’s outstanding layouts in the Knoll showrooms around the country helped to spread and solidify the role of mid-century furniture in modern design. The growth expanded internationally, with showrooms in Paris and Milan in the early 1950s.
  8. She designed multiple “meat and potatoes” pieces for Knoll collections, intended to complement more flashy Knoll items. Almost half of the pieces in the collection were hers, which included tables, desks, chairs, sofas, benches and stools.
  9. In 1955, Hans Knoll died in a tragic car accident. After his passing, Florence Knoll helped launch Knoll International Inc. and Knoll Textiles in 1960. 
  10. In 2003, President Bush awarded her the nation’s highest honor for artistic excellence, the National Medal of Arts.

SOURCES: “Florence Knoll,” Wikipedia; “Florence Knoll Bassett Dies at 101,” Knoll; “Florence Knoll,” Pioneering Women; “Florence Knoll Bassett at 100,” Knoll