Florence Knoll Interview – Knoll’s history

Florence Knoll Interview – Knoll’s history

1957 Florence Knoll with Eero Saarinen


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“Her hands, with their short, unpainted nails, are the used hands of a busy, creative person, but the enormous emerald solitaire looks perfectly at home guarding her wedding band. She wears other emeralds so casually that she might have been born with them.”—Virginia Lee Warren (an excerpt from the September 1, 1964 New York Times article “Woman Who Led an Office Revolution Rules an Empire of Modern Design”)

Written by Susan Brandabur

When you study the working lives of famous architects, some appear to have been as solitary as a skyscraper, with nameless assistants blending into the skyline around them. But Florence “Shu” Knoll, the brilliant American architect, interior space-planner and furniture designer, had a gift for collaborating with others and for recognizing and promoting great work.

Florence Knoll helped create, and for a time ran. Knoll Furniture with an elegant steeliness that contrasted with her adorable looks and nickname. She assisted in bringing into form some of the most enduring design products of modernist luminaries like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Isamu Noguchi, Eero Saarinen and Marcel Breuer, at the same time producing singular interiors and furniture of her own. Her achievements would have been remarkable for anyone, but for a woman in postwar corporate America they were extraordinary.

Florence Knoll Bassett was born Florence Schust in Saginaw, Mich., in 1917.

Orphaned at age 12 by the death of her mother Mina (her father, Frederick Schust, died when she was 5), Florence was taken in hand by a guardian who guided her to select a girls’ boarding school.

The guardian fatefully chose the Kingswood School, part of the Cranbrook Educational Community, in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., which was presided over by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. With his textile-designer wife Loja, Saarinen recognized Shu’s talent and brought her under the wing of their family.

Cranbrook presented a holistic approach to design that Florence carried forth with her. At Kingswood, she designed her first house, conceptually complete in every detail, at age 14. She continued her study of architecture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, at the Architectural Association in London, and at ITT in Chicago.

In 1943 she was working for Harrison and Abromovitz Architects in New York when she met Hans Knoll, a furniture manufacturer. She went to work for Knoll and began the Knoll Planning Unit, a design group within the company that would set the standard for interior space-planning practices. She married Hans Knoll in 1946 and the company became Knoll Associates.

Hans Knoll

At Knoll, Florence designed regional showrooms (in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Milan) that fluently communicated the Knoll brand and showcased the company’s products with color and great modern style. She is also credited with elevating standards of furniture manufacture to a new level of quality. Her exactitude could be frustrating for those who worked under her, but the result was worth it.

Perhaps most significantly, she brought her relationships with teachers Eliel Saarinen, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer, and friends Isamu Noguchi, Harry Bertoia and Eero Saarinen into the Knoll fold, famously giving them design credit and paying them royalties for their products, a practice unusual in the furniture industry. With Swiss graphic designer Herbert Matter, Knoll helped create a series of inventive print advertisements.

In 1947 she established Knoll Textiles. Florence Knoll designed acclaimed office projects for CBS, the Rockefeller family, Look Magazine and Connecticut General Life Insurance.

In 1955, Hans Knoll died in a car accident while on a business trip. People assumed the company would close, but Florence became president and Knoll went forward. She married banker Harry Hood Bassett in 1958, selling Knoll in 1959, but stayed involved in the company for several more years.

Florence retired in 1965, but kept her hand in the design world with projects for a few favored clients. In 2003 she was recognized with a National Medal of Arts, and in 2004, she came out of retirement to design an exhibition of her own work for the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2004.

Curator Kathryn Hiesinger considers herself honored to have been Shu’s last client. “Our exhibition space was small, about 330 square feet. It’s a problematic space, long and skinny, broken up by windows, but Shu domesticated it and made it beautiful,” Heisinger said. “Her solutions were so smart and inventive. The staff called it the Shu-Box. She designed the whole exhibition, down to the last detail. She sent us a list of furniture for the show, illustrated with meticulous color drawings she made of each piece. Mrs. Bassett made at least three trips to Philadelphia in preparation for the show. Everything she did was impeccable.”

Now 92, Florence Knoll Bassett is revered by generations of architects, designers, students and collectors of Modern furniture. Knoll International remains a highly respected manufacturer of furniture and textiles, still producing the designs of Florence Knoll.

New York Times Sept 1, 1964

Woman Who Led an Office Revolution Rules an Empire of Modern Design

By Virginia Lee Warren


Once upon a time virtually every big business executive thought—or whoever did his thinking for him on such matters thought—that his office had to have pale green walls and that his heavy, drawers-to-floor desk had to be placed cater-cornered.

Then along came a woman who showed the executives that they could be just as impressive against a background of neutral or even white walls, sometimes with one wall in a strong primary color, and that their status would not be impaired if they moved their desks to a logical, space-saving foursquare position.

The woman was young, dark-eyed, dark-haired and slender, with the clothes sense of a model, the training of an architect, unfailingly good judgment, and the nickname of Schu. She also taught the executives that a desk could be light and approachable, serving its purpose without looking like a carved mahogany fortress.

That revolution in the office took place 20 years ago and Florence Schust (Schu) Knoll, the woman who led it, is today the single most powerful figure in the field of modern design.

The worldwide Knoll empire — Knoll Associates, Inc., Knoll Textiles, Inc., and Knoll International, Ltd. — which, with its 14 offices in the United States and 21 abroad, is the largest and by far the most prestigious organization of its kind, looms as a sort of promised land for designers of furniture, textiles and accessories.

To be accepted by Knoll is to have it made. And while Knoll has a committee to pass upon submissions, it is Florence Knoll, as director of design, who makes the final decision.

Furnishing Offices

She is now engaged in designing and furnishing the thousand or so offices in the new CBS building at 51 West 52d Street where occupancy is to begin in December. Her job embraces everything from the choice of wall coverings—sometimes felt or tweed for the sake of acoustics—to ash trays, pictures and door handles.

All the furnishings and fabrics will be from Knoll with pieces by Florence Knoll and the late Eero Saarinen predominating. (This was Saarinen’s last building.)

She has led people to see that texture in fabrics can be as interesting as a print (she dislikes prints) and that steel legs on tables, chairs and sofas can have grace and elegance.

But Florence Knoll still considers, she said recently, the straightening of the cater-cornered desk and the inevitable cater-cornered table behind it her “single biggest struggle.

It marked, in a way, the beginning of an era. From that time on an office—or any other room—could be designed instead of being decorated.

“I am not a decorator, she said emphatically in the field. “The only place I decorate is my own house.

She does not think of herself as an architect, either. An authority in the field, however, said that Florence Knoll was surely the most successful woman architect anywhere.

What seems to distinguish her, above all, is something that probably has nothing to do with her training, architectural or otherwise. It is her unerring taste. Whenever her name comes up in design or architectural fields there is almost sure to be reference to this legendary attribute.

To anyone who believes in guiding stars, it would be tempting to believe that Florence Knoll has always had one. Born as an only child in Saginaw, Mich., she was orphaned by the time she had finished elementary school. (Her father was an engineer.)

The young ‘Schu’ Schust’s guardian, a banker, sent her to Kingswood in Bloomfield Hills, the girls’ school that Eliel Saarinen had designed as part of the Cranbrook Foundation. Saarinen was then president of the foundation’s Academy of Art and his son, Eero, seven years older than Schu, was studying architecture at Yale.

While other girls in Kingswood were inclined to regard the building merely as a center for the school’s activities, young Schu became fascinated with the building itself. When the Saarinens learned of this interest they virtually adopted her and she went with them on their pilgrimages to Finland summer after summer. With Eliel Saarinen she began the study of architecture.

Then, in her own words, she “sampled various schools in Europe before settling down at the Architectural Association in London (the oldest school of architecture in the world). In her third year, World War II drove her home and she went for her degree to the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, where Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was professor of architecture. She says now that she learned more from him than from anyone, and in fewer words.

Later she was to persuade him to grant the rights to reproduce his Barcelona chair to Knoll. Originally designed for the Barcelona Exposition in 1929, it is one of the true aristocrats of the Knoll line. Florence Schust worked in the offices of several New York architects and was with Harrison & Abramovitz when she met tall, handsome, dynamic Hans Knoll, who had come here from Germany by way of England and established in 1938 under his name a furniture company that was to promote modern design and create its own market. (It is generally agreed that, as an impresario and promoter of the avant-garde in his field, he has never been equaled.)

When he and Florence Schust were married in 1944, she entered the concern as a partner and set up the Knoll Planning Unite to handle the company’s interior—designing operations, heading the unit herself.

Roster of Architects

One of their greatest accomplishments was the corralling of architects—Eero Saarinen, Marcel Breuer, Pierre Jeanneret, Hans Bellman, among others—to design furniture. Once Florence Knoll asked Saarinen to make a chair “like a great big basket of pillows that I can curl up in, and his womb chair was the result.

The Knolls staked Harry Bertoia, the sculptor, to two years in a studio barn in Pennsylvania, to see if, after his work with metals, he could turn out furniture. His wire chairs were the answer.

The textile division was established. And a design development unit was set up to give would-be designers a chance to show what they could do. From this cradle of design have come such creations as the petal table by Richard Schultz.

When the Knolls were asked by the State Department to produce furniture for American personnel abroad, they went on from that to form Knoll International. The 21 offices scattered around the globe—five major companies, 16 licensees—give only an inkling of International’s scope. There are, for instance, some 30 franchised dealers throughout the French provinces and Africa alone.

Hans Knoll was killed in an automobile accident in 1955. His widow succeeded him as president of the Knoll enterprises. The following year she brought out the Saarinen pedestal tables and chair.

In 1957, among other projects she took on the job of doing the executive offices of the First National Bank in Miami, and the next year she was married to Harry Hood Bassett, an officer of the bank (he is now president) and a Florida cattle rancher. He was exactly her age and, like herself, had been born in Michigan.

Married a Year

When she had been married a year she sold the Knoll companies—Knoll Associates, Knoll Textiles and Knoll International—to Art Metal Construction Company, a move that permitted her to spend more time in Florida. She kept the presidency of all three Knoll entities, though.

By 1960 Florida was beckoning more insistently than ever and she resigned the presidencies, but she is still very much in charge of design for all Knoll enterprises.

Today Florence Knoll Bassett leads the kind of life that many women might dream of, if they could dream big enough and were not allergic to work.

She and her husband live on Sunset Island, off Miami, where there is a studio workshop on the grounds for her. They also have an apartment in New York, at 200 East 66th Street, and are looking for a place in Vermont.

Florence Knoll’s clothes are either custom-made—Balenciaga in Paris, Joan Morse of A la Carte in New York—or are jeans or Lillies or things from Jax.

Her hands, with their short, unpainted nails, are the used hands of a busy, creative person, but the enormous emerald solitaire looks perfectly at home guarding her wedding band. She wears other emeralds so casually—earrings, a flower spray with diamonds fastened to three strands of pearls—that she might have been born with them.

A Slight Figure

A little below average height and small-boned, she has, at 48, the slight figure and quick movements of a schoolgirl, but the poise is that of a woman used to being in command of a situation.

She is frequently described as stunning or beautiful—terms inspired not so much by rather delicate but slightly irregular features as by an inward radiance and animation. Her intelligence shows.

In Florida, she starts work these days around 8:30 A.M. with miniature, drawn-to-scale mock-ups of the various floors in the CBS building. The morning is almost sure to include a couple of hours on the telephone with the New York office.

Lunch, served on a tray by the pool, takes only half an hour. Then she works until 5:30 or 6, after which there are three sets of tennis and a swim with her husband.

In New York her days are spent at the Knoll offices and showroom, 320 Park Avenue. (Anyone accompanied by a decorator may visit the showroom). If her husband cannot join her she usually lunches alone.

She reads biography or history as she eats. She does not care for fiction, saying, “I’m interested only in things that are real.”

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