She… taught the executives that a desk could be light and approachable, serving its purpose without looking like a carved mahogany fortress. — New York Times, 1964
Florence Knoll Bassett brought about a revolution in the American office. Heavy, dark woods and closed off spaces were transformed into modern, bright, and open workspaces under her skillful guidance. An architect, designer, and proponent of humanized modernism, she changed the way we work, and produced some of the 20th century's most iconic furniture pieces. Just don't call her a decorator.
An only child born in Michigan in 1917, Florence was orphaned at a young age. Her guardian sent her to study at Kingswood, an all girls' school in Bloomfield Hills designed by Eliel Saarinen. She was fascinated by the building; word got to Saarinen and son Eero, 7 years her senior and studying architecture at Yale, and soon young Florence was accompanying them on summer pilgrimages to Finland. After graduating, she attended a few architecture schools in Europe, but World War II sent her stateside, where she earned her degree at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, studying under professor Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
After working at various architectural firms and for the likes of Marcel Breuer, Florence met Hans Knoll, whom she married in 1946. She convinced Hans that his furniture company could do more business with an interior design service that worked with architects, and Knoll Associates was born.
Florence's Knoll Planning Unit transformed the standard American workplace from dark and drab to light and open. With her architectural training, she worked to create a space that made sense from the user's standpoint — not to just decorate, but to design. At the time, closed off spaces and richly carved executive desks placed on the diagonal were the norm — Florence has mentioned squaring off the desks was, at first, her biggest obstacle with clients.
Florence was a strong proponent of considering all the elements of a space and the way they relate to one another, so when furniture in the current Knoll catalog didn't work for a project, she designed something that did. Iconic pieces like her credenza and boat-shaped conference table are examples of her commitment to that idea.
She spread that philosophy to her architect friends, encouraging them to design furniture for Knoll. We may never have experienced Bertoia's wire chairs or Saarinen's tulip table without her. Florence asked Saarinen to design her a chair that felt like "a great big basket of pillows" that she could curl up in — and the Womb chair was born. She convinced former teacher Mies van der Rohe to sell Knoll the licensing rights to the Barcelona chair, another iconic design Knoll still brings us to this day.
After Hans' death in 1955 and her remarriage to Harry Hood Bassett in 1958, Florence spent more time at their home in Miami. She completed interiors for the First National Bank of Miami, H.J. Heinz Company, and the CBS Building, retiring from her presidency at Knoll in 1960, and from the company altogether in 1965. As a female president, she was a trailblazer for other women, not only at Knoll, but across the country.
Florence Knoll Bassett was honored with the National Endowment for the Arts' National Medal of Arts in 2002. In a profile for the New York Times in 1964, Virginia Lee Warren wrote, "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." No wonder her work is so timeless and relevant today, nearly half a century later.