Florence Knoll Bassett Was a Revolutionary of American Office Spaces

published Jan 28, 2019
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The design world has lost a legend. On Friday, Florence Knoll Bassett passed away at the age of 101 in Florida. 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.

Born in Michigan in 1917, she was orphaned at a young age and her guardian sent her to a school designed by Eliel Saarinen in Bloomfield Hills, Illinois. She became fascinated by the building; word got back to the architect, and she was soon accompanying Saarinen and his son Eero, then an architectural student at Yale, on summer holidays to Finland.

In college, she studied under Mies van der Rohe and her spent her early career at firms run by the likes of Marcel Breuer. She met Hans Knoll in 1946, and convinced him that his furniture company needed a design arm. That’s when she began transforming where we work.

Before she came along, heavy, dark woods and closed off spaces were the norm in office spaces. “She… taught the executives that a desk could be light and approachable, serving its purpose without looking like a carved mahogany fortress,” the New York Times wrote of Knoll Bassett in 1964.

Collabs between influencers and brands are everywhere in 2019, but Knoll Bassett was a pioneer. She managed to convince all her famous architect friends to step away from buildings and design furniture for her company. Without her, we might not have Saarinen’s tulip table or Bertoia’s wire chairs.

After Hans’ death in 1955 and her marriage 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.

The brilliant thing about Knoll Bassett’s aesthetic is that it’s still as relevant today as it was in the 1960s: “What seems to distinguish her, above all, is something that probably has nothing to do with her training, architectural or otherwise,” the 1964 Times profile reads. “It is her unerring taste.”