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Pioneering designer Florence Knoll Bassett dies aged 101

United States Architecture News - Jan 31, 2019 - 04:48   2519 views

Pioneering designer Florence Knoll Bassett dies aged 101

Pioneering American architect and furniture designer Florence Knoll Bassett passed away aged 101 on January 25, 2019 in Coral Gables, Florida. 

Florence Knoll Bassett was the prolific name behind the Knoll furniture brand and the founder of the Knoll Planning Unit, solidifying her role as a shaper and not just a decorator of space.

Bassett is known one of the most influential architects and designers in postwar America. She is an architect, interior designer, furniture designer, textile innovator, production manager, she has been all of these designs, while her imprint on American modern design transcends any one of these specific fields. 

Pioneering designer Florence Knoll Bassett dies aged 101

Born Florence Margaret Schust on May 24, 1917, in Saginaw, Michigan, she was the daughter of Frederick Schust, who ran a family baking company. Known throughout her life by her friends as "Shu," Florence Knoll Bassett’s rise to the top of the design world began in tragedy, when she was orphaned at age 12. 

Fortuitously, her guardian brought her on a tour of possible boarding schools, among them the recently opened Kingswood School for Girls in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. The school was designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen; at the time, he was also headmaster of the associated Cranbrook Academy of Art. The young Florence Schust was struck by the school's beauty and instantly decided it was the place for her.

Pioneering designer Florence Knoll Bassett dies aged 101

As she developed her interest in architecture, and she caught Eliel Saarinen's attention. Over time, Ms. Knoll Bassett became an extended part of the Saarinen family, which included the son Eero Saarinen, who would go on to become a distinguished architect. 

In 1941, aiming to pursue work in architecture, Ms. Knoll Bassett moved to New York City and met Hans Knoll. Hans Knoll was the third generation of a Stuttgart-based furniture manufacturing family who had come to the United States a few years earlier, and he was beginning to bring European Modernism to a new audience. 

Pioneering designer Florence Knoll Bassett dies aged 101

A paste-up for the 1962 Cowles Publications Building, left. At right, Florence Knoll and Hans Knoll, both in the foreground, discuss an interior.

Seeking to build business for a new chair, he called on the design firm where his future wife and partner happened to be working. Hans Knoll was, by all accounts, a natural born salesman: the pair began working together, and soon Ms. Knoll Bassett was taking an increasingly significant role in the company’s aesthetic development, in addition to her official role designing office interiors. Before long, the two were business partners, and in 1946 the pair married—and renamed the company Knoll Associates.

Pioneering designer Florence Knoll Bassett dies aged 101

An executive office in the First National Bank, 1957, and, right, the Los Angeles Knoll Showroom, 1960, both designed by Ms. Knoll Bassett.

There Ms. Knoll Bassett became inextricable from the company's advances in the industry. She quickly established the Knoll Planning Unit, solidifying her role as a shaper and not just a decorator of space. 

She also broadened the company’s existing array of furniture offerings to eventually include the work of some of her Cranbrook colleagues as well as the prominent Modernist figures who had influenced her education and shared her critical eye; these pieces became icons of corporate interiors of the post-war period and remain timeless designs to this day.

Pioneering designer Florence Knoll Bassett dies aged 101

The new Florence Knoll Relaxed furniture

After she established the Knoll Planning Unit, which set the standard for the mid-century Modern interior, is widely recognized as groundbreaking. The Knoll Planning Unit provided a uniquely efficient and “total design” approach, and Ms. Knoll Bassett further distinguished herself during this period as an influential woman in a male-dominated industry. 

Ms. Knoll Bassett’s meticulous methods of assessing a client’s needs and patterns of use were prized by the most prominent corporate clients of that period, including CBS, GM and IBM. 

In 2002, Ms. Knoll Bassett was awarded the National Medal of the Arts, the highest honor for achievement in the field presented annually by the President of the United States to individuals or groups “deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts.” It is only one of a countless array of honors and awards bestowed on her during her lifetime.

All images courtesy of Knoll

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