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FLORENCE KNOLL: the first lady of modern design

In an era where "Mad Men" ruled the office, architect and designer Florence Knoll was revolutionizing the way we work and live. To celebrate Women's History Month, here's a look at design's most notable female pioneer.

photos courtesy of Knoll Inc./Knoll Archives

Florence Knoll was the creative force behind Knoll, one of the most influential design brands of the 20th century. Born in Michigan and orphaned at age 12, Florence Knoll (formerly Schust) demonstrated an early interest in architecture. In hopes of nurturing this passion, in 1932, her guardian enrolled her at the Kingswood School for Girls, adjacent to the Cranbrook Academy of Art. While there, Florence befriended Eliel Saarinen, who invited her to study at Cranbrook. There, her most important design education—studying under Harry Bertoia and others of his caliber—occurred.

Florence then went on to learn from the great 20th-century modernist masters of design. She discovered furniture making with Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames, and after a two-year stint at London’s Architectural Association, returned to America where she apprenticed for Bauhaus founders Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer in Boston. Her formal education concluded studying under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. In 1941, well-prepared for a career in design, Florence headed to New York.

Knoll's Florence Coffee Table is the perfect centerpiece for a stylish gathering space.

That's where she met Hans Knoll, a member of a prominent German furniture-making family and the man she would go on to marry. With Florence’s design skills and Hans’ business acumen, the pair grew the company into an international arbiter of style and design.

Hans and Florence Knoll

Florence Knoll was a woman at the conference table back when it was still a man's world.

Both Hans and Florence embraced the creative genius of Cranbrook and the Bauhaus School to create new types of furniture and environments for the workplace. Florence’s approach to design—true to the Bauhaus design philosophy that furniture should complement architectural spaces, not compete with them—was a driving factor in Florence establishing the Planning Unit division of Knoll, which was developed to meet the growing demand for the design of homes and offices during the mid-century.

Knoll Planning Unit

office concept sketch by Florence Knoll

Florence Knoll revolutionized office design and her influences are still widely seen and celebrated to this day.

Florence Knoll's iconic oval desk remains a key element of the modern office design aesthetic. Get yours here:

Furnishings by Florence Knoll and other Knoll designers grace any room of the home with Midcentury Modern elegance.

During her time in the Planning Unit, it became apparent to Florence that the kind of fabrics she considered suitable for office furnishings were not available. "The current vogue in the textile showrooms was brocade and chintz with cabbage roses," she said. "I began to search for acceptable alternates and began to use fabrics from British tailors.” Consequently, Knoll is now also recognized for its extensive line of textiles designed by Florence Knoll.

The idea of fabric swatches hung on a chain, which is credited to Florence Knoll, has since become an industry standard.

After the tragic death of her husband due to an automobile accident in 1955, Florence Knoll found herself leading the company, first as president and then as director of design and development. She would continue to do so for the next decade.

Florence Knoll humbly referred to her furniture designs as “meat and potatoes"—intended to fill space between the standout pieces of Bertoia, Mies, and Saarinen. “I designed the architectural [elements] that were needed to make the room work, things like the walls, [tables] and sofas," she said. But Florence's designs were received as anything but "filler." Although she may have conceived them as "background architecture," over the years, Florence Knoll's seating, tables and case goods have proven to be design classics all their own; they remain some of the most celebrated furnishings of the modern era. And though she retired from the company in 1965, Florence's vision continues to shape Knoll to this day.

Florence Knoll Bassett (she was remarried in 1957 to Harry Hood Bassett) passed away in Coral Gables, Florida at the age of 101, but her monumental influence on modern office design—and modernist design as a whole—lives on and on.

To explore and purchase the Florence Knoll Collection, Knoll indoor/outdoor furnishings, and Knoll Textiles visit:

And be sure to tell them "the design raven" sent you!


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