Florence Knoll Bassett, a legendary pioneer of the design industry, died Jan. 25 at the age of 101 in Coral Gables, Fla. Knoll Bassett founded the design firm Knoll Associates, which she ran for many years with her husband.
Knoll Bassett discovered her passion for architecture and design at Kingswood School for Girls in Bloomfield, Mich. She went on to study architecture at Columbia University’s school of architecture, the Architectural Association in London and at the Armor Institute of Technology in Chicago (now known as the Illinois Institute of Technology).
In 1941, Knoll Bassett moved to New York City where she worked at a design firm creating office interiors. She began working with her future husband, Hans Knoll, when he called upon her design firm to build business for a new chair he was developing. By 1946, the two were married and had developed Knoll Associates.
Groundbreaking Design at Knoll Associates
During her years at Knoll Associates, Knoll Bassett helped shape the company with key developments that include the establishment of the Knoll Planning Unit. Considered groundbreaking at the time, the Knoll Planning Unit “set the standard for the mid-century Modern interior.” Their signature “total design” approach favored open work spaces over private offices and furniture that accommodated group discussions, often replacing traditional, heavy pieces with lighter designs.
“Through the Planning Unit and her exacting designs, she helped define American Modernism and set a precedent for design that is holistic rather than object-focused,” says David E. Bright, a spokesperson for Knoll.
In addition to the Knoll Planning Unit, Knoll Bassett expanded the company’s furniture line through her own designs and a series of commissions from the period's leading designers. The furniture she designed includes iconic pieces like the Florence Knoll Lounge Chair and Sofa, Executive Desk, Credenza and Table Desk (pictured below).
“Knoll Bassett believed that furniture design is only valuable insofar as it contributes to and speaks to the overall design of a space,” Bright says. “The furniture she designed herself was envisioned as parts of a larger spatial whole—she referred to them as the ‘meat and potatoes’ that had to be designed as solutions to larger problems of spatial planning.”
Along with designing furniture and expanding the company’s array of products, Knoll Bassett launched a textile program to fill another gap she perceived in the market. “The program, the beginning of KnollTextiles, brought Knoll Bassett to another advancement in industry practice,” says Bright.
Industry-Leading Design Contributions
After her husband died in 1955, Knoll Bassett persevered as sole owner of Knoll Associates, continuing to run the Knoll Planning Unit and overseeing design aspects of the company. In her last decade at Knoll, the company doubled in size and became one of the nation’s most influential design organizations, according to The New York Times.
Furnishings like those below feature chrome legs and vibrant colors and are still available through furniture providers like DECASO.
Knoll Bassett’s contributions to her company and the architecture and design fields were recognized on a national level. In 1961, Knoll Bassett became the first woman to receive the Gold Medal for Industrial Design from the American Institute of Architects. In 2003, President George W. Bush presented her with the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest award for artistic excellence.
“Ms. Knoll Bassett's influence on the ‘total design’ sensibility of Knoll cannot be overstated,” remarks Bright. “For Knoll, she demonstrated that a consistently high standard of design was enough to propel the brand and image of a company, cementing it as a leader in furniture and workplace design. Looking forward, Florence Knoll shared our building on the belief that design is inherently about the future, tackling problems that are yet to come – with innovation that is both timeless and adaptable.”
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