Knoll history in a nutshell
Jan 30, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Dear readers, it saddens me to report that last week we lost one of the undisputed queens of mid-century modern design: Florence Knoll Bassett. This lovely lady made Knoll into the drool-worthy design house it is today and redefined the American office environment. In this week’s feature we’ll uncover Knoll history in a nutshell as we honor Florence and her amazing work.
Knoll’s history began in the year 1938. Hans Knoll, the son of a German furniture maker, arrived in America at age 24. One of his first commissions was a project for the New York World’s Fair. This exhibit marked the start of a collaboration that became the Hans G. Knoll Furniture Company. Rooted at East 72nd Street in New York, Hans (along with his World’s Fair design partner Jens Risom), embarked on a mission to bring modernism to the masses. The first catalog collection debuted three years later. The 600 series included such classics as the 654W lounge chair, which not only utilized the limited material palette available during wartime – but celebrated it. While momentum for the company was building, the global conflict of WWII raged on in Europe. In 1943 Risom was drafted and this moment (which could have spelled disaster for the company’s future) proved almost providential.
Finding himself without a creative leader, Hans hired a young Florence Schust. Florence, an orphan by age twelve, became an honorary member of the Saarinen family while studying architecture at the renowned Cranbrook Academy of Art. Her collection of academic advisors reads like a VIP list: Eero Saarinen, Alvar Aalto, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. While there’s no doubt these sterling references helped her land the job, it was Florence’s innate talent for design and keen eye that made her a rising star.
Her vision aligned perfectly with the Knoll ethos: embrace the Bauhaus principle of harmony between exterior and interior design. The bold idea that furniture could enhance (not detract) from one’s surroundings, when coupled with a rockstar design team, fueled their design revolution. This complete restructuring of the American interior experience not only produced brilliant furniture pieces, but also a very happy union as Florence and Hans were married by 1946.
By ditching the burden of past trends and freeing themselves from style fads, the Knoll team (under Florence’s steady hand) began to create iconic spaces that are described as free flowing, uncluttered, rich, streamlined, and well-crafted. This approach went beyond the furniture as the Knoll team (known as the planning unit) considered every aspect of the working and living experience. Commercial proposals included lighting, fabric, color, etc. The energy behind this comprehensive view attracted many famous designers. In just one example, longtime friend Eero Saarinen designed the womb chair for Florence after she requested “a great big basket of pillows that I can curl up in.”
Tragically, in 1955 Hans Knoll died, leaving Florence at the helm. Her gentle and focused guidance led the company through this difficult time and carried on the generous spirit of Hans’ legacy. Scrolling through the archives, your eye is drawn from one sleek icon to another. It’s no exaggeration to say that Knoll helped build the foundation the entire American Modern movement. Nearly every famous designer (from textile to architecture) passed through their design studio doors and Florence’s detailed nature influenced them all. The American Institute of Architects recognized her contributions in 1961 by awarding her with the Gold Medal for Industrial Design. Florence was the first woman to receive the honor, paving the way for all the young girls who dreamt of following in her footsteps.
Knoll remains a powerhouse brand, synonymous with thoughtful design. The early studies of ergonomics inform more-recent works such as the modern classic, The Life Chair. Sustainable materials are considered through the lens of design. Yet the Bauhaus principles, and Florence’s embodiment of them, remain at the core. This essence is what makes Knoll such a treasure to vintage collectors. However, collectors must be cautious. An original mid-century Knoll is hard to come by and is heavily coveted. But, for the thrift store troopers, take heart – here’s a handy guide on differentiating between the true and false. Much like Lane, you’ll want to closely inspect the construction details. High-quality materials and joinery definitely set it apart from the copycats.
To sum up Knoll history in a nutshell is to sum up Florence’s contributions. Perhaps this was best done by The Times wordsmith Paul Goldberger who said of Florence: she “probably did more than any other single figure to create the modern, sleek, postwar American office, introducing contemporary furniture and a sense of open planning into the work environment.” As we consider Florence’s legacy, tell us about your favorite Knoll design in the comments…