American Women Tastemakers: Florence Knoll Bassett

By Barbara Aikens

March 28, 2013

Portfolio of photographs and articles
Florence Knoll Bassett portfolio of photographs and articles, 1957-1997. Florence Knoll Bassett papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
CBS entrance sketches
Sketches of various color and furniture schemes for each CBS entrance, 1964. Florence Knoll Bassett papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

As designers, business women, gallery owners, curators, critics and writers, educators, and collectors, American women have made significant contributions to the evolution and public understanding of modernist art and design in our country. The Archives of American Art is fortunate to have the papers of many of these women among our holdings, some of which have been digitized in their entirety.  Women’s History Month is a most appropriate time to feature yet another American female modernist tastemaker whose papers are found here at the Archives of American Art—iconic designer Florence Knoll Bassett.

Florence Knoll Bassett established herself as one of the most influential American interior planners and designers of the second half of the twentieth century. Knoll believed that good design “strikes at the root of living requirements and changing habits.” Her belief in “total design”—architecture, manufacturing, interior design, furniture, textiles, graphics, advertising and presentation—meant that she integrated all aspects of spatial planning, furnishing, and decorating into one seamless package.

Showroom at 575 Madison Avenue
Knoll showroom at 575 Madison Avenue in New York City, 1951 / unidentified photographer. Florence Knoll Bassett papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Florence Knoll Bassett was born Florence Schust in 1917 and was affectionately known as “Shu” by her colleagues and friends. She was orphaned at age 12. While attending Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Florence met the Saarinen family with whom she became close friends. She studied under Eliel Saarinen and became interested in textile design through her friendship with Loja Saarinen. Eliel Saarinen encouraged Florence to attend Cranbrook Academy of Art before finishing her studies in architecture.

There, she met and worked with many of the designers, Ray and Charles Eames and Harry Bertoia for example, whose furniture and fabric designs she would later commission for her total design packages at Knoll Associates. And, in turn, Knoll was asked to design the interior spaces for Saarinen’s CBS headquarters building in New York City.

Florence Knoll completed her formal training at the Illinois Institute of Technology where she studied under Mies van der Rohe, whom she credits with having “a profound effect on my design approach and the clarification of design.” She began working for Hans Knoll in 1943. They married in 1946 and formed Knoll Associates, Inc. Shortly thereafter, Florence started the Planning Unit as a comprehensive interior design service.

In 1950, Hans moved the Knoll base of operations from New York City to Pennsylvania. He died in a car accident in 1955 leaving Florence as the president. In 1960, she ceded herself to the position of consultant, leaving the company altogether in 1965. For her extraordinary contributions to architecture and design, Florence Knoll was accorded the prestigious National Medal of Arts in 2002.

A selection of the Florence Knoll Bassett papers in custom archival housing. Photo: Barbara Aikens
A selection of the Florence Knoll Bassett papers in custom archival housing. Photo: Barbara Aikens

Florence Knoll’s connections with leading and emerging contemporary furniture designers opened up new venues for these designers which may not have been possible without her eye for the total package and the company’s commitment to crediting architects and designers by name and paying them royalties. Knoll Associates’s support and promotion of these now-iconic designers were contributing factors to their long-term success.

Today, many of the furniture pieces commissioned by Knoll or designed by Knoll herself are represented in the modern design and decorative arts collections of major art museums across the country, and in Canada and Europe. It is a rare modern design aficionado who does not crave at least one piece of furniture by Eames or Saarinen, or a Bertoia wire chair, for their own living space.

Florence Knoll Bassett even designed her own archive that she donated to the Archives of American Art in 2000. It is not uncommon for donors to provide the Archives with annotations or notes about their papers or the papers of their families. Florence Knoll, however, curated the entire contents of the collection, arranged the papers into portfolios and color-coded files, and provided a detailed inventory.

Representative of her “total design” philosophy, she also designed and had custom archival boxes made to house the collection! We have been careful to maintain Knoll’s original order and containers, adding only acid-free folders to better preserve the materials.

Florence Knoll Bassett portfolio
Page 10 from Portfolio: a chronology of Florence Knoll Bassett from 1932 onward, compiled 1999. Florence Knoll Bassett papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Depicted in this blog post is page 10 from one of the portfolios designed, compiled, and annotated by Florence Knoll in 1999 prior to donating her papers to the Archives of American Art. The portfolio includes copies of designs from all periods of her career, and copies of letters and photographs of individuals and significant events throughout her life. Biographical text, written by Knoll Bassett, accompanies the material.

The Planning Unit was created when I joined the company to design interiors. In the course of events, I became design director and critic for furniture, textiles and graphics. Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, and Ralph Rapson from Cranbrook were among the early designers to contribute to the collection along with Jens Risom, George Nakashima and Isamu Naguchi. During this time of unavailable materials, many of the designs were experimental and limited to drawings and models.

Florence Knoll Bassett’s sleek, modern, and functional designs still resonate today, and are considered classics by admirers around the world. In all aspects of design, from furniture to her archives, she has fixed her legacy as an American tastemaker.

 

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Barbara Aikens is the Chief of Collections Processing at the Archives of American Art. Project Archivist Stephanie Ashley processed the collection and wrote A Finding Aid to the Florence Knoll Bassett Papers.

Comments

Nice history about modern design. When we know about modern design history, we can step into another post modern design.