How to be Florence Knoll in 10 Easy Steps

Looking back on a decades-old relationship with the designer on the centennial of her birth, Metropolis vice president of design Paul Makovsky reflects on the lessons to be learned from her contributions to architecture and design.
Wisdom Florence Knoll

Courtesy Florence Knoll Bassett papers, 1932-2000. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Florence Knoll Bassett is truly a visionary. As a pioneer of interior and furniture design and a successful entrepreneur, she is one of the most influential architects and designers of postwar America, yet her mark on Modern design transcends any one of these fields. Her studies at Kingswood and Cranbrook Academy of Art during the 1930s impressed upon her a human-centered design approach; at the Architectural Association in London she originated the now-common interior design practice of “paste-ups”; and her time with Mies van der Rohe in Chicago introduced her to a rationalist design approach.

At Knoll, she was the creator and director of the Knoll Planning Unit—focused on its interior division—and was also the design director and critic for the development and production of the company’s furniture, textiles, and graphics. The planning unit was the engine of the firm’s success, and transformed the field of “interior design” from interior decoration to spatial architecture—which in the 1950s was almost completely dominated by men. With designers like Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, and Richard Schultz, she produced furniture classics that are still relevant today.

Knoll Bassett’s ideas were rooted in practical needs, based on rigorous planning, but she developed a signature look while applying design principles to space configuration at corporations. The planning unit’s scope of services, on more than 200 projects in university dorms, corporate headquarters, government offices, and even motels, represented a radical departure from the traditional services offered by interior decorators at the time, and by other textile or furniture showrooms, which focused mainly on selling objects. She looked at the challenge of designing an interior as more than just specifying furniture and fabrics—the stereotypical purview of the interior decorator. “An intelligent interior plan goes further than the furnishings which fill the space,” she said. “It strikes at the root of living requirements and changing habits. Planning involves economics, technical efficiency, comfort, taste, and price.”

At the height of her career, after designing thousands of office interiors, she resigned from Knoll in 1965. She was only 48 years old, but had defined the look for corporate interiors during the 1950s and 1960s, profoundly influenced post–World War II design, raised the level of standards and ethics for interior design as a profession, and promoted the “open office” workspace through a total design approach. Throughout her career, she played the triple role of architect, interior designer, and furniture designer, and she is one of the few who have received the top honors from all the American professional organizations in architecture and design: AIA, ASID, IIDA, and IDSA. In 2002, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts—the highest accolade given to artists by the federal government. With the centennial of her birth this year, we pay tribute to her with some lessons that can be learned from her career and work.

1. Always collaborate with fresh talent

2. Use your showroom and offices as a design laboratory, an incubator, and a sales tool 

3. Create human-centered designs by personalizing your clients’ spaces

4. Rethink every detail

5. Experiment with old and new materials 

6. Standardize 

7. Embrace contemporary art and artists

8. Create total designs 

9. Keep your team small 

10. Always work with great clients 

1.

Wisdom Florence Knoll

Florence Knoll Bassett surrounded by her stellar collaborators. From left to right: Harry Bertoia, George Nakashima, Richard Stein, Knoll Bassett, Eszter Haraszty, Noémi Raymond, Dorothy Cole, Abel Sorensen, and Isamu Noguchi. Courtesy Tony Vaccaro/Tony Vaccaro Studio

Always collaborate with fresh talent

 

1. Always collaborate with fresh talent.

Florence Knoll Bassett’s contribution to Hans Knoll’s furniture company became so vital—she even bailed the company out of some financial troubles— that the company was renamed Knoll Associates in 1946. The couple went on to establish a network of artists, architects, and designers who created innovative products for the company. The architect Peter Blake, who was a junior writer at Architectural Forum during the 1940s, described the scene at Knoll during that time: “Hans and Shu [short for Schust, her maiden name] worked like maniacs, day and night, trying to find ways of designing and manufacturing this or that, squeezing materials out of the war economy, discovering and then supporting young and relatively unknown designers,” he recalled in his memoir, No Place Like Utopia. “We’re like art dealers in that respect,” Knoll Bassett said. “We want fresh, original work. And we want it from anybody who can produce it.” Knoll collaborated with Isamu Noguchi, Mies van der Rohe, and Alexander Girard, who were all gaining a foothold in the American design world during the 1940s. Some designers, such as Angelo Testa and Dorothy Cole Ruddick, were discovered by Hans Knoll. Others, like Noémi Raymond, came from the Knolls’ personal friendship with Antonin Raymond’s family in New Hope, Pennsylvania, not far from Knoll’s factory in East Greenville. Through the Raymonds, they were introduced to George Nakashima, who produced a furniture collection for the company after World War II. Still others would arrive via Knoll Bassett’s alma mater, Cranbrook, which connected the company to a roster of designers that included Harry Bertoia (who had trained as a jeweler), Ralph Rapson, Shirley Fletcher Rapson, Antoinette Prestini, Evelyn Hill, Ruben Eshkanian, Marianne Strengell, and Eero Saarinen (whom Knoll Bassett met through his parents, Eliel and Loja Saarinen, who taught at the school). Many of the designers were emerging and not well known in the United States at the time—Franco Albini of Italy, Hans Bellman of Switzerland, Pierre Jeanneret of France, Ilmari Tapiovaara of Finland, and Astrid Sampe and Sven Markelius of Sweden.

2. Use your showroom and offices as a design laboratory, an incubator, and a sales tool 

Wisdom Florence Knoll

Courtesy author’s archive

2. Use your showroom and offices as a design laboratory, an incubator, and a sales tool

Knoll Bassett’s greatest innovations lay in the design and execution of Knoll showrooms and offices throughout the United States and eventually in Europe. Since they were free of client restrictions, the company showrooms became vehicles for experimentation in the open plan of the spaces as well as in the way they showcased contemporary design, and became an important sales tool for the company.

The 601 Madison Avenue showroom in New York was the first of Knoll Bassett’s retail designs that demonstrated her skill in bringing together furniture, textiles, and accessories in a unified look with space planning. The layout highlighted several new chairs, not so much that visitors could see what furniture was for sale, but rather so they’d know how it would feel to live with those pieces. As the company built its showrooms in other cities, Knoll Bassett customized each one to its building and location, with an end result that was graphic and spatial as well as programmatic, but never formulaic, and an environment that wasn’t swimming with furniture. The locations were as varied as commercial buildings in midtown Manhattan, the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, a small house in Dallas, and a restored 19th-century broom factory in San Francisco. The latter space had an informal feel to it, since the city’s atmosphere suggested something light and airy to Knoll. The walls of the building were painted blue, and focal areas emphasized bold colors—blues, reds, and yellows—carefully balanced with neutral fabrics and woods and a variety of textures. “The design problems with each [showroom] varied as much as their locations, some presenting more design challenges than others,” she said. “The most difficult was the Madison Avenue high-rise, and the most fun was the broom factory in San Francisco. The object was to maintain a Knoll identity with different solutions in interior architecture.” A writer for Look magazine who visited the 601 Madison Avenue showroom in 1951 described the company at the time as “a laboratory where advanced ideas and new designers are incubated. The seat you may sit on ten years from now may be in the Knoll showroom today.” By the mid-1950s, with its expansion to countries outside the United States, Knoll transformed the mix of American and international design into something defined as an international style. The showrooms became key to the company’s growth strategy as it expanded during the postwar period, doing $15 million in business in 1960.

3. Create human-centered designs by personalizing your clients’ spaces

Wisdom Florence Knoll

Courtesy Knoll, Inc.

3. Create human-centered designs by personalizing your clients’ spaces

Hans Knoll’s office in the 575 Madison Avenue showroom in New York became an important sales tool. In designing her husband’s office, Knoll Bassett used textiles to add a textural quality and flexible details that allowed her to personalize the choice of colors and textures for the user of the space. “The character of an interior is established by the building itself, by the climate, by the occupants of the building, and by the basic design concept,” she explained. “The creative process is stimulated by seeing individual expression for each of these.” Her paste-up for the design of Hans’s office reveals interesting details: All the color is in the tones of gold and pale brown as seen through the split-bamboo shades, the nubby wheat- colored drapes made of handwoven India silk, pandanus- covered cabinets, and tan leather-covered Saarinen chairs on one side of the room with gray-and-black tweed uphol- stered chairs on the opposite side. The bamboo blinds not only cut glare but let in air and a glimpse of the city skyline. The black background—in this case cloth wallcovering—acted as a sound-absorptive panel but also strikingly contrasted with Hans Knoll’s hair and complexion. “I always believed in trying to make a background for the executive that reflected his personality,” explained Knoll Bassett. “Hans was light-skinned— that matched the color of the silk curtains—and the bamboo blinds sort of matched his reddish-blond hair. We made it logical and functional, but at the same time we tried to make it human.” The colors were a good backdrop for him.

4. Rethink every detail

Wisdom Florence Knoll

Courtesy Florence Knoll Bassett


4. Rethink every detail

The conventional office plan of the 1940s had a diagonally placed desk, with a table set parallel behind it and usually stacked with papers, as well as a few chairs scattered around the edge of the room. Knoll Bassett redesigned the space by rearranging the furniture. The functions of the table and the bookcase were combined in a long cabinet, which provided a work surface or gallery space for art or sculpture with storage space below for books or files. “This convinced our corporate clients, who were satisfied to move from the diagonal plan,” she explained. “Having the storage in a cabinet freed the desk to become a conference table.”

In selling Knoll’s services and products to executives, she would show the client a plan in miniature for his office (the clients were almost always men) in the form of a paste-up that would include swatches of real fabric and furniture at scale, and she would often coordinate the colors to match the businessman’s ties. The paste-up—a technique that she’d developed as a student during the late 1930s—was an abstraction and a collage of the project space, representing the arrangement of Knoll’s groupings of furniture and fabrics, as well as an indication of the proposed material palette. “It was extraordinary how small swatches of fabrics and wood could convey a feeling of the space,” Knoll Bassett said. “The general scale was one-quarter inch, but in special plans we worked in larger scale. I always felt the need to employ this system that eventually was used by design offices as a standard.” It allowed the client not only to experience the space more accurately than by a drawing but also to see the cost and space savings. Moreover, it indicated the materials used, such as teakwood, silk, wool, and leather— something an executive could identify with, especially if he was hesitant about embracing a Modernist aesthetic.

5. Experiment with old and new materials 

Wisdom Florence Knoll

Courtesy Knoll, Inc.

5. Experiment with old and new materials

For furniture design, the Knolls sought the honest use of old and new materials and applied new production techniques to furniture making. During the war, the company experimented with parachute webbing and a minimal use of materials due to wartime restrictions, and Knoll went on to experiment with everything from rubberized hair to low-pressure molding of paper and plastic. With Bertoia, the company developed wire-framed furniture; with Schultz, a new kind of high-end aluminum outdoor furniture.

Saarinen’s famous Womb chair was an early example of molded-plastic production by Knoll, at a time when fiberglass technology was still in its infancy. Knoll Bassett and Saarinen had found a fiberglass-boat builder in New Jersey. “We walked into this place with these great big holes in the floor, which were the mock-ups, or molds, for the ships,” she said. “We came with a model of the chair, and he looked at it and thought maybe we were a little crazy, but he was a nice guy. We sold him on the idea of making this chair, and then it became a very good part of his business.”

To accompany the Womb chair, she designed a seven- foot-six-inch-long sofa and companion armchair and love seat. They came with removable down-filled cushions for the seat and back that were thinner than those in other Modern sofas and easier to get up from. This furniture was the beginning of what Knoll Bassett would call “fill-in” pieces that worked alongside the more sculptural designs in the Knoll line. “If you look at Herman Miller’s and Knoll’s work, they took one approach and we took another,” she said. “Ours was based on planning; that was due to me. I saw the development of furniture in the sense of need for a total job. Charlie Eames and George Nelson saw it in the sense of an individual piece.”

6.Standardize

Wisdom Florence Knoll

Courtesy Knoll, Inc.

6. Standardize

Knoll Bassett worked with Herbert Matter, a Swiss- born photographer, artist, and graphic designer who between the mid-1940s and 1965 developed several important marketing tools for the company, such as the Knoll logos and the Knoll Index of Designs—a catalog with line drawings that showcased all the company’s furniture. He also designed iconic advertisements promoting both furniture and textiles, including a series that ran in The New Yorker. In the early 1950s, she developed the three-by-three-inch fabric swatch with its actual sample on one side and basic information on the other side attached to a ring, and later in a box Matter designed. This design tool helped architects and designers select and specify fabrics, and became an industry standard.

At a micro scale, the structural design of a textile—made up of simple weaves of a warp and weft or a more complex compound weave—was a kind of architecture. The way that yarns were used through the warp and weft meant that the construction and look of a textile pattern would in turn affect the look of an interior space. “The final details are as essential to the creation of a well-integrated interior as are its basic structural elements,” wrote Knoll Bassett. “When all are properly interrelated in the design scheme, the result is the attainment of the designer’s goal, a goal which applies to twentieth-century interior design as to any great period of the past; an interior which is beautiful and serves its purpose.”

7. Embrace contemporary art and artists

Wisdom Florence Knoll

Courtesy Knoll Inc.

7. Embrace contemporary art and artists

Whenever Florence Knoll Bassett redesigned her showrooms, she made sure to incorporate the work of European and American contemporary artists including Max Bill, Alexander Calder, Marino Marini, and Angelo Testa, just to name a few. Through the gallery dealer Curt Valentin, she showed the works of Paul Klee, and years later, when nobody bought them, she purchased them for her own collection (for a song). Through Herbert Matter, she was introduced to Jackson Pollock and bought a painting from him, which she displayed in both the New York and Chicago showrooms. (She later sold the painting and donated the proceeds to benefit one of her favorite causes, land conservation.) For the artist Sheila Hicks, an exhibition of her framed textile miniatures in the Knoll showroom at the Chicago Merchandise Mart led to her first job as a designer, working with Knoll Associates. Knoll was one of the few furniture companies in the United States to showcase contemporary art alongside Modern furniture in its showrooms, creating visual dialogues between unique works of art and mass- produced designs, an affirmation of the company’s commitment to Modernism. During the 1960s, Knoll Bassett conceived an exhibition showcasing Mies van der Rohe’s furniture alongside enlargements of drawings and furniture details (below), which contrasted with Bertoia’s sculptural organic designs, also on display in the Park Avenue showroom in New York.

Knoll Bassett worked closely with Matter, who art-directed photo shoots, took pictures for ad campaigns and company brochures, and was key to creating a unified vision, all under her direction. She also worked with great photographers who specialized in corporate interiors, such as Robert Damora and Ezra Stoller, but she also sought out artistic photographers, including Morley Baer and Arthur Siegel.

8. Create total designs 

Wisdom Florence Knoll

Courtesy Knoll Inc.

8. Create total designs

As Knoll Bassett developed her concept of the executive office through a series of iconic corporate interiors, her distinctive use of scale, lighting, color, texture, and detail would establish the celebrated “Knoll look.” As design director, she created an impeccable image for every phase of the company’s operation in a seamless package of furniture design, manufacturing, interior design, textiles, graphics, advertising, and presentation. “The planning unit was the heart and soul of the company,” she explained, “because it controlled all the visuals; and it was also its biggest sales tool, with the designs of showrooms, furniture in use, the office planning being shown in actuality, and the brochures that were done that were visually clear.” The “Knoll look” was so pervasive that it came to symbolize American Modern design in the 1950s and ’60s—and was frequently copied by other interior design firms.

9. Keep your team small 

Wisdom Florence Knoll

Courtesy Knoll Inc.

9. Keep your team small 

As head of the Knoll Planning Unit, Knoll Bassett had complete control over designing interiors and furniture at the company. “In the beginning, I had very little help, but then people wanted to join us,” she once explained. The group never exceeded eight people, and over the years included designers such as Louis Beal, Lewis Butler, Allan Denenberg, Heino Orro, Edith Queller, and Davis Allen—the latter went on to establish SOM’s interior division, drawing upon his experience at Knoll. Staff member Peter Andes coined the phrase “Shu U” as young designers were siphoned off by architectural firms to start their own interior design divisions. As a critic she would ask, “What do you think about this?” or “Why do you think it should be that way?” According to Knoll Bassett, “It was a learning experience—sometimes both ways.”

10. Always work with great clients 

Wisdom Florence Knoll

Courtesy Florence Knoll Bassett

10. Always work with great clients

Over the decades, Knoll Bassett worked with high- profile clients such as members of the Rockefeller family, Frazar Wilde of Connecticut General, the Schlumberger family, and Mike Cowles, who founded Look magazine. One of her favorite clients was Frank Stanton, president of CBS. The task of designing the interiors for CBS’s headquarters in New York was one of her most difficult assignments: She had to finish the interrupted work of her close friend Saarinen, who had died in 1961. “I tried to make it as clean and beautiful a thing on the inside as it is clean and beautiful on the outside,” she said of the project. Stanton’s office would be one of her most luxurious and sumptuous works. It included custom details such as English oak panels, a bronze coffee table, and an 11-foot-long work cabinet with a Zebrano marble top. Her philosophy for the space—“The simpler the background, the easier the thought process”—resulted in a suite consisting of the main office, the secretaries’ office, a dining room and pantry, a private dressing room, and a bath. Since the corner office looked out on one of CBS’s competitors, Knoll completely covered the wall with heavy silk draperies, curtains of tiny bronze beads that faintly glinted and created a look that was more webbed than masked, and off-white vertical blinds that created subtle gradations of light. A personal cubicle in an adjoining room was decked out with personal mementos, books, photographs, and awards. It also had a settee upholstered in Ultrasuede with double stitching reminiscent of men’s tailoring. The elegant detail of the square flat tufting with a dimpled effect in the sofa was created without the use of buttons—an idea that she patented in 1956 and made part of her trademark look—and was done to achieve a softer feel for the space.

Wisdom Florence Knoll

Courtesy Knoll Textiles

Categories: Architecture, Design, Furniture, Ideas, Textiles

Comments

comments