Florence Knoll Bassett (nee. Schust) was born on May 24th, 1917, in Saginaw, Michigan. Growing up, the young Schust went to Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills and spent summers in Finland, with architects Eliel and Loja Saarinen.
She also spent a significant amount of time traveling in Europe, where the elegant style of the period caught her attention, later displaying itself once again in the pieces she created. In 1934, she began to study architecture at the famous Cranbrook Academy of Art, also in Bloomfield Hills, under the guidance of Saarinen.
She later obtained an architecture degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology (then known as the Armour Institute), where she studied with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. After graduating in 1941, her interests turned to furniture design as she crossed paths with Bauhaus movement leaders, including Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius.
In 1943, twenty-six year old Schust approached furniture manufacturer Hans Knoll with a business proposal, which she felt convinced would work, even in wartime. World War II had affected the American economy greatly, impacting the commission of new buildings and therefore the livelihoods of architects all over the country. Schust’s idea was that Knoll expand into interior design, and that he use her architectural talent to help him. Knoll agreed, and they quickly began drawing up plans for a brand new range of pieces.
Soon afterward, the pair fell in love. In 1945, Knoll’s company opened a manufacturing plant in East Greenville and in 1946, the couple married and established Knoll Associates. One of the first commissions awarded to the company was the re-decoration and furnishing of the Rockefeller family offices in New York. In 1947, Knoll Textiles was established to produce and showcase Florence Knoll’s fabric designs.
In 1949, she contributed several pieces to “An Exhibition for Modern Living” in Detroit, which ran from September to November of that year and received considerable media attention. When Knoll International was founded in 1951, Florence Knoll created her husband’s office. She was also responsible for the design of the showroom opened on Madison Avenue later that year. It would be only the first in a series of stylish showrooms created by Knoll, which included locations in Chicago, San Francisco and Milan.
Tragically, Hans Knoll died in an automobile accident in 1955, leaving Florence Knoll to run the business, a commitment she honored until her retirement in 1965. Her beautifully minimalist, angular designs included tables, sofas, chairs and smaller items. Combining the sturdy, refined nature of the Bauhaus era with mid-century contemporary elegance, Knoll’s pieces have become icons of modern furniture design and are still very popular today. Florence Knoll now resides in Coconut Grove, Florida.
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