Florence Knoll was one of the most influential 20th-century architects, designers and entrepreneurs. Florence Marguerite Schust was born into a modest family in 1917 in Saginaw, Michigan. Orphaned at the age of 12, Florence studied at the Cranbrook Educational Community complex in Bloomfield Hills, considered the American Bauhaus, attending the Kingswood School for Girls. She showed an early interest in architecture. Her work attracted the attention of the then-director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Eliel Saarinen, father of designer Eero Saarinen. The young Florence, then only seventeen, was practically adopted by the Saarinen family. During her travels in Europe with them, she encountered such figures as Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto. After graduating in 1934, Florence spent a year in the Architecture Department at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, working on her manual skills. She experimented with materials and furniture construction alongside fellow students Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames. In 1938, on the advice of Alvar Aalto, she enrolled in the prestigious AA, the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. However, the outbreak of World War II forced her to return to the United States. Florence completed her education under the guidance of the most important Bauhaus masters. She graduated in 1941 from the Illinois Institute of Technology, where Mies van der Rohe taught. She then did a brief apprenticeship in the studio of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer.
Fresh from her degree, Florence moved to New York, where she began her career as an interior designer, working in several offices and as a part-time designer at the newly formed Hans Knoll Furniture Company. There, she met her future husband, Hans Knoll, one of the company's founders. It took two years for Florence to convince Hans to create an in-house interior design office. In 1943, Florence became head of the newly created Knoll Planning Unit, transforming a small company into an international standard for professionals and designers. After marrying in 1946, the company changed its name to Knoll Associates. Its catalogue included products by Eero Saarinen, Marcel Breuer, Pierre Jeanneret, Harry Bertoia, Franco Albini, and the Barcelona Chair by Mies van der Rohe, for which Florence had managed to obtain the rights. The catalogue also contained iconic pieces created by the designer, still in production today and brought together in the Florence KnollTM collection. The line of upholstered furniture designed in 1954 includes sofas of various sizes, armchairs and benches, covered in leather or fabric with capitonné backs. And the Table Desk table, a timeless classic.
Her awards and recognitions include the Good Design Award from MoMA (1950 and 1953); first prize from the American Institute of Decorators (1954); Gold Medal for Industrial Design from the American Institute of Architects (1961); the International Design Award from the American Institute of Interior Designers (1962); and the Total Design Award from the American Society of Interior Designers (1977). Florence Knoll, widowed in 1955 by the untimely death of Hans Knoll in an accident, became president of Knoll Associates, Knoll Textiles, and Knoll International. She retired in 1960, moving to Florida with her second husband, Harry Hood Bassett. Florence Knoll Basset died at her home in Coral Gables, Florida, on January 25, 2019.
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