Florence Knoll Bassett— a giant in the world of modern design and architecture— died Friday in her Coral Gables home. She was 101.
Knoll was taught by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen and the German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. She worked with Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, revolutionizing the world of design.
Knoll ultimately designed the interiors of CBS, Seagrams and Look magazine offices in New York and the Heinz Co. headquarters in Pittsburgh. With her first husband, Hans Knoll, she established Knoll International, a firm known for its seamless package of design, manufacturing, textiles, graphics, advertising and presentation.
Her work is represented in the Smithsonian, the Louvre, the Museum of Modern Art and the Met. In 2003, President George W. Bush presented her with the nation’s highest award for artistic excellence, the National Medal of Arts.
Born Florence Margaret Schust on May 24, 1917, in Michigan, Knoll — her friends called her Shu — became an orphan at age 12. Her love for architecture and design started when her guardians took her on boarding school tours. Kingswood School for Girls in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which Saarinen designed, immediately compelled her with its beauty, her family said.
Throughout her career, Knoll 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 several prominent American professional organizations in architecture and design — American Institute of Architects, International Interior Design Association and Industrial Designers Society of America.
In 1961, after Eero Saarinen died of a brain tumor, Frank Stanton, the president of CBS, asked Florence Knoll to take over and complete the interiors of the CBS Building.
“It included the design of Stanton’s office, and since his office looked out on one of CBS’ competitors, Knoll deliberately completely covered the wall with heavy silk draperies, tiny bronze bead curtains, and off-white vertical blinds — all so that Stanton wouldn’t have to look at his competitor,” said Paul Makovsky, Knoll’s mentee, close friend, and editor of Contract magazine — a New York-based publication for architects and interior designers. He is writing a biography of her life and work.
According to Makovsky, Knoll used the Knoll showrooms and offices as a design laboratory, an incubator and a sales tool. Her first show brought 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 would know how it would feel to live with those pieces.
“Being very pragmatic, [Florence] hated buttons on sofas because she saw that they would often pop off or else your clothes would get caught in a button, so she patented in 1956 a design detail of a tufted dimpled effect in the sofa without the use of buttons — that became part of her trademark look and was done to make a space feel softer,” Makovsky said.
Knoll became a widow in 1955 when Hans Knoll died in a car accident in Cuba. Already a partner in his business, she succeeded him as president of Knoll International and held that position until 1960, gaining worldwide renown during a time when that was highly unusual for women in that field. She remained Knoll’s design director until 1965. That’s when she decided to retire and start a private practice in Florida, according to her family.
In 1958, Knoll married Harry Hood Bassett, a longtime Miami civic leader and one of Florida’s most prominent bankers. After a 33-year marriage, he died in Vermont in 1991 after a long battle with cancer.
“After she moved to Miami, during the early 1960s, she found that there was no really good outdoor furniture, and much of it at the time during the early 1960s, was purchased at a supermarket and the lightweight furniture would often fly off into the swimming pool,” Makovsky said, noting that that’s when Knoll had Richard Schultz, a designer for Knoll, create Knoll’s “1966 Collection,” and it has become the classic icon of modern outdoor furniture.
“[And] when Miami city wanted Isamu Noguchi to renovate Bayfront Park, [Knoll] arranged for him travel to Bayfront Park on her yacht, so he could better understand Miami’s relation to water and to the islands,” he added.
Knoll, a pioneer and entrepreneur, was best known for creating the clean, simple and modern look of the country’s postwar corporate office. That same zeal for organization and simplicity translated into her personal life too, her friends and family say.
When Knoll first moved into her Coral Gables home, “she made a furniture plan, arranged the pieces and never rearranged it, ever,” said Beth Dunlop, a longtime friend and former Miami Herald architecture critic.
Knoll’s stepson, Harry H. Bassett Jr., concurred, adding that Knoll was known to create diagrams when entertaining guests, clients or dignitaries.
“All the plates looked exactly the same,” Bassett said. “She wanted to present in her mind a very organized, and of course tasty, way. There was the issue of color and texture, and then of starches and proteins. She was brilliant, a perfectionist.”
Makovsky, along with many other loved ones said Knoll was known to have a “a wicked sense of humor.”
“She would show me pictures of her furniture pieces with her name over them that appeared in vintage dealer catalogs or ads, and jokingly say to me: ‘You know, Paul, I’m an antique now.’ “
Knoll is survived by her stepsons Harry Jr. and Patrick Bassett, stepdaughter Maia Marcq (daughter of Hans Knoll), and nine grandchildren.
There will be no public memorial or services for Knoll, the family said, which was “in line with her wishes.”