The name Knoll is associated with respectable American Company dealing with furniture manufacture. It’s logical since the company signs some of the epochal furniture pieces. But who started this anthology? Behind Hans Knoll, who developed the family business wisely, was a humble woman. Florence Knoll didn’t have self-confidence; she thought that pieces she designed couldn’t compete with ones of her colleagues. That “unsuccessful” work became the foundation of American Modernism.  

Two Sides of Growing up

Florence Marguerite Schust was born in 1917 in Saginaw, a town in Michigan. Her father, Frederick Schust, migrated from Europe to the USA following his wish to become an engineer. During his studies he met his wife-to-be Mina Haist. Shortly after, he left the studies and became a baker, but love for engineering never ceased to exist. „One of my strong memories of my father was when he showed me blueprints on his desk. They seemed enormous to a five year old, but nonetheless, I was enchanted by them.”

Unfortunately, the Schust family was struck by a tragedy, leaving a twelve-year-old Florence as an orphan. Her father died when she was five, and her mother died seven years later. A family friend Emile Tessin took custody of her. Luckily, he guided her on the proper way. When she had to make a decision about which school to enter, both of them visited numerous boarding schools. Florence made a decision on her own to enter Kingswood School for Girls within the Cranbrook Educational Community. This was the beginning of a better part of her growing up. 

Continuing education was a pleasure for Florence. At the age of 14 she herself designed an entire house. Her talent for architecture was recognized by her lecturers, among who was the famous Saarinen couple. An architect Eliel and a designer Loja treated the girl as if she was a member of a family. She grew up together with their son Eero Saarinen, who later became one of Florence’s closest friends and colleagues. They used to spend their holidays together in northern Europe. The couple advised Florence in crucial moments. 

A Revolutionary Encounter

As recommended by Saarinens, Florence entered Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1934. A year later she continued her studies at numerous prestigious schools like School of Architecture at Columbia University, Architectural Association in London, as well as Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. She traveled and did researches, studied different cultures and working methods. While changing schools, she met professors and colleagues – prominent names of the architectural scene of the time or of the forthcoming period. Among lecturers, there were Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius. The last year of her studies Florence spent under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s supervision. Many people believe that he was the one who mostly influenced her strict, modernistic approach. She finally earned the title of architect in 1941. 

Florence’s first employment was at Harrison & Abramovitz Bureau in New York. “Being a woman, I was given interiors.” Although she wasn’t aware of it at the time, the interior design changed her career forever. While working on a project of respectable lawyer’s office, she met Hans Knoll. Three years older, Hans was a son of a German furniture manufacturer from Stuttgart. He moved to New York in 1938 following his wish to broaden his family business outside Europe. He founded Hans Knoll Furniture Company soon, and one of the first designers that he worked with was Jens Risom. 

After meeting Florence, Hans became enchanted with her tireless commitment. She joined the Knoll Furniture Company team two years after. In time, the business relationship with Hans turned into a love one and that led to marriage in 1946. The Company then changed its name to Knoll Associates and Florence Knoll gathered the most important designers: Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia and Mies van der Rohe. The whole team was involved in this mega company’s sudden ascent during the mid-20th century. Popular pieces created in this period were:  Barcelona Chair, Diamond Chair, Tulip Chair…

Playing With Proportions

How did Florence Knoll design furniture? It’s simple: “I needed a piece of furniture; it was not there so I designed it.” She was creating with her imagination. Florence would shape with knowledge those things which she imagined. She paid special attention to details but often stated that she wasn’t a decorator. This woman knew exactly where the limit of Total Design approach is. There is something else which was crucial for her work; Florence knew the way with proportions. This  made her simple pieces very appealing. 

That was the case with the 1954 Lounge Chair. This time, Modernistic principles applied to objects defined the chair’s shape. Geometrically clean, it reminded of a game of the basic elements: lines and surfaces. Details that made this chair extremely valuable were integrated into it. Steel legs had a polished chrome finish. Solid wood was hidden under the surface that could be made out of various materials of different textures and colors. Every little detail was led to perfection, which was typical for Knoll. Besides the chair, the collection included Settee, Sofa and Bench

Dining tables that Florence Knoll designed come down to the simplest possible form. A top placed on four legs was a minimum that this kind of furniture required. After furniture which was too decorated during the late 19th century, this was true refreshment in interiors. Unloaded of the decoration they looked sophisticated. Circular or rectangular panel could be made of several different kinds of marble. Honest, natural marble texture was the only decoration of these tables. Since Knoll thought about longevity of their products, surfaces were covered with transparent protective layer. 
Famous Hairpin Stacking Table was an obvious example of Florence’s first escape from regular forms. The harmony was achieved with a round top and legs that didn’t stand upright in regard to floor. Although it didn’t dominate in space, it “broke” cold modernistic interiors successfully. With its silhouette it contributes to casual atmosphere.

Design That Lasts

Florence’s work wasn’t based on manipulating colors and materials with experience, but on creating harmony among all those elements that make certain space. She was led by general modernistic principles. However, what made her different was the fact that she didn’t design in classical modernistic manner, but rather Modernism with soul. Florence Knoll would add warm tones to those cold ones, strict forms to round ones. She did office design projects so skillfully that they could fit into the 21st century environment. It clearly stands on Knoll’s website: Why Knoll? Knoll is Modern Always, because modern always works. Florence Knoll undoubtedly deserves credit for what Knoll represents today, a synonym for quality. 

She died in 2019, at the age of 101. She was aware of the trace she had left in the history of Modernism. Regarding Knoll’s present success, the trace can refer to the entire history of Architecture. But there is something that Florence might not have been aware of. She not only finished what her father had started, but achieved something that her father couldn’t even have imagined that would be achieved.

Featured image: Florence Knoll. © Knoll

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