Today we’re used to seeing women in the design world, but when Florence Knoll Bassett rose to fame during the mid-century years, she was pioneering fresh ground. Knoll Bassett—who passed away recently at age 101—married furniture maker Hans Knoll in 1945 and played a key role in making Knoll a celebrated taste-maker, creating furniture that defined the sleek, modern look of American offices for decades to come. If you’ve ever noticed the leap in style from how offices were depicted in 1940’s movies to the sleek look you see on Mad Men, you’ll appreciate the role she played.
Her talent elevated office design to an art form, with swanky tulip-shaped chairs, chrome-legged sofas, and vibrant colors. She redefined the concept of the office for the likes of Seagram, CBS, and Look magazine headquarters in New York City; Pittsburgh’s Heinz offices; and locations around the globe.
In a male-dominated world, she was one of the few females in the limelight, having studied with or learned from such modern masters as architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Marcel Breuer. She brought that appreciation for lofty design to her work for Knoll, recruiting sculptor Harry Bertoia to create the wire chairs that became an instant classic for the company, and collaborated with architect Eero Saarinen on the celebrated Womb Chair.
Knoll Bassett’s work was so transformative that it has joined the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Among her many honors, she received the nation’s highest award for artistic excellence, the National Medal of Arts, in 2003.
Her talent elevated office design to an art form, with swanky tulip-shaped chairs, chrome-legged sofas, and vibrant colors.
She stayed with the Knoll company as design director until 1965, when she moved to Florida and established a private architecture and design practice. While she shunned most interviews and public appearances, she did collaborate on the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s 2004 exhibit, Florence Knoll Bassett: Defining Modern. Said Kathryn Hiesinger, the curator there, of the impact of Knoll Bassett’s work: “Every time you see Barcelona chairs and a table in a lobby, that’s her”—a wonderful tribute to how one woman contributed to reshaping the design aesthetics of an era.