Born Florence Schust in Saginaw, Michigan, USA, in 1917, Knoll was orphaned at 12.
In 1932 she attended Kingswood, a girls school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, that was part of the newly created Cranbrook educational community. The school was designed by architect Eliel Saarinen, and Florence, or ‘Shu’ as her friends called her, virtually became a member of the Saarinen family, travelling with them on holidays to Europe.
She was exposed to numerous crafts at Kingswood, but it was the architecture of the school itself that most impressed her and inspired her to become an architect.
She associated with many of the Cranbrook students, including Eero Saarinen, Ralph Rapson and Harry Bertoia, whom she later recruited to design for Knoll Associates during the ’40s and ’50s.
After graduating from Kingswood in 1934, Knoll continued her studies at the Architectural Association in London. In 1941, she obtained her architectural degree after studying with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology. (Later, in 1948, she secured the rights to his classic Barcelona collection for Knoll).
A short stint working for former Bauhaus masters Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, led to a move to New York in 1943, where she began working for the Hans G. Knoll Furniture Company.
In 1946, she married Hans and the business name was changed to Knoll Associates. She was made head of design and responsible for the development of furniture and textiles, taking over as president of Knoll after Hans’s death in a car accident in 1955.
Through her strong leadership, the Knoll business acquired the best designs and commissioned an amazing array of lesser-known designers (Franco Albini, Hans Bellman, Herbert Matter and George Nakashima), as well as ones who have become household names, such as Isamu Noguchi, Harry Bertoia and Eero Saarinen.
Knoll Associates also moved into furniture textiles in 1947 with a large range of fabrics using natural and man-made materials, including the classic Cato fabric in 1961.
That year she received the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal for Industrial Design – just one of her swag of awards (which also includes the USA’s National Medal of Arts in 2002). She retired in 1965 and moved to Florida, where she still lives today.
Heart-felt modernism perhaps best describes Knoll’s style. Her pieces generally fitted into the International style – a post-Bauhaus doctrine favouring clean lines and the use of chromed metal.
She also used bright colours, textured fabrics and finishes such as marble and saddle leather. Not only did Knoll revolutionise office planning from the ’40s to its peak in the ’60s, she also designed a huge number of furniture pieces between 1954 and 1961.
With her self-deprecating style, she did not attribute much importance to her own work. “I never considered myself a furniture designer, and still don’t,” she said in a 2001 interview. “It was really people like Saarinen and Bertoia who created very sculptural pieces. Mine were architectural.”
Best known for
As a furniture designer, Knoll’s most famous pieces include 1954’s range of lounge seats, as well as the elegant Partner table desk and credenza from her 1961 Executive Collection, all of which are still in production by Knoll.
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