Published: December 14, 2004
When Florence Knoll Bassett put her hand to American corporate office design, she turned its world upside down. Gone was the cluttered and gloomy Dickensian workspace dominated by the customary massive desks, usually in dark wood, with other equally heavy pieces lurking in the shadows. In its place she introduced color, sleek lines and airiness that blended nicely with the handsome new buildings going up in every city across America.
Long recognized as the prime mover in the development of corporate modernism, Knoll Bassett has now at 87 won the Collab Design Excellence Award at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In celebration of that honor, the museum has mounted the exhibit “Florence Knoll Bassett: Defining Modern,” which is on view through April 10.
Knoll Bassett designed the furniture and accessories on view during the 1940s and 1950s. Then, as now, they were both revolutionary and classic. She imposed clean lines and wide planes on furniture using materials not previously seen in business furniture: chrome, stone, glass, steel and plastic. The effect was startling and was embraced eagerly by those who commissioned the new buildings of the post-World War II period.
Most pieces Knoll Bassett designed are still in production (the four that are not were made by Knoll Bassett especially for the exhibit). What is of particular interest about this show is that the very private Knoll Bassett, who has declined many honors over the years, not only accepted the award but that she designed the installation herself, down to the smallest detail. That meticulous attention to detail prevails throughout her design career.
What Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Kathy Hiesinger describes as “a difficult design space,” a narrow gallery with 18 ceilings and walls interrupted by three windows and a door, Knoll Bassett rendered impressive and humane. She created a model of the installation and sent it to the museum. As Hiesinger describes it, Knoll Bassett neatly solved the problem of a high narrow space by the use of brightly colored panels that draw the visitor’s eye to his or her surroundings, away from the ceilings. Knoll Bassett treated the 330-square-foot space as a three-dimensional cube in which each aspect plays off the others. She selected the furniture and filled the walls with blowups of some of her interiors. As Hiesinger said, “It’s small, but mighty!”
Knoll Bassett’s contributions to corporate design were mighty and certainly not small. She hardly considered herself a furniture designer; she intended the pieces she wrought as fillers in a specific project. They may have started life as fillers but they easily became centerpieces as she introduced twist after twist to corporate design. Her works are classic pieces, much in demand and still in production.
Knoll Bassett introduced lounge seating to the office in 1954 in the form of settees and lounge chairs that harmonized serendipitously with their surroundings. A few years later, in 1961, she brought credenzas to the modern corporate world, an innovation that stood corporate life on its head. The simple lines and flat surfaces of her credenzas hid the detritus that formerly accumulated on desks and shelves in the business world. The one on view stands on a polished chrome base and has two storage cabinets, each containing two adjustable shelves. It was produced in an array of materials.
Another Knoll Bassett innovation was the table desk that she introduced in 1961. She considered her table desks as the “meat and potatoes” of a design project, saying that the need existed, so she met it. The example on view has a polished chrome base and a mahogany top. It, too, remains in production.
Knoll Bassett came to American design early in life. Born Florence Schust and orphaned at 12, at 14 her guardian chose for her the Kingswood School on the campus of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. At Kingswood, she studied under Eliel Saarinen and his wife Loja, who took her into their family. Their influence was profound.
On graduation from Kingswood, she studied design at Cranbrook for several years where she worked with such lights of modernism as Harry Bertoia, Carl Milles, Maria Grotel and other pillars of modern design. She later enrolled at the Architectural Association in London where she came under the influence of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. She continued to spend her summers in Finland with her adopted family, the Saarinens. When World War II broke out, she returned to the United States and went to the Illinois Institute of Technology, where she studied under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, graduating as an architect. She spent another few years working for Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius in Boston before landing at Knoll in New York in 1943.
Hans Knoll, who came from Stuttgart, Germany, in 1937, had established Hans G. Knoll in 1938 to supply modern furniture for modern buildings. The new firm quickly established itself as a purveyor of high-quality products from the major modernism giants. Florence Schust brought a canny mind to the burgeoning business. She took on the responsibility of designing the interiors of projects the company executed, working closely with clients to assess the needs of the people who would use the spaces.
While Knoll had founded his company with an eye to producing only modern designs, over time the focus evolved into the Bauhausian integration of design excellence, technological innovation and mass production. With this in mind, Schust recruited many of her mentors and teachers as designers for Knoll. They included Eero Saarinen (Eliel’s son), Mies van der Rohe, Jens Risom, Isamu Noguchi, Bertoia and Breuer. Knoll produced designs for all of them. Bertoia’s Diamond chair, Saarinen’s Tulip chair and Noguchi’s coffee table remain highly sought-after classics, as does the Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair.
Knoll Bassett established the company’s Planning Unit to work with clients to help them identify their design needs. She also assumed responsibility for the company’s showrooms around the world. Wherever she put her hand to a project, she gave it exactly the right form, balance and color. Stymied in her attempts to find textiles suitable for the pieces produced at Knoll, she established the company’s own textile division. She supervised all facets of corporate identity from the graphics to the showroom. She managed corporate advertising. In 1950, she designed Hans Knoll’s own office using a parallel plan that saved scarce square footage. Henceforth, clients were pleased to abandon the traditional design to embrace the sleek arrangement in which a storage cabinet allowed a conference table in a limited space.
Hans Knoll died by accident in 1955 and his widow became president of Knoll. She married Harry Hood Bassett in 1958 and retired from Knoll in 1965.
Knoll Bassett’s projects include the interiors of CBS and the Seagram’s buildings in New York, the Heinz headquarters in Pittsburgh and the landmark interiors of the 1956 Connecticut General building in Bloomfield, Conn. Her work is represented in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
“Florence Knoll Bassett: Defining Modern” is supported by Collab, a nonprofit organization founded in 1970 to raise funds for the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s modern and contemporary design collection, which now includes more than 1,000 works. The collection ranges from appliances and furniture to ceramics, glass, and lighting.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is at Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 26th Street. For information, 215-763-8100 or .
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