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Florence Knoll | Iconic women of design | Image courtesy of Ray Fisher/The LIFE Images Collection

Celebrating the Life of Florence Knoll, the First Lady of Furniture

In remembrance of world-renowned design pioneer Florence Knoll Bassett, The Conran Shop takes a trip down memory lane to celebrate her many game-changing achievements and immeasurable contributions to the world of design.

The wide-spread influence of Florence Knoll’s career is evident all across the design landscape, through her work at Knoll she has shaped the way we live and work, and her innovative approach to architecture and design continues to inspire designers and architects across generations.

Here at The Conran Shop, Knoll’s furniture designs, along with those she commissioned from her friends, are steadfast ‘icons’ that we continue to celebrate and value as a vital part of our range: Saarinen’s Pedestal and Womb collections, Knoll’s own eponymous Sofa, Harry Bertoia’s Bird Chair and Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair were all originally selected and commissioned for Knoll by Florence herself, demonstrating her genius ability for predicting future icons.

Born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1917, Knoll, then Florence Schust, demonstrated an interest and aptitude for architecture from an early age. After she was orphaned at age 12 under tragic circumstances, Knoll was enrolled to Kingswood School, a fated decision, since the site of Kingswood stood adjacent to the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art.

During her time at Kingswood, Knoll met Eilel Saarinen, who she would later study under at Cranbrook, and was warmly accepted by Eilel and his family, holidaying with them in Finland and enjoying the company of their esteemed friends and colleagues, all the while building her knowledge and connections.

A black and white image of Florence Knoll and Eero Saarinen discussing the infrastructure of the Tulip Chair, featuring the pedestal base on a worktop
Knoll and Saarinen discuss finishes for his iconic Tulip Chair | Image courtesy of Knoll

The influences and skills Knoll developed at Cranbrook became the foundation for her design education, creating a singular platform that led to her pioneering career. Arguably the most important connection Knoll made during this time was the forming of her lifelong close friendship with Eilel Saarinen’s son, Eero: a furniture designer in his own right.

After she left Cranbrook, Knoll went on to study under the greatest designers of the 20th century, including Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In 1941 she met Hans Knoll in New York, whom she would later marry in 1946 before the couple established the Knoll Furniture Company as we know it today.

Florence’s outstanding design talents brought exceptional quality and innovation to the Knoll company, which grew to become an internationally renowned arbiter of design; she also prioritised showcasing the projects of her friends, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia and Mies van der Rohe among many others, and helped to form the landscape of 20th-century design and its celebrated icons.

Florence Knoll receiving her National Medal of Arts and alongside her designs | Image courtesy of Knoll

Later, drawing on her architectural background, Knoll founded the Knoll Planning Unit, a centre for space-planning and comprehensive design that redefined the standard for modern corporate interiors in post-war America.

Knoll always upheld the fact that she did not merely decorate space, she created it. Florence and her Planning Unit were responsible for creating contemporary interiors for the US’s largest businesses, such as IBM and CBS – all executed with the signature clean Knoll style.

A frequent contributor to the Knoll design catalogue, Knoll humbly referred to her furniture designs as the ‘meat and potatoes’ to the stand out pieces of Bertoia and Saarinen. Her designs however, with their perfect detail, balance, proportion and command of the modern aesthetic have become as celebrated as the show-stopping pieces of her friends that she so admired.

In 1955, Florence became president of Knoll after her husband passed away, guiding the company through difficult times before resigning the presidency in 1960 to focus on developing and directing design again, during and after which time her contributions to the rise of modern design in America continued to shape the way contemporary design was thought of forever.

Her contributions to the world of design are immeasurable, while her inimitable vision over her long illustrious career won her countless awards and accolades, including the National Medal of Arts, awarded by the president, the American Institute of Architects’ Industrial Design Gold Medal and the Red Dot Design Award. Were it not for the revolutionary modernist design principals of Florence Knoll, furniture design as we know it today would not exist.

Explore The Conran Shop's collection of designs by the iconic designer here.