Florence Knoll Bassett’s mid-century design diplomacy

The look, feel and functionality of the modern American office can be traced back to the work of one woman.

Florence Knoll Bassett, whom Architectural Record called the “single most powerful figure in modern design,” died at 101 on Jan. 25.

In the early 20th century, offices consisted of rows of dark, heavy desks and chairs, with the executive desk angled toward an office door.

Knoll, who believed that a building’s interior was as important as its exterior, introduced an office aesthetic based on function. She interviewed people about how they did their job so they could do it efficiently and comfortably. She then went on to design products like the Model 1500 series – a desk that allowed drawers and cabinets to be added to the frame based on need.

The press coined a term for her “humanist interpretation of European modernism”: the “Knoll Look.” Her clients included CBS, Connecticut General, Alcoa and the University of Michigan, and you’ll see her influence in mid-century period pieces like “Mad Men.”

The U.S. State Department had also noticed Knoll’s growing reputation. As part of a Cold War propaganda effort to align consumer choice with political choice, they used her and her “look” to help establish and promote an American identity abroad.

Reimagining the textile

Knoll attended the Cranbrook Academy of Art, a school that’s considered the birthplace of American modernism, where she was a classmate of future star designers Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia and Benjamin Baldwin.

She eventually moved to New York, where she joined the architectural firm of Harrison & Abromovitz in 1941. While living and working in New York, she met Hans Knoll, the owner of a small furniture company, and she joined his firm in 1943. The couple married in 1946; that same year, the H. G. Knoll Company was renamed “Knoll Associates,” and the Knoll Planning Unit, which focused on interior design, was set up. Florence was named head.

“I am not a decorator,” she famously declared in a 1964 New York Times article that credited her for revolutionizing office design as an architect in a predominantly male profession.

Frustrated by the challenge of finding fabrics suitable for use on modern furniture, Knoll initially used men’s suiting fabrics for upholstery and interiors.

Then, in 1947, Knoll Textiles, which worked closely with the Planning Unit, was launched, giving Knoll the opportunity to develop, market and sell printed and woven textiles.

“Textiles were among the most visible and industrially innovative products produced in the U.S. in the 1950s and impacted many aspects of postwar life,” Berry College historian Virginia Troy told me in an interview.

Wartime rationing, which included clothing and textiles, had ended in 1946. As the economy grew, so did the appetite for textiles. Used for upholstery, curtains and carpeting, they were integral to modern architecture: They could unify open floor plans, serve as dividers and separate work areas from living spaces.

Knoll’s unobtrusive textile designs – which tended to feature subtle colors – often included geometric or biomorphic prints and woven fabrics in which vertical and horizontal weaves formed a pattern.

Her textiles were quite different from the brocade and chintz cabbage roses sold in most of the era’s textile showrooms.

Branding and selling America abroad

Around this time, the U.S. government started sponsoring international expositions to introduce the American people and their innovations abroad – what historian Robert Haddow called “Pavilions of Plenty.”