Florence Knoll: Revolutionary Designer, Architect and Businesswoman

Florence “Shu” Knoll led a design revolution that changed office aesthetics forever. She remains, to this day, one of the most influential and towering figures in modern design.

This month, Mrs. Knoll celebrates her 100th birthday.

Orphaned at age twelve, Knoll grew up Saginaw, Michigan. There she developed an interest in architecture and as was enrolled at the Kingswood School for Girls, which just so happened to be next to the Cranbrook Academy of Art. After becoming close friends with Finnish architect Eilel Saarinen and his family, whom she would later study under at Cranbrook, she would go on to learn under some of the greatest names in 20th century architecture, including Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

(Photo Credit: Florence Knoll Archive)

Later, in New York, she met and would marry Hans Knoll. With her design skills and his acumen for business, they founded a small furniture company that eventually became an international leader and arbiter of style and design.

She directed the interior design arm of the company, the Knoll Planning Unit, and began to revolutionize and humanize interior design by introducing concepts such as efficiency, space planning and comprehensive design into office planning. Florence maintained that she did not merely decorate space. She created it.

 

An article from the New York Times in 1961 sums up the stylistic departure well:

“Then along came a woman who showed the executives that they could be just as impres­sive against a background of neutral or even white walls, sometimes with one wall in a. strong primary color, and that their status would not be im­paired if they moved their desks to a logical, space‐saving four­square position.”

After Hans Knoll’s untimely death in 1955, Florence took over the company and led as president through uncertain times, navigating the company successfully through difficult waters. She was only one of a few women at the time who presided over the operations of such a large company. Her strength of character, determination and uncompromising aesthetics changed not only face of interior office design, but trailblazing a pathway for other women to sit behind executive-level desks.

(Photo Credit: Florence Knoll Archive)

As a former Knoll employee, Bob Longwell recalls that she was famously critical when it came time to review. “She’d say, ‘Well, I think we should change that radius a little bit. It just doesn’t fit in with this aspect. There’s just something not right about it,’” before adding, “‘instead of being a quarter of an inch, it ought to be a three-eighth-inch radius.’” Longwell concludes, “She had that ability, to critique [something], to tear it apart and put it back together.”

Her application of design principles in solving space problems were radical departures from the standard practice in the 1950s, so much so that they’re still widely adapted and used today. In 2002 she was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Arts by the National Endowment for the Arts.

(Photo Credit: Florence Knoll Archive)

Florence Knoll’s contributions to architecture and design have made an impact for over 60 years and will certainly continue to do so for many years to come.

A recommended and more comprehensive piece about her life and theories can be found here.

Happy Birthday Florence Knoll and many happy returns!