From designing buildings to designing furniture and interior spaces, Florence Schust-Knoll, was a pioneer in American mid-century modern design. Her sofas, chairs and credenzas exemplify her attention to detail and modern aesthetic.
Born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1912, Knoll’s story emerged from tragedy. At age 12, she was orphaned and admitted into an all-girls boarding school by her caretakers. The school, designed by Eliel Saarinen, is where Knoll became interested in design and architecture. She quickly caught the attention of the prominent architect and Eliel eventually became her mentor. As extended family to the Saarinens, she often vacationed with them, becoming lifelong friends with their son, the now distinguished architect, Eero Saarinen.
Knoll attended Cranbrook Academy of Art with Eliel Saarinen as a teacher. There, she received serious training in design and architecture. At Cranbrook, Knoll met Harry Bertoia, whom she would later collaborate with. Her training would lead her to opportunities like studying at the Architectural Association in London and the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Her teachers and mentors included significant figures of the Bauhaus like Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe.
In 1941 Knoll moved to New York where she met Hans Knoll, owner of a third generation furniture manufacturing company, whom she married in 1946. Her prodigious skills helped the company gain worldwide success. With her connection to talented colleagues and friends, Knoll was able to commission the likes of Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia and Mies van der Rohe, to design collections for Knoll Associates.
Knoll eventually started designing modernist furniture, inspired by Mies van der Rohe, to add them to the company catalog. She also established the Knoll Planning Unit, an interior design division of the furniture company, creating mid-century modern interiors for corporate offices like IBM and CBS. In 1947, she established KnollTextiles, an extension of the company that offered fabrics for contract furniture upholstery which would produce several signature fabrics.
Knoll, one of the few women in mid-century modernism, was pivotal in the trajectory of the movement and it’s continued influence today. She is widely recognized as one of the most talented and influential pioneers of mid-20th century design and is still admired by entrepreneurs, architects, and designers alike.