If you were to take a quick look around Sparano + Mooney’s Salt Lake City office, there are a few things that immediately stand out about the space. We work in a converted industrial building with an open floorplan, strategic architectural embellishments have been added to the frame of the building, but very little has been done to the existing concrete floors and cinderblock walls. Individual work spaces comprised of sleek wooden furniture are situated along the walls, while a main counter where our team frequently gathers for meetings runs down the center of the main office space. In a word, our office is “modern.”
While this particular look and layout is increasingly prevalent throughout most contemporary office spaces, it primarily can be attributed to one mid-century designer, Florence Knoll Bassett who died earlier this week on January 25th at the age of 101. Our contemporary design landscape would look very different without her extensive input, influence and abiding philosophy of “total design” in regards to creating uniquely beautiful and utilitarian spaces.
Born on May 24, 1917 in Saginaw, Michigan, to Frederick and Mina Schust, Knoll’s maiden name formed the basis of her lifelong nickname, “Shu.” Knoll attended Cranbrook Academy of Art, overseen by Eliel Saarinen, who became her de-facto guardian after her father died at age five, and her mother at age 12. She would go on to continue her education at Columbia University, the Armour Institute of Technology and the Architectural Association of London. Knoll studied closely under such Modernist luminaries as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, and her extensive architectural training is evident throughout her holistic design process.
Shu began designing for Hans Knoll in 1943. Mr. Knoll was the third generation of a family of German furniture makers who sought to bring European Modernism to a burgeoning American market, and had started his own furniture company in New York in 1938. After Hans and Florence married in 1946, she became the true force and head of design of Knoll Associates and paved the way for modern American design to become an internationally recognized style. She was instrumental in van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair becoming a cult object, she created fabric swatches which are utilized by every interior designer since, as well a multitude of other design tropes we use to this day. After Hans died in an automobile accident in 1955, Florence assumed the position of CEO as well as maintaining full artistic control until she stepped down from the company after 20 years in 1965.
Although Knoll formerly retired to Miami in 1965, she still maintained close ties to Knoll Inc, occasionally stepping in to fine-tune a design or offer her expert opinion on showrooms and products. As well as maintaining their status as ubiquitous fixtures in most modern offices and homes, Knoll’s work also resides in a number of museum collections, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In true Knoll fashion, she also helped design the installation for her retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2004-2005, Florence Knoll Bassett: Defining Modern.
Knoll was the recipient of the prestigious Athena award granted by the Rhode Island School of Design in 1983, and was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 2002 for her outstanding contributions to the field of architecture and design. Despite these accolades, Knoll’s most abiding legacy is of her gesamtkunstwerk ideal of creating beautifully functional spaces, of which we at Sparano + Mooney still enjoy and inspire us to this day.
-“Celebrating 100 Years of Florence Knoll.” Knoll, Inc. https://www.knoll.com/story/shop/fkb-100 (accessed January 28, 2019).
-Corcoran, Heather. “In Memoriam: Remembering Designer and Entrepreneur Florence Knoll Bassett.” Architectural Digest. https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/florence-knoll-bassett-dies (accessed January 28, 2019).
-Giovannini, Joseph. “Florence Knoll: Form, not Fashion.” The New York Times (Printed April 7, 1983). https://www.nytimes.com/1983/04/07/garden/florence-knoll-form-not-fashion.html (accessed January 28, 2019).
-McFadden, Robert D. ”Florence Knoll Bassett, 101, Designer of the Modern American Office, Dies.” The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/25/style/frances-knoll-bassett-dead.html (accessed January 28, 2019).
-”Woman Who Led an Office Revolution Rules an Empire of Modern Design; Florence Knoll Gave Business ‘Living’ a New Look.” The New York Times (Printed September 1, 1964). https://www.nytimes.com/1964/09/01/archives/woman-who-led-an-office-revolution-rules-an-empire-of-modern-design.html (accessed January 28, 2019).