The papers of architect and designer Florence Knoll Bassett, measure approximately 2 linear feet dating from 1932 to 2000. Through correspondence, sketches, drawings, designs, subject files, photographs, and printed material, the collection selectively documents Knoll Bassett's education, her work with Knoll Associates from the 1940s until her resignation in 1965, and projects undertaken since her retirement. It is an important source of information on the development of interior architecture and design from the 1940s to the 1970s.
Scope and Content Note:
The papers of architect, and interior designer and planner Florence Knoll Bassett, measure approximately 2 linear feet dating from 1932 to 2000. The collection selectively documents Knoll Bassett's education and her career at Knoll Associates, Inc. from the 1940s until her resignation in 1965, in addition to personal design projects and other activities after leaving the company. It is an important source of information on the development of interior architecture and design from the 1940s to the 1970s, chronicling the Knoll mission to synthesize space, furniture, and design by creating interiors based on practical use, comfort, and aesthetics.
The collection documents the growth of Knoll's international reputation for its modern furnishings and interiors and the impact of a business philosophy that encompassed design excellence, technological innovation, and mass production. The material includes a chronology of Knoll Bassett's career; a portfolio of sketches, drawings and designs; photographs of Knoll Bassett and others; subject files containing sketches and photographic material; letters from friends, colleagues, clients and others; awards received by Knoll Bassett throughout her career; and printed material.
Much of the material is annotated with historical and biographical notes written by Knoll Bassett which provide invaluable contextual information for the materials found therein. The notes are dated 1999 in the Container Listing, under the assumption that they were written by Florence Knoll Bassett as she was arranging her archival papers.
Before donating her papers to the Archives of American Art, Knoll Bassett organized the material in portfolios and color-coded files and designed four containers for them. Because the method of arrangement in itself provides insight into Knoll Bassett's style and creativity the collection has been minimally processed with the addition of acid-free materials for preservation reasons and the transcription of labels which may, over time, become detached. The original order of the collection has been retained throughout.
The collection was organized into what Bassett termed "storage units," the first container being divided into three units and the collection as a whole being divided into six units. Knoll Bassett supplied a detailed inventory of the contents of each container and the subjects represented in each porfolio or folder. Subject headings from this inventory have been used in the Series Description/Container Listing. Knoll Bassett also supplied a vita summarizing her career and copies of this, and her original container inventory are enclosed with the collection and can be consulted at AAA's research center in Washington D.C.
The collection is arranged as seven series. These series represent the categories into which Knoll Bassett organized the material, with the exception that Letters and Awards are presented as two series in the finding aid. Most of the items in Series 1 to 4 are presented as portfolios in spiral-bound notebooks and the remainder of the collection is organized in folders.
Series 1: Biographical Material, 1932-1999 (Box 1; 1 portfolio)
Series 2: Selected Publications, 1946-1990, 1999 (Box 1; 1 portfolio)
Series 3: Drawings, Sketches, and Designs, 1932-1984, 1999 (Boxes 1-2; 2 portfolios)
Series 4: Photographs and Printed Material, 1956-1997, 1999 (Box 2; 1 portfolio)
Series 5: Subject Files, circa 1930s-1999 (Box 3; 1.0 linear ft.)
Series 6: Letters, circa 1930s-2000 (Box 4; 7 folders)
Series 7: Awards, 1954-1999 (Box 4; 6 folders)
Florence Knoll Bassett was born Florence Schust in 1917 and was affectionately known as Shu by her colleagues and friends. She was orphaned at age 12 and then cared for by Emile Tessin, a friend of the family whom her mother had appointed as Florence's legal guardian in the event of her death. When arrangements were being made for Florence to attend boarding school she was given the opportunity to make the selection. Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, held a strong aesthetic appeal for her and she "made an immediate decision that it was the right place for me," beginning her architectural studies under the school's art director, Rachel de Wolfe Raseman.
At Kingswood Knoll Bassett met the Saarinen family, studying under Eliel Saarinen and developing her interest in texture and color through her friendship with Loja Saarinen who supervised the school's weaving studio. Following Florence's graduation from Kingswood in 1934, Eliel Saarinen encouraged her to spend some time at Cranbrook Academy of Art before attending an accredited architecture school. She spent the next two years at Cranbrook working closely with advanced students and artists such as the Saarinens and Carl Milles, and gaining experience in all aspects of design.
Knoll Bassett then studied for two years at the Architectural Association in London, spending summers with the Saarinens in Europe. She completed her formal training at the Illinois Institute of Technology where she studied under Mies van der Rohe, whom she credits with having "a profound effect on my design approach and the clarification of design."
After graduation Knoll Bassett worked for architecture firms in Boston and New York where she met Hans Knoll who was then in the process of establishing a furniture business. In 1943 she began working for him in her spare time as an interior space planner and designer. In 1946 the two were married and formed Knoll Associates, Inc.
As director of the Knoll Planning Unit, Knoll Bassett established herself as one of the most important and influential interior planners and designers of the second half of the twentieth century. Believing that intelligent design "strikes at the root of living requirements and changing habits," she established the practice of working closely with the corporate sector to determine the needs of the people who would actually use the spaces that her company designed. Her connections with leading contemporary architects and designers, and the company's commitment to crediting designers by name and paying them royalties, laid the foundations for the strong working relationships upon which the commercial success of Knoll Associates was built. Drawing on a pool of top architects and designers, many of whom were personal friends, Knoll Bassett directed the company's Bauhaus approach, incorporating design excellence, technological innovation, and mass production in a seamless package of "total design."
While Knoll Bassett oversaw the creative process of the Planning Unit's operations in its entirety, she was also directly responsible for many of the individual elements used in the Unit's projects. During the war years, she worked with her designers to overcome the scarcity of materials, establishing Knoll Textiles in response to the dearth of available fabrics and textile colors, and developing the company's hallmark style of spare clean lines and vibrant colors in a functional, comfortable, and aesthetically appealing space. Finding that much of the "fill-in" furniture, primarily cabinetry, that she envisaged in many of her plans was not available, Knoll Bassett designed the pieces herself. She used the Knoll showrooms as "experimental laboratories" to convince clients to use modern ideas and materials, showcasing and putting into production the classic designs of people such as Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe, Jens Risom, Harry Bertoia, Isamu Noguchi, and Marcel Breuer.
After the war Knoll Associates expanded to Europe through a series of government contracts which resulted ultimately in the formation of Knoll International. When Hans Knoll died suddenly in an automobile accident in 1955 Florence became president of the company. She married Harry Hood Bassett in 1958 and began to divide her time between New York and Florida. In 1959 she sold her interest in Knoll Associates to Art Metal and retired as President of the company the following year, while continuing to work as a consultant and serving as Design Director. In 1961 she became the first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal for Industrial Design by the American Institute of Architects, one of many awards received over the course of her career. In 1965 she resigned from Knoll Associates entirely after completing the interior design for the CBS headquarters in New York.
Following her retirement Knoll Bassett devoted more time to private commissions and other interests such as her campaign against billboards in Miami in the mid 1980s. She spent summers in Vermont and winters in Florida with her husband, until his death in 1991. In July 2001, Metropolis magazine published a rare interview with Knoll Bassett in which she reflects upon the life she so skillfully documented in the extraordinary gift of her archival papers to the Archives of American Art.
The collection was donated to the Archives of American Art by Florence Knoll Bassett in 2000.
The collection is open for research. Use requires an appointment.