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March 31, 2021

Florence Knoll and Modernism

In honor of Women’s History Month, I want to salute one of the great designers, who also happened to be a woman. If you love Modernism, you need to know Florence Knoll, the woman who made clean, functional, and “modern” the hallmarks of mid-20th-century design.

Knoll had a degree in architecture, but at her first jobs in the early 1940’s, she was given only interiors to design because she was a woman.  She developed a “total design” approach that treated both the architecture and the furniture of a space as equally important.

In 1946, she and her husband founded Knoll Associates, which became one of the world’s most important furniture design firms, with Florence as the lead visionary.

Over the next three decades, the name Knoll became synonymous with “modern.”  Florence was responsible for the aesthetic that we all appreciate today – oval tabletops, vibrant colors, chrome legs, and clean, flowing lines.  Everything we think of as mid-century modern was influenced by Florence Knoll.

In addition to her impact on design, Knoll launched a textile program to fill a gap in the market. KnollTextiles brought Florence to a groundbreaking advancement in industry practice. Her use of fabric swatches in presentations led her to develop a tagged sample system that became an industry standard. (See the photo below!)

She was a true force in male-dominated fields, and she became the first woman to receive the Gold Medal for Industrial Design from the American Institute of Architects.  Knoll was recognized for her achievements when the Smithsonian Institution (my old workplace) accepted her papers. Two years prior she was awarded the National Medal of the Arts, the highest honor in the field of arts, presented annually by the President of the United States.

Florence Knoll Bassett in 1961. Ray Fisher/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

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