Nicole BaxterComment

THE WOMAN WHO CHANGED AMERICAN DESIGN

Nicole BaxterComment
THE WOMAN WHO CHANGED AMERICAN DESIGN

Florence “Shu” Knoll Bassett, designer, architect, and visionary, died January 25th in Coral Gables, Florida at 101. She was the catalyst responsible for taking modern design from theoretical classroom prototypes to homes and offices across America. She redesigned the American aesthetic, legitimized interior design, and changed how we see the world.

Knoll was born in 1917 in Michigan to an aspiring engineer who supported his family as a commercial baker. He talked to Shu often about design and taught her how to read blueprints. He passed away early, as did her mother who had, before her death, ensured that her daughter would complete her education at boarding school. As soon as Shu saw the Kingswood Girls School, designed by acclaimed Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, she fell in love. Kingswood was associated with Cranbrook Academy of Art, which put her in close contact with Saarinen, who quickly picked up on her keen eye and interest in architecture. The tragedies that marked her early life set the stage for her remarkable success.

Over the next few years she studied alongside Charles Eames, his future wife and partner Ray Kaiser, Eero Saarinen, and Harry Bertoia. During the early years of her career she worked for Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, founders of the iconic Bauhaus School of Design, in Cambridge, and Mies van der Rohe in Chicago. These renowned architects and industrial designers of the 20th Century were born into a Pre-War world filled with traditional buildings, heavily ornamented antique furniture that recounted past European eras, and they redesigned the world with a modern, purely rational aesthetic that stripped away the fluff to uncover the undeniable beauty of materials and silhouette.

In the early 1940’s, Shu began working with Hans Knoll in his New York furniture store. Her Cranbrook education addressed all the practical arts within the built environment, which enabled her to think in broad strokes and approach the furniture industry with a fresh and innovative outlook. She developed a design department within Knoll and established her revolutionary “total design” philosophy that sought to seamlessly connect all aspects of the space through a single vision. She sought to improve offices and workplaces to make them comfortable and beautiful, and if she couldn’t find the products she needed, she designed them. In 1946 Shu and Hans were married.

Her brilliance and need to redesign the world encompassed business as well. She convinced Hans that he would sell more furniture if he allowed interior designers, an emerging profession, to buy directly through the manufacturers. Not only did they understand how to use the new modern styles and could convince others to furnish their homes and offices accordingly, but interior designers could earn money by doing so, thereby legitimizing the nascent industry. This led not only to the first to-the-trade programs, but to the development of local showrooms to display the products, factories to produce them and sophisticated distribution to move them.

A key part of her vision required new products, and she enlisted the help of her design school friends; Mies gave her exclusive licensing rights to produce the Barcelona chair, Saarinen granted her rights to the Tulip collection, and the Eames had her produce their rosewood and leather star-base lounger and ottoman. It was a limited and low-tech age where information, trends, and ideas were locally focused, yet she was able to leverage her national showrooms and distribution systems to turn young architects into brands and celebrity designers. In 1955 Hans died in a car accident, and she later married Miami banker, Henry Hood Bassett. She retired In 1965.

Photo of Florence Knoll: Courtesy of Knoll Furniture

Nicole Baxter is the principal of N Baxter Design. She is also a Durham, NC-based licensed realtor with a Myers-Briggs certification, two disciplines she believes are “inextricably connected.” Nicole grew up with an architect father in a home full of classic modern furniture; studying interior design was natural. Today, Nicole’s design practice focuses on her clients' emotional and psychological wellbeing, and is wrapped around a philosophy she calls The Emotional Home.