Why Florence Knoll was the "Single Most Powerful Figure in Modern Design”

By Nico Haven, Thomas Hart, and David Rosenwasser


"The Knoll interior is as much a symbol of modern architecture as Tiffany glass was a symbol of the architecture of Art Nouveau."

- Architectural Forum, 1957

You can't understand and appreciate modern design without acknowledging Florence Knoll. 

Even today, her work and influence still resonate in interior design, furniture design and architecture. Her collection of designs is full of timeless classics that are both highly influential and highly collectible

The Knoll Planning Unit: Florence's vehicle for revolutionary interior design

Though Knoll Associates had historically been a furniture company, Florence's background in architecture enabled her to approach furniture with the eye of a modernist architect. In partnership with her husband, Hans, Knoll Associates transformed from a small company into an immensely influential international design brand.

In 1943, at the age of 26, she launched their interior design division, the Knoll Planning Unit, which became one of the major forces behind modern corporate office design

She redefined how offices were designed in the late 20th century

Paul Goldberger, a critic at The New York Times, said Florence "probably did more than any other single figure to create the modern, sleek, postwar American office, including contemporary furniture and a sense of open planning into the work environment."

Florence Knoll's vision and work prioritized furniture's impact on the experience of a space, viewing it not just as a functional widget but a central aspect of a broader, more comprehensive design that made spaces more comfortable and appealing.

As modern architecture began to spread in the U.S. during the mid 20th century, Florence Knoll knew that this new architecture needed new, modern interiors.

Corporate offices were the symbol of American post-WWII economic development and progress, yet they had historically looked like glorified factories. Florence, with the Knoll Planning Unit, designed Knoll Associates' trendsetting showrooms by fusing elements from modernist architecture and industrial design.

Knoll Planning Unit design for Conn General
Knoll Planning Unit design for Conn General's lounge (1951) (image via Knoll)

She broke barriers in the workplace

Knoll asserted that "good design is good business." And she broke barriers for women in design and architecture, which had historically been dominated by men and had looked over women's potential and contributions. 

She revolutionized modern design by professionalizing interior design, elevating it to be taken seriously as a comprehensive field of design alongside the architectural world, while also making pieces that were approachable to the general public. 

She worked with the biggest names in mid-century modern design

Early on in her career, Florence was lucky to learn from some of the foremost figures of 20th century design.

While she attended the Cranbrook Academy of Arts in the 1930s. The school was a breeding ground for the budding modernist and mid-century modern movements, and she benefited from working with Charles Eames and Eliel and Eero Saarinen. The education she received at Cranbrook—as well as the "total design" of the campus surrounding her there—was foundational in Florence's approach to design and the work she would produce throughout her career.

She also studied under leading figures of the Bauhaus movement like Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer while at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Lastly, Mies van der Rohe was her teacher at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he profoundly influenced Florence and became a lifelong collaborator with the Knolls.

Mies van der Rohe (image via Flickr)
Mies van der Rohe (image via Flickr)

She helped bring iconic designs to a wider audience

Just as Florence benefited from studying and working with preeminent designers early in her career, she brought both established and untested designers to Knoll Associates to produce new works.

Early collaborations and designed works for Knoll included the likes of Jens Risom, who created several iconic wooden chairs with webbing and upholstery, along with organically shaped tables.

Florence brought on friends such as Eero Saarinen and the sculptor Harry Bertoia to create pieces such as his Womb Chair and iconic wire chairs.

Isamu Noguchi designed the cyclone table and a lamp for Knoll, while George Nakashima was brought in early in his career to create a small series of wooden chairs and tables.

In the 1960s, Richard Schultz and Warren Platner worked with Knoll to create the 1966 collection of outdoor furniture and the Platner series of wire furniture.

Florence also sought out existing designs, including the iconic Barcelona Chair by her friend and former teacher Mies van der Rohe, to produce at scale through Knoll.

And when Knoll needed new designs, she would create the “meat and potatoes” herself. Those “fill-in” furnishings often included products, such as sofas and credenzas, that other designers did not take an interest in. Though the catalog of iconic pieces designed by Knoll by other designers in expansive, Florence’s own collection of designs has also become timeless.

Florence Knoll's Iconic Designs

Club Chair, model 1205S1 (1954)

Just as Corbusier, Jeanneret, and Perriand created the cube-like LC2 club chair, Florence Knoll had a club chair of her own (many in fact). 

Using leather or fabric atop a chromed steel base and an inner frame of solid wood, this piece embodies the characteristic beauty and sophistication of her work through simplicity. The chair is its own sort of tuxedo chair with luxurious piping around its sides and architectural lines to complement the interior architecture of its surroundings. 

This is also an early example of upholstery used by Knoll Textiles, which Florence also created within Knoll International.

Florence Knoll Club Chair, model 1205S1, designed in 1954 (image via Rarify)
Florence Knoll Club Chair, model 1205S1, designed in 1954 (image via Rarify)
Florence Knoll
Florence Knoll's design for the Knoll showroom in New York City (1951) (image via Knoll)

Knoll's New York City showroom (1951)

This showroom design was the first example of Florence's philosophy of how furniture and design can influence the experience of a space. It would become the example used for Knoll's showrooms even to today, as well as the benchmark for other office and interior designs throughout the rest of the 20th century.

It included brightly colored panels hung from a steel grid attached to the ceiling to delineate space—an innovative design that struck a balance between the old style of small, individual offices and the new open-plan workspaces that Knoll pioneered.

When it opened in 1951, Olga Gueft of Interiors magazine noted that the Knoll showroom "remind[s] the visitor that modern furniture has more to offer than utilitarian advantages of comfort and economy."

Knoll Associates 26 BC upholstered 3-seater sofa (1949)

Florence's rational design—influenced by her studies and friendship with Mies van der Rohe—is embodied here in this sofa's unadorned lines and geometric profile. Her early furniture pieces today seem obvious, as we may see them in our minds eye as what a "modern sofa" is supposed to look like. Florence, however, brought many of those classic and simple forms to life. 

Pieces like this were often upholstered in fabrics created by Knoll Textiles, which Florence also conceived of within Knoll International. As with the furniture company, Knoll Textiles brought in some of the foremost textile designers of the time, including Anni Albers, the renowned artist and Bauhaus weaver.

Knoll Associates 26 BC upholstered 3-seater sofa (1949) (image via Rarify)
Knoll Associates 26 BC upholstered 3-seater sofa (1949) (image via Rarify)

Florence Knoll Partners Desk, Model 2485 (1961)

Florence had a vision for how each piece of furniture would be used and experienced in a space. 

She believed that a proper desk should "facilitate communication," and this dignified yet understated desk, with a Brazilian rosewood top over a chromed-steel X-base, can facilitate collaboration with two drawers mirrored on each side. It can also present a grand and minimal surface that gives clutter nowhere to hide. Within an office, storage was meant to sit behind the executive in a matching credenza of her design.

Florence Knoll Partners Desk, Model 2485, designed in 1961 (image via Rarify)
Florence Knoll Partners Desk, Model 2485, designed in 1961 (image via Rarify)
Cowles Publication office interior, designed by Florence Knoll in 1962 (Image from the Knoll Archive)
Cowles Publication office interior, designed by Florence Knoll in 1962 (Image from the Knoll Archive)

Cowles Publications office interior (1962)

This was a forerunner of bespoke design tailored to the specific needs of the client. Cowles Publications had a 13,000-square-foot space for its new office, so everything was designed to fit with the vision for how the specific space would be used by a specific group of people. That was revolutionary for offices, which before had cookie-cutter furniture pieces that were impersonal and lacked specificity.

Progressive Architecture noted that, in Florence Knoll's Cowles Publications design, "a balance between fabrics and polished surfaces makes the room warm without being woolly, and bright without a suggestion of brittleness. It is this meticulous attention to every detail of interior design for which the Knoll Planning Unit is renowned."

Knoll International Four Position Credenza (1954)

In 1955, Hans, Florence's husband and business partner, died tragically in a car accident. She ran the company for a decade before leaving in 1965.

She still designed pieces even after stepping down as president, and continued to innovate and expand upon the design language she had pioneered in the 1950s and 60s.

Just as in her seating designs, she contrasts materials—here, a white marble top against Brazilian Rosewood with chromed base—in a way that's still orthogonal, visually light, and modern.

Knoll International Four Position Credenza, designed by Florence Knoll in 1954 (image via Rarify)
Knoll International Four Position Credenza, designed by Florence Knoll in 1954 (image via Rarify)

No. 116 Sliding Door Cabinet and Sideboard (1948)

Even with subtle details, Florence was confident and often brave in her explorations of materials. Caned doors were crafted with bridle leather pulls. The case is lacquered in black over oak and inner drawers constructed from veneered and solid oak.To cement its modernity, a more dull chrome finish was used in this instance with a slight reveal between base and cabinet. Its a masterpiece that Knoll produced from 1948 well into the 1970s in different iterations. 

No. 116 Sliding Door Cabinet, designed by Florence Knoll in 1948 (image via Rarify)
No. 116 Sliding Door Cabinet, designed by Florence Knoll in 1948 (image via Rarify)
Florence Knoll with a lounge chair of her own design (image via Knoll, Inc.)
Florence Knoll with a lounge chair of her own design (image via Knoll, Inc.)

Rarify embraces Florence Knoll's legacy and vision

Florence Knoll was one of the profound designers who inspired us to create Rarify. We share her approach of highlighting both established designers and rising stars, as well as her dedication to timeless design. 

Rarify is an evolving collection of iconic, authentic-only furniture by history's most visionary designers. We curate collections of timeless classics and rare, authenticated vintage furniture pieces, as well as the collectible classics of the future.