scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Florence Knoll Bassett, designer who transformed corporate offices, dies at 101

WASHINGTON — Florence Knoll Bassett, an enormously influential architect and designer who changed the look and feel of corporate offices with a ‘‘total design’’ concept through open floor plans, spare, straight-edged desks and furnishings, and a devotion to aesthetic simplicity, died Jan. 25 at her home in Coral Gables, Fla. She was 101.

Ms. Knoll Bassett studied with several leading architects of the 20th century, including Mies van der Rohe, whose emphasis on straight lines and a lack of ornament became a hallmark of her designs.

Although she designed some buildings, Ms. Knoll Bassett was best known for her reimagining of interior space, as she cleared away old ways of thinking along with the heavy desks and draperies that had cluttered offices for years.


‘‘I am not a decorator,’’ she repeatedly said. Rather, her aim was to apply architectural principles to the part of buildings where people spend most of their time: the inside.

For more than 20 years, Ms. Knoll Bassett was the design director of Knoll Associates, a company she formed in the mid-1940s with her first husband, Hans Knoll. Her daring use of materials, texture, color and space — corresponding with the International style of architecture prevalent at the time — was considered revolutionary and came to embody what is now called midcentury modern design.

One of Ms. Knoll Bassett’s earliest projects was her husband’s 144-square foot office, which she made into a showcase of minimalist simplicity. As potential clients stepped inside, they beheld a new vision of design that soon reshaped corporate buildings.

In 1984, long after Ms. Knoll Bassett had retired, New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote that she ‘‘probably did more than any other single figure to create the modern, sleek, postwar American office, introducing contemporary furniture and a sense of open planning into the work environment.’’


Ms. Knoll Bassett made office space a conscious artistic statement. Before putting pencil to paper, she interviewed ordinary workers — not just the bosses — to understand how they spent their time and moved around the office.

Then she made a ‘‘paste-up’’ model out of cardboard, showing every chair, table, lamp, and typewriter. She used the exact paint colors and fabric samples and, when everything was in its place, folded the flattened model together to create a three-dimensional replica of the office.

Her office designs were done with an eye toward comfort, efficiency, and ease of movement and communication — and with an underlying ethos that good taste could have a beneficial effect on the workplace.

Every square foot counted. Instead of a monumental desk in the middle of the floor or cutting off a corner, Ms. Knoll Bassett shrank its size, removed the drawers and placed it toward the rear of the room. Papers were stored in a small credenza against a wall. Chairs were lightweight and easy to move. She liked staircases without risers, giving the illusion of walking on air.

Another of her innovations, now commonplace, was to staple fabric swatches on pieces of cardboard, fanning them out like a deck of cards for clients

Over the years, she worked on offices at General Motors, IBM, Rockefeller Center, and New York’s Seagram Building, designed by her mentor, Mies. Ms. Knoll Bassett’s final major project, completed in 1965, was the interior of the CBS headquarters in New York, for which she designed everything from tables and chairs to wall coverings and door handles.


Florence Margaret Schust was born in Saginaw, Mich. Her father ran a baking company, but both parents died at early ages, leaving her an orphan at 12. A guardian enrolled her in a private school outside Detroit, where an art teacher once asked what project she was interested in. ‘‘I want to design a house,’’ she said.

She soon came to the attention of Eliel Saarinen, an acclaimed architect — and father of Eero Saarinen, the chief designer of Dulles Airport and the St. Louis Arch. The elder Saarinen, who was headmaster of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, became a mentor to Ms. Knoll Bassett and practically made her a member of his family.

She studied at Cranbrook and Columbia University and had internships with Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. She attended the Architectural Association in London, then trained under Mies at what is now the Illinois Institute of Technology, from which she graduated in 1941.

In 1943, she began working with the German-born Knoll, who was running a branch of his family’s furniture business. They were married in 1946.

After her husband was killed in a car crash in Cuba in 1955, Ms. Knoll Bassett became president of the company. Her work took her to Miami to design the interior of the First National Bank building. In 1958, she married Harry Bassett, who became the bank’s president.