Architect Spotlight: Florence Knoll

We're massive fans of Knoll as a company here at 1767. The iconic American brand embodies nearly everything we admire in a company: good design, equitable treatment of its employees, architectural preservation, and an ahead-of-the-times view on gender equality. Co-owner Florence Knoll was to thank for much of that. 

Florence was born Florence Schust in Saginaw, Michigan in 1917. Orphaned at a young age, she went on to attend the Kingswood School for Girls, where she developed an interest in architecture. In an incredible story straight out of a mid-century design lover's dream, a young Florence was introduced to Eliel Saarinen, then the Cranbrook Academy of Art President (and father of now-famed furniture designer Eero Saarinen). The elder Saarinen and his wife, Loja, helped to raise Florence as a teen and quickly became her mentors; she even traveled with the family to their home country of Finland, learning about architecture along the way. 

Florence attended architecture at Cranbrook Academy of Art for one year in 1934, then studied town planning at the School of Architecture at Columbia University. She went on to experiment with furniture design with friends Saarinen and Charles Eames (a pretty incredible friendship, and one that fellow furniture nerds will also likely enjoy).

Florence went on to attend school at the Architectural Association in London after hearing about the school from friend Alvar Aalto, and after moving back to the US, she studied as an apprentice for Bauhaus figures like Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Though her work toward a degree in architecture was still unfinished, largely due to both illness and the uncertainty of World War II, she eventually received a bachelor's degree in architecture from the Chicago Armour Institute in 1940. 

After graduation, Florence moved to New York and worked with a number of architects. One of her first jobs was designing an office under Harrison & Abramovitz, a project she worked on with her future husband, Hans Knoll. The two quickly became work partners, and she began working frequently for his Hans G. Knoll Furniture Company. Florence later founded their interior division, the Knoll Planning Unit. After Florence and Hans married in 1946, she became a partner at the company, and it changed its name to Knoll Associates, Inc. 

With Florence as a co-owner, the Knoll company became internationally renowned for its furniture and interior design services. Where Florence was a skilled and talented designer, Hans was a natural salesman and charismatic entrepreneur. While she designed nearly all of Knoll's most iconic furniture pieces, Florence also helmed many of Knoll's most well-known collaborations with designers like Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, and Mies van der Rohe. 

Throughout her career, Florence went on to redefine the modern American office, using her background in architecture to consider efficiency, space and function with her simple but beautiful furniture pieces. After her husband Hans' death in 1955, Florence rose to the challenge of leading the entire Knoll company on her own. While she resigned from the presidency role to focus more on design in 1960, she is still known as one of the pioneering female leaders in modernist design and American architecture. 

Photos courtesy of Knoll