Last week we profiled Le Corbusier.

Knoll is a big name in furniture, and we don’t necessarily mean Florence. The name itself represents the big conglomerate that she helped found, but that sometimes contributed to her overshadowing.

Florence Schust, however, was born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1917. She married and took the last name of industrialist Hans Knoll in 1946, but by that time she already had a very interesting reputation of her own, one that would immortalize her as one within the holy pantheon of mid-century modernist furniture. She passed away last January, at 101 years old.

Early life, work, and inspiration

Knoll was the daughter of a baker, and became an orphan at a very young age. She attended the Kingswood School for Girls, which was adjacent to the Cranbrook Academy of Art. While at Kingswood she befriended (and became a pupil of) Eliel Saarinen, who helped her exploit her artistic talents.

Saarinen’s own son, Eero, would also become Knoll’s friend later on in the future. She met her first mentor at Kingswood too, the school’s art director, Rachel de Wolfe Raseman. Knoll attended Cranbrook following her passions, though she only stayed for a year, and later transferred to Columbia University. She spent some time in London before World War II, but came back before the fight broke out and entered MIT in Cambridge, where she met another mentor, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Their relationship not only helped her, professionally speaking, it also helped introduce Bauhaus furniture into America via the Knoll company’s distribution network. Though most people speak of her in these terms (that is, while mentioning someone else), Knoll’s work expanded from furniture into architecture and back. She was responsible for the design aspect of the Knoll brand, which means that we probably owe about 60% of modernist American furniture designs to her, maybe even more.

The Knoll couch and other key designs and contributions

Nowadays, we have this idea of a “Knoll” sofa, which is similar to the idea of the “office chair” that Charles Eames brought to the world. You’ve probably seen them many times: squares upon squares, like Barcelona sofas but tighter, cozier, and usually more colorful.

Like other mid-century concepts, the Knoll sofa has become a staple, a cookie-cutter formula for furniture aesthetic. That’s how attractive and comfortable it is. According to Knoll’s official website, Florence usually referred to her own designs as the “meat and potatoes” within the furniture catalogs.

In essence, she believed her pieces to be fillers, common renditions aimed at regular buyers, a perfect background for “better” items like those created by Saarinen, Mies, and other designers like Harry Bertoia.

Mistaken as she was, we could argue that she only intended to be humble, and succeeded. But the Knoll company catalog still keeps a wide variety of sofas and armchairs, all of them with her distinctive vibe, her ubiquitous glass tables, which also became a staple in office spaces, and even some tables that resemble Tulip tables but are original Knoll designs from top to base.