As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting someone who helped welcome modern furniture design to the 20th century, Florence Knoll. Knoll and her husband, Hans Knoll, established Knoll Associates as an authentic leader in the furniture and design field and didn’t look back. Learn more about her inspiring life and work below:

The Life of Florence Knoll

Florence Knoll was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on May 24, 1917. Knoll’s mother was also born in Michigan, but her father, who owned a bakery in town, was a German immigrant. She became orphaned at the age of 12, and in 1932, she began attending Kingswood School for the Girls – part of the Cranbrook Educational Community – in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where she was mentored by the school’s art director, Rachel de Wolfe Rassman. 

At school, Knoll picked up her interests in architecture and interior design thanks to various school projects. Her work caught the attention of the academy’s President and architect, Eliel Saarinen, who became another mentor for Knoll. In 1935, after leaving the Cranbrook Academy, Knoll studied town planning at Columbia University. However, she returned home a year later to continue her studies in the architectural department at Cranbrook. Here, she explored furniture creation with Eliel’s son, Eero, and Charles Eames

Although illness pushed her studies throughout her youth, Knoll finished her education at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1941 under Mies van der Rohe, who inspired much of her designs.

Knoll Associates, Inc. New York Showroom, designed by Florence Knoll, 1951
Knoll Associates, Inc. New York Showroom, designed by Florence Knoll, 1951

Notable Works and Achievements

After completing her degree in 1941, Knoll found a job at the Harrison, Abramovitz and Fouilhoux firm, the architects of the Rockefeller Center, where she worked in their interiors departments. She eventually found a second job with Hans Knoll, who had moved to the United States in 1940 and started his furniture company, Hans G. Knoll Furniture. 

In 1946, Hans and Florence founded Knoll Associates, Inc., and two months later, the pair were married. She ran the Knoll Planning Unit and became recognized for bringing architecture, fabric, furniture and spatial planning together for the first time in American design culture. 

In 1948, Knoll Associates, Inc. opened its first showroom in New York City. Soon after, countless cities across the world showcased humanized modern designs. And while Knoll only contributed what she described as the “meat and potatoes” of the designs in the Knoll Collection, she went out of her way to encourage her architectural connections, like Eero, to contribute designs to her brand and further revolutionize office design and space with them. 

Knoll’s major projects include Knoll Showrooms in New York, Paris, Stuttgart, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, Millan, Los Angeles and Miami. She also designed interior offices for Look magazine in 1957, Heinz Headquarters in 1958 and the CBS building in 1963. 

CBS Building Headquarters, New York City, Designed by Florence Knoll, 1963
CBS Building Headquarters, New York City, Designed by Florence Knoll, 1963

Alongside her revolutionary work, Knoll has been the recipient of design awards and achievements, including:

  • AIA Gold Medal for Industrial Design, 1954
  • International Design Award, American Institute of Interior Designers, 1962
  • Inducted into the Interior Design Magazine Hall of Fame, 1985
  • National Endowment for the Arts, National Medal of Arts, 2002

While Knoll is largely known for spearheading furniture and interior design in the 20th century, her legacy stretches much further. Throughout her illustrious career, she helped professionalize the architecture and design field for women and mold thought around space in office settings, transforming the way humans still interact today.