Ms. Knoll Bassett studied with several leading architects of the 20th century, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose emphasis on straight lines and a lack of ornament became a hallmark of her designs, as well.
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 mid-century 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 around the world.
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 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.
Ms. Knoll Bassett’s papers, now in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, include remarkably detailed, hand-drawn designs. Next to a pencil sketch of drinking glasses, for instance, she wrote: “Bright sparkle on glasses. Look all right?”
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.
Depending on the size of an office, the focal point could be an oval or rectangular table, standing atop slender metal legs, or a sofa shorn of armrests and curves. Walls were sometimes painted in a bold primary color or covered in cloth.
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 to see.
“She has led people to see that texture in fabrics can be as interesting as a print (she dislikes prints),” journalist Virginia Lee Warren wrote in the Times in 1964, “and that steel legs on tables, chairs and sofas can have grace and elegance.”
Ms. Knoll Bassett was, Warren concluded, “the single most powerful figure in the field of modern design.”
Over the years, she worked on offices at General Motors, IBM, Rockefeller Center, the Heinz headquarters in Pittsburgh 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, desks and chairs to wall coverings and door handles.
As design director and later president of the Knoll company, she hired renowned architects and sculptors, including Isamu Noguchi, Harry Bertoia and Eero Saarinen, her friend from childhood, to design chairs, tables and sofas.
Ms. Knoll Bassett’s own designs launched trends in office decor, including an oval-shaped desk with a thin sheet of marble or wood floating atop a simple chrome pedestal. In the first dozen years after the table was introduced in 1961, more than 3 million were sold.
When Saarinen designed a line of chairs with a molded fiberglass base, Ms. Knoll Bassett persuaded a skeptical New Jersey boat manufacturer to make them.
“We came with a model of the chair,” she told Metropolis magazine in 2001 in a rare interview, “and he looked at it and thought maybe we were a little crazy, but he was a nice guy. We sold him on the idea of making this chair, and then it became a very good part of his business.”
Florence Margaret Schust was born May 24, 1917, in Saginaw, Mich. Her father ran a family baking company, but both of her parents died at early ages, leaving her an orphan at 12.
A guardian enrolled her in a private girls school outside Detroit. An art teacher there 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 Washington’s Dulles Airport and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The elder Saarinen, who was also headmaster of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., became a mentor to Ms. Knoll Bassett (who was known to friends as “Shu”) and practically made her a member of his family.
During the summers, she traveled with the Saarinens to their native Finland and met other renowned architects. 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.
She then joined an architecture firm in New York, but as a woman she was often relegated to designing the interiors of buildings rather than the structures themselves. In 1943, she began working with the German-born Knoll, who was running a New York branch of his family’s furniture business. They were married in 1946.
After her husband was killed in a car accident in Cuba in 1955, Ms. Knoll Bassett became president of the company. Her work later took her to Miami to design the interior of the First National Bank building. In 1958, she married Harry Hood Bassett, who became the bank’s president.
She sold the Knoll business in 1959 but stayed on as design director until 1965. She occasionally worked on private projects but largely led a private life in Miami.
Her husband died in 1991. Survivors include three stepchildren and nine grandchildren.
In 2000, Ms. Knoll Bassett donated her papers to the Archives of American Art — and designed the containers to hold them. She received the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush at a White House ceremony in 2003.
A year later, Ms. Knoll Bassett’s work was featured in an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At age 87, she created a cardboard paste-up model of the display space, meticulously planning the layout and selecting fabric samples, the typeface for the wall panels and even the paint colors for the walls — red and blue.
She made several visits to Philadelphia to watch over the installation, then — in a typical act of public reticence — did not attend the opening.
“We thought we were perfectionists at the museum,” curator Kathryn Hiesinger later said, “but no one is like Florence Knoll Bassett.”
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