Between the 1920s and the 1960s, architecture and furniture design went through an aesthetic revolution that became known as modernism. The transformation was driven by men now heralded as iconic figures in the history of design—Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Eero Saarinen, Frank Lloyd Wright, Harry Bertoia, and Charles Eames among them. But the single most influential force in the entire movement was undoubtedly a woman: Florence Knoll, who was simply Shu to her friends and colleagues.
Orphaned at age twelve in Bay City, Michigan in 1929, Florence Schust was placed under the guardianship of a bank trustee, but soon revealed precocious artistic gifts that vaulted her to the attention of Eliel Saarinen, headmaster of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where she began a teenage quest to become an extraordinary architect. In the midst of World War II, she became business partners with Hans Knoll, a fledgling furniture manufacturer in New York City. When they married, she launched the Knoll Planning Unit and basically created the modern profession of interior design and space planning, helping turn Knoll into the world’s leading corporate interiors firm.
What is most remarkable about Florence Knoll’s story is how the thread of her life weaves together a tapestry of personal relationships with the pantheon of design titans who helped shape the aesthetic of modernism. She studied under them, apprenticed with them, got to know them and drew lessons from them that shaped her own sensibility—and when she became a corporate executive, building one of the most enduring styles of all time, she reproduced their masterpieces and then hired them to develop new ideas.
This is the story of one woman’s quest to create a more beautiful world and the extraordinary success she had in 1940s, 50s and 60s in shattering all the barriers that held women back while shaping the corporate world’s design sensibility. At the height of her fame in the 1970s she withdrew from the scene with husband Harry Bassett, but underwent a renaissance of recognition in the 80s and 90s as public demand for the furniture designs she nurtured and created emerged again in the phenomenon known as Mid-Century Modern.