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Ten Years Later: Defining Modern

Looking back at Florence Knoll Bassett's 2004 exhibition at the PMA

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When Florence Schust married Knoll's founder Hans Knoll in 1946, she was already a designer and architect in her own right, having studied and worked for a veritable all-star group of modernists including Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Eliel Saarinen, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. At Knoll, she brought in her friends Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia and Isamu Noguchi, introduced the graphic designer Herbert Matter, launched KnollTextiles, revolutionized the modern workplace with the Planning Unit, and soon transformed the furniture company into an international arbiter of style and design. Florence Knoll Bassett's contributions to modernism and American design are immeasurable. In 2002, she was honored with the National Medal of the Arts.

Ten years ago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Knoll, Inc. persuaded Knoll's retired cofounder, president and visionary to curate and design a small exhibition of her work. At the time, Ms. Bassett was 87. Her efforts culminated in the 2004 exhibition “Florence Knoll Bassett: Defining Modern," in collaboration with the curator Kathryn Hiesinger.

ListMs. Bassett’s first move was to send both Knoll and the Philadelphia Museum of Art this illustrated list of furniture she would require. She called for out-of-production models that would need to be manufactured in time for the November 2004 opening, including her designs for the Parallel Bar Lounge Chair and Florence Knoll Coffee Table (since made available). With her characteristic insistence on details—an uncompromising trait that sealed her reputation as the "eye" at Knoll—she included fabric samples and precise specifications. 

Florence Knoll was no stranger to spatial constraints, having designed Knoll’s showrooms in New York (1951), Milan (1954), San Francisco (1956) and Los Angeles (1960). Each location presented its own set of architectural challenges, which she turned into opportunities for innovation. The showroom at 575 Madison Avenue, for instance, had a low ceiling and misaligned columns, which she dealt with by installing colored panels for accent and partitioning, a strategy she would repeat with variations in subsequent spaces.

But the PMA gallery posed particular difficulty, being only 330 square feet with narrow proportions, and walls interrupted by three doors and a window. Ms. Bassett’s “paste-up” method of space planning—a practice she began at London’s Architectural Association and perfected at Knoll—was up to the challenge. Here, she mocked up the installation design using sample fabric and wood veneer.

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Florence Knoll Bassett's time-tested paste-up method of space planning, applied to the PMA gallery.

To draw attention away from the gallery ceiling, Ms. Bassett defined each of the three main walls with signature colored panels, which grounded large photographs of her celebrated interior spaces. The photographs set the original context for the furniture on display before them.

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Also on the wall were some of her diagrams, including the graphically arresting black and white explanation of the Knoll conference table (pictured below left, above her bench), and a physical sample of the crossbar leg she invented for her chairs and tables. 

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It is a testament and a pleasure to see that ten years later, the project is still clear and concise, a well-designed retrospective by a well-respected designer. The exhibition demonstrates Florence Knoll Bassett's sharp eye and uncompromising vision, which she used to elegantly define modern. Her work continues to guide Knoll's design commitment today.

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Florence Knoll Settee
Florence Knoll Lounge Chair
Florence Knoll Bench
Florence Knoll Coffee Table - Square
Florence Knoll Credenza
Florence Knoll Table Desk - Oval