Born to a baker and orphaned at age 12, Florence Schust grew up in Saginaw, Michigan. She demonstrated an early interest in architecture and was enrolled at the Kingswood School for Girls, adjacent to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. While at Kingswood, she befriended Eliel Saarinen, whom she would later study under at Cranbrook. The contacts she made and the skills she developed while at Cranbrook were the foundation of her incredible design career.
With recommendations from Saarinen, she went on to study under some of the greatest 20th century architects, including Marcel Breuer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology. In 1941 she moved to New York where she met Hans Knoll who was establishing his furniture company. They married in 1946 and combined their talents to grow their young company into an international innovator of style and design.
Alden B. Dow readily connected with Florence and Hans Knoll on a professional as well as personal level. The job files in the Archives of the Home and Studio are filled with correspondence and purchase orders for Knoll furnishings and fabrics. For his own home, Mr. Dow had several of his chair designs upholstered in Knoll fabrics in the living room and dining room, and even ordered their fabrics for the porch furniture. He also chose them for the interior design of many of his residential as well as non-residential projects, including the Lynn Townsend and Miner Keeler residences, the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library, the Laboratory for Macromolecular Science, and the Midland Community Center.
In turn, the Knolls felt comfortable asking Mr. Dow about whom to contact regarding new projects being planned by the Dow Chemical Company and others as they sought to expand the services of the Knoll Planning Unit. Created and directed by Florence, the Knoll Planning Unit defined the standard for the modern corporate interiors during the office building boom of the 1950s and 1960s.
Among all the letters exchanged between the Dows and the Knolls, a few reveal the depth of their personal friendship. In the spring of 1955, Hans wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Dow to thank them for their “very kind hospitality in Midland and I shall always remember having seen your gardens and blooming trees at this time of year.” That was followed by a series of letters in which the Knolls arranged for a personal acquaintance to chaperone the Dow’s daughters, Mary Lloyd and Barbara, on a trip to Europe. They even sent them by special delivery the deck plans of several ships on which reservations for their trip would be available. “Thanks to your ‘spark’ our daughters are all set for their trip to Europe,” Mr. Dow wrote. “Vada and I want to thank you for starting this most intriguing trip for the girls.”
After the sudden death of Hans in a car accident in 1955, Florence led the company as president. She married Harry Hood Bassett in 1958 and retired in 1965 after pioneering an industry and defining the landscape and aesthetic of the corporate office. Florence Knoll Bassett died at the age of 101 on January 25, 2019.