Design New York Tuesday, December 17, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Catalogue Essay

    Florence Knoll Bassett (née Schust), an architect and pioneer of modern interior design, passed away earlier this year at age 101. A true visionary, "Shu"—as she was affectionately called by those who knew her well—was one of the most influential architects and designers of postwar America, yet her mark on modern design transcends any one of these fields. Her career is inextricably linked with Knoll, Inc., the furniture company founded by Hans Knoll, who later became her husband. During the 1940s, she worked with designers like Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia and George Nakashima to create designs that fulfilled a need for modern interiors, and along the way produced innovative, high-quality furniture classics that are still relevant today.

    Born to a baker in Saginaw, Michigan in 1917, Shu was beset by tragedy throughout her early life after becoming an orphan at 14. She ended up at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan during the 1930s, where she was taken under the wing of the Saarinen family and was exposed to the importance of the overlapping fields of art, craft and design. Later in Chicago, she was introduced to a rationalist design approach with Mies van der Rohe and received her Bachelor of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1941.

    "Being a woman, I was given interiors," Shu said. She started moonlighting for Hans Knoll as a draftsman and eventually joined his company as the director of the Knoll Planning Unit, later becoming partner and co-owner. One of her first projects was to do the interiors for Secretary of War Henry Stimson—the first of many government projects. "It was an exciting time, but it was mostly hard work. We had to battle the prejudices against contemporary design," she said.

    Shu transformed the field of "interior design" from interior decoration to spatial architecture—which in the 1950s was almost completely dominated by men. She collaborated with the most important mid-century modern architects, including Philip Johnson, Gordon Bunshaft and Marcel Breuer, designing their interiors which were rooted in practical needs and rigorous spatial planning. Her showrooms for Knoll became laboratories for contemporary design on how we could live and work, and came to represent her signature "Knoll look" that would epitomize the style of the 1950s. Her location at 575 Madison Avenue was one of the first to incorporate contemporary art and included pieces from artists with whom she had personal friendships. She developed her appreciation of Paul Klee from her mentor Mies van der Rohe, who at the time had a large collection of Klees, and when a group of works from the artist didn't sell in her showroom, she purchased all of them. Shu visited Black Mountain College to see the painter and teacher Josef Albers, from whom she said she learned about color, and later worked with his wife Anni Albers to develop textiles for the Knoll line.

    After Hans Knoll died in a car crash in 1955, Shu became president of the company and continued to spearhead many innovations such as the Saarinen pedestal furniture collection. She completed large-scale interior projects for companies including Connecticut General Life Insurance, Heinz and CBS, which exemplified the best in postwar design in the United States.

    In 1958, Shu—by then the single most powerful figure in the field of modern design—married bank executive Harry Hood Bassett and eventually settled in Miami, where she would go on to design commercial Miami interiors in addition to several private residences. Hood Bassett was an important civic leader in Miami, and the corporate art collection that was developed for the Southeast First National Bank became one of the best in the country.

    At the height of her career, and after designing thousands of office interiors, she resigned from Knoll in 1965. At only 48 years old, she had profoundly influenced post-World War II design by defining the look for corporate interiors during the 1950s and 1960s and promoting the "open office" workspace. She is one of the most influential architects and designers of post-war America, and she made designers like Saarinen and van der Rohe famous for their furniture—designs that are today considered classics (along with her own pieces)—and still being used in contemporary interiors. She had a curatorial eye for identifying talent and great works of art that she integrated both in her showrooms and in her homes.

    Shu was of the belief that art was to be lived with and enjoyed on a daily basis, rather than something kept hidden away in storage. Now, Phillips offers the rare opportunity to share in the joy and memories that Shu experienced over an incredible life of art and design. When mid-century modern furniture was having a resurgence, Shu often came across her own furniture when perusing auction catalogues. With her wit and dry sense of humor she would jokingly say to me: "You know, Paul, I'm an antique now."

    --Paul Makovsky, Critic and Curator

    Paul Makovsky is a writer based in New York City. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Contract Magazine, a publication dedicated to architecture and design. Makovsky has curated countless exhibitions about art and design, including "Knoll Textiles: 1945- 2010" at the Bard Graduate Center, and was a contributor to the accompanying catalogue published by Yale University Press. He was a close friend of Florence Knoll Bassett and is currently writing a biography of her life and work.


    Consider the Weathervane

    It may seem surprising that Florence Knoll Bassett, the pioneer of the sleek aesthetic that came to define the postwar American office interior, collected nineteenth-century weathervanes. What place, exactly, did these trotting horses, glistening gilded fowl, and verdigris-patinated roosters have in the home of one of the leading exponents of modernism?

    Though these sculptures may seem incongruous, it’s worth remembering that so-called primitive art and modernism go way back. Wassily Kandinsky mined Russian folk art for inspiration while Picasso and other artists working in Paris collected African carvings. Meanwhile in New York, artists such as Elie Nadelman and Charles Sheeler, looking to define a distinctly American brand of modernism, found their native artistic roots in early American folk art. As Helen Appleton Read wrote for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1924, “A group of our younger artists…have poked about in antique shops, in old saloons and chophouses and brought back quaint pictures and statues. These are now serving as decorations and inspiration in the studios of many of them. Why bother about French Gothic or the frescoes of Santa Croce when we have material primitive at hand that has the humor and tang of our native soil?”

    Into the late 1950s, which is when Florence discovered weathervanes “on a whim” while on a trip to Paris with her second husband Harry Hood Bassett, early America continued to serve as inspiration for American artists as well as prominent collectors such as Abby and John Rockefeller. To name a few, David Smith had drawn on farm implements and machinery parts gleaned from his upstate New York property for his “Agricola” series of the 1950s, while Andrew Wyeth represented rural America in an entirely different manner.

    At the same time, the magazine Art in America, with the dedicated folk art collector Jean Lipman at the helm, published articles about the leading contemporary artists of the time alongside articles on Shaker design and New England gravestones. Albert Barnes’s installations of Van Goghs and Matisses next to ornamental strap hinges come to mind as a visual of the same approach of conferring non-traditional art an equal footing with modern masters.

    Among these writings for Art in America, an article published by Alice Winchester titled “Antiques for the Avant Garde” (1961) is of particular relevance. “There seems to be today among people of advanced taste,” she wrote, “a considerable interest in antiques. Dwellers in glass houses, for instance, will fill them with period furniture.” Listing nineteenth-century American weathervanes among the potential objects for inspiration she continued, “Such things stir modern taste not because of their age but in spite of it, and are appreciated not for quality or rarity but because they ‘look modern.’”

    While Florence Knoll Bassett does not seem to have included weathervanes in any of her office interiors, they do appear in images of her summer home in Vermont. She acquired the vanes in Vermont as well as in the many antiques stores located near the Knoll showroom in midtown Manhattan and treasured her collection enough to bring it with her when she and Bassett relocated to Coral Gables, Florida, in 1965 and finally to her last residence in Coconut Grove, where she displayed a group to striking effect in a custom grid-shaped display. “Cocks have always been seen, but never as well as in American weathervanes,” Pablo Picasso said, and we might well add that weathervanes have never been as well seen as in the home of Florence Knoll Bassett.

Making Modern: Property from the Collection of Florence Knoll Bassett


A full-bodied molded gilt copper and zinc “Index” horse weathervane

Attributed to J. Howard, Bridgewater, Massachusetts, mid 19th century
With zinc head and pressed sheet copper tail.
Height excluding stand: 17 3/4 in. (45.1 cm)
Length nose to tail: 24 3/4 in. (62.9 cm)
Stand: 2 3/4 x 19 1/2 x 5 in. (7 x 49.5 x 12.7 cm)

$8,000 - 12,000 

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New York Auction 17 December 2019