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  • Florence Knoll Bassett (née Schust), an architect and pioneer of modern interior design, died earlier this year at 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 post-war 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. 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.

     

    Shu transformed the field of ‘interior design,’ which in the 1950s was almost completely dominated by men, and collaborated with the most important mid-century modern architects, including Philip Johnson, Gordon Bunshaft and Marcel Breuer. 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 epitomise 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 she had personal friendships with. She developed her appreciation of Paul Klee from her mentor Mies can 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 very often public art was integrated into her large projects. In 1955, while Shu was designing the interiors for the Bank of the Southwest in Houston, she met the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo and remembered him coming to visit her with a small model of the mural that was going to be installed in the bank and today is considered to be one of his finest mural works. For many years, her Tamayo painting of watermelon slices was the first thing a visitor was greeted by when they visited her home.

     

    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, here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share in the joy in the many memories that Shu experienced over an incredible life of art and design. After Shu resigned from Knoll, she became almost reclusive, rejecting most interviews and awards. However, she was a warm and caring individual with a dry sense of humor. When mid-century modern furniture was having a resurgence, she’d open up an auction catalogue with her furniture and her name in it, and jokingly say to me: ‘You know, Paul, I’m an antique now.’

     

    Essay by 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.

    • Provenance

      Curt Valentin, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

Making Modern: Property from the Collection of Florence Knoll Bassett

274

Giocoliere

signed 'Marino' lower right
India ink on paper
47.4 x 32.7 cm (18 5/8 x 12 7/8 in.)
Executed in 1951, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Fondazione Marino Marini and is registered under the archive number 829.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
£10,000 - 15,000 ‡ ♠

Sold for £12,600

Contact Specialist

 

Tamila Kerimova
Specialist, Director, Head of Day Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

+ 44 20 7318 4065
[email protected]

 

 

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale

London Auction 16 April 2021