Florence Knoll: Defining Modern

Article summary

Florence Knoll
Florence Knoll. Image credit Iroco.
I recently had the pleasure to attend a presentation as part of West Michigan Design Week titled Florence Knoll : Defining Modern. I hadn’t known of Ms. Knoll prior to attending the talk, and I’d like to share two things I learned.

Quick background information: Ms. Knoll is known for her work in architecture, furniture design, and interior design; she was most active in the 1940s and 1950s. She helped found Knoll, a company which remains active in the furniture and office design market. The presentation was given by Lynne McCarthy, who is currently with the Knoll organization.

Throughout the presentation, Ms. McCarthy told several stories about Ms. Knoll’s work. One of my favorites was about her experience redesigning Nelson Rockefeller’s office in Rockefeller Center during the 1940s.

Florence Knoll Dug Deeper

When Mr. Rockefeller charged Ms. Knoll with redesigning his office, he gave only one absolute requirement: he wanted to retain the inkwell from his old office.

Rockefeller Center icerink
Designing an office with a view onto this must have been an incredible experience. Image credit Mid Century Pink.
Of course, the inkwell did not fit in well with the rest of the redesigned office. As a good designer, Ms. Knoll dug deeper into the request and learned the underlying need — it was not the inkwell so much as the feel and grip of the pen that Mr. Rockefeller wanted to maintain. Ms. Knoll’s solution was to retain the inkwell and pen, but she had a friend craft a wrapper piece around the inkwell, a piece that was a much better fit for the overall aesthetics of the design. Both Mr. Rockefeller and Ms. Knoll were pleased with the solution.

I like this story because it reminds us of how good design is about discovering underlying needs and satiating those needs; good design is not about applying the obvious, assumed solution.

Florence Knoll Sought Diverse Solutions

Settlers of Catan ship builder card
Sometimes it takes this guy to realize your furniture design. Image credit Settlers of Catan.
Lynda shared another great story about Ms. Knoll. After coming up with the design for a new chair, Ms. Knoll needed to find someone to produce the mold. She presented the design to some of her immediate producers, and she was told the mold could not be done.

Then, as Lynne put it, Ms. Knoll reached out 1-2 levels from her core discipline and found a shipbuilder. The shipbuilder said, “sure, I can make that mold for you.”

Good design is manifested by a multidisciplinary team of multidisciplinary people. Ms. Knoll knew this and reached out to other disciplines when she needed help to realize her design.

Why I attended this talk

Walker's design family tree
Good design spans many disciplines. Image credit University of Plymouth.
I saw some puzzled looks as I introduced myself to others after the talk. “What do you do?,” they asked. “Software,” I said. The typical response I received is best summarized as “???” I think most others in the room were in interior and furniture design — why would a software person show up here?

I attended this talk because I didn’t know anything about Florence Knoll. Ms. Knoll is active in architecture and furniture design — which is certainly not my core competency — but furniture design is 1-2 levels away from my core discipline.

So why not go? Much like the shipbuilder story, I can only learn, strengthen myself, and improve my ability to solve problems by reaching across multiple disciplines.

Thanks, Florence.