Florence Knoll, Design and the Modern American Office Workplace
Hofstra, Phillip G.
University of Kansas
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Introduction In every human community, certain built forms are physical expressions of ways in which people think about their lives together. These forms express beliefs that people share about the world around them; what they expect from each other; what they hope to achieve; the standards to which they hold others responsible and the standards for which they are willing to be responsible themselves; and what they want their peers in certain endeavors and the community at large to believe about them. While homes may make these kinds of statements about individuals, the buildings that will be examined in this study are public buildings. That is, they are intended for use by people who go there regularly or periodically for purposes that they have in common - as opposed to residential buildings, which meet the private needs of individuals or families. These buildings may have occasional use for a larger number of people: a stadium or an opera house, for example. Or they may be institutions central to the way people establish and maintain a community, such as workplaces, hospitals, government facilities, and schools. Public buildings reveal a kind of consensus about what is acceptable in a building to the people who use it. Therefore, these structures - their architecture and, to an even greater extent, their interiors - are a tangible record of who the people were and what was important to them. They are also a record of how such buildings come to be built - who envisions them, who actually designs and builds them, and why. Studying a category of these kinds of public-use built environments - for instance, workplaces - is a layered inquiry that can illuminate not only building and builders, but also the society that desired the outcome and supported the effort to achieve it. In particular, examining processes and technologies as well as materials can reveal aspects of cultural systems, as Joan Vastokas observes, cultural ways - including moral and aesthetic values, art forms, social and ritual performances, as well as social structural patterns and relationships - are affected to a high degree by the dominant . . . system. The revolution in material culture studies since the 1960s has resulted in the recognition that artifacts are culturally expressive, symbolic objects. While most attention these past three decades has been paid to the meaning of the artifact in itself, there is increasing recognition that the dynamics of the technical processes in themselves play an important cognitive role in the social and ideational life of cultural systems (Vastokas 343). The flourishing of public interest in the late twentieth century in all aspects of design is testament to the way that some aspects of the technical processes of built forms can take hold in the social and ideational life of a society. In the middle of the nineteenth century in America, only a small percentage of the population could name a designer of anything, except perhaps some luxurious items, such as Sheraton furniture or Revere silver. By the close of the century, some designer names were household words, and a plethora of magazines - not only for the trade, but aimed at the general public - showcased the work of architects and interior and industrial designers. Some aspects of understanding the evolution of workplace design are more profoundly cultural recognitions, desirable to achieve simply because they help us know who we are at every level from individual to societal. In an introduction to the catalog of the National Building Museum's exhibition, On the Job: Design and the American Office, Donald Albrecht and Chrysanthe B. Broikos point out that: The office is a microcosm of American social transformation and a yardstick of cultural progress. National dialogs between freedom and control, the individual and the crowd, private agendas and public concerns, personal mobility and communal connection are played out in the office. The shifting interaction between building design, technology, finance, and employees has yielded a dynamic environment whose significance extends beyond its physical boundaries. The office has figured in American life as architecture, but it has also been on the job as an incubator of radical change (16). The beginning of the twenty-first century has permitted a useful evaluation point, looking back over a century during which work changed dramatically, putting about 60 percent of Americans at desk jobs (Jones 9) and looking ahead to work environments made increasingly fluid by the demands and opportunities of emerging technologies. The office as a dominant form in the American workplace is, as Susan Henshaw James notes, "not disappearing, but merely transforming itself, as it has always done . . . making a resurgence, retooling itself to be a place of creative interaction" (16). This period of retooling makes understanding the material culture of the office important. Understanding how and why workplaces were designed as they were can help us make judgments useful to our communities today, and they can show us continuities with the past, as well as breaks from it. Ideally, these studies can help us interpret, and perhaps even guide, human behavior. Vastokas points to these possibilities, regarding elements of theory within the method of examining "artifacts" (which, in this study, include elements of workplace interiors): Five essential points of theory arise from a consideration of artifacts in a social-semiotic perspective: (1) the meaning of artifacts, including works of visual "art," is constituted in the life of the objects themselves, not in words or texts about them; (2) the artifact is not an inert, passive object, but an interactive agent in sociocultural life and cognition; (3) the signification of the artifact resides in both the object as a self-enclosed material fact and in its performative, "gestural" patterns of behavior in relation to space, time, and society; (4) the processes, materials, and products of technology, especially those of a society's dominant technology, function as cultural metaphors at many levels and in many socio-cultural domains; and (5) theoretical insights derive, not from theorizing in the abstract, but from direct observation and experience of the phenomenal world of nature and culture (337) Because people are producers of our own built environment, studying aspects of that environment can show us a great deal about where we have been, collectively, and how we might determine where we are going. If, for example, we understand how the American workplace has evolved to its present building forms, both outside and in, when we begin to accommodate the growth of today's entrepreneurial companies into larger workplaces, those places may be more effectively designed - and the people who work there happier and more productive. Different social sectors provide examples, as well. If a house of worship helped make physical and spiritual sense of the experience of people in the prairie homesteading communities of our forebears, perhaps understanding how and why the buildings were designed as they were can help us make judgments useful to our communities today. Can they show us continuities with the past, as well as breaks from it? Can they help us interpret, and perhaps even guide, human behavior? Indeed, they can. Analyzing certain building types to these ends is often complex and difficult of course. An example that establishes this as clearly as a house of worship is a sports stadium. It's easy to see in the trends of some types of built forms the desire to recapture some elements of the past (i.e. neo-classic structures express the desire for an imagined order) or reject others (the way the clean lines of "contemporary furniture" rejected the applied decoration of furniture from earlier periods). Arguably, all built forms can be examined from this perspective, but the scope of this study focuses on interior design of the workplace in the United States after 1940, especially the work of Florence Schust Knoll Bassett and her substantial influence in two important dimensions: (1) on workplace design that had and still has the capacity to change the way occupants work; and (2) on the professional status of the people who design contemporary commercial interior spaces in America. The impact of the professional life and work of Florence Schust Knoll Bassett on the process of the professionalization of interior design is critical because that process encapsulates two other areas of inquiry that are important to understanding workplace design: one is the nature of the education of a designer, and the other is the role of gender in the design professions. Knoll Bassett's influence on the content of design education and the model she provided women in design are still observable, though rarely highlighted, today. The education of designers (in this case architects and interior designers, although the broad question of how designers are educated applies to many fields) is important because it defines the disciplines that produce built forms. And gender issues are important because interior design provides an interesting and disturbing example of what happens when gender and the process of professionalization in a discipline intersect. These areas of inquiry lead directly to the impact that professionalized interior design has had on the character of the information/service office as a workplace in America after 1945, and, thereby, its effect on contemporary American culture. Throughout this study, workplace will be taken to mean the general corporate business office environment, as differentiated from industrial production, warehousing, agricultural, institutional, retail, and hospitality-related workplaces, each of which often utilize interior design services. In 1930, architect Charles Loring reflected on the previous sixty years and remarked that "the offices of our grandfathers were without steel frames and files, without elevators and radiators, without telephones - and without skirts" (Strom 34). His contrast used material items - elevators, telephones, skirts - to describe a complex period of transition during which the skills, experience, and meaning of office work were changed forever. Loring's explanation of differences between one world and another reveals a connection in those work spheres of material culture and gender. His combination of elevators and women was deliberate and appropriate: technological changes in the office environment and the introduction of women office workers were two of the most important and obvious forces in the creation of the modern office workplace (Kwolek-Folland 157). In an effort to understand the modern office workplace and the role of interior designers in creating that space at its best, this study focuses on a seismic change that occurred in American design, a change summarized as the "Knoll Look" by designers and design historians, but really a change far more substantial than a look; it was a change that affected organizations, the people in them, and the work that resulted from their coming together. The scope and development of this study include: A description of the occupational, educational, and professional developments necessary to provide an overview familiarity with the field of interior design; A contextual discussion of the background of social, economic, technological, and demographic circumstances bearing on the major issues surrounding the process of professionalization in interior design; A consideration of interior design as material culture, resonant with expressions of human behavior and belief given shape in built form; A discussion of the issue of gender in interior design and the effect of the process of professionalization on a discipline that has attracted women without protecting them from gender-based inequities; And, central to the study as a whole, an examination of the workplace-changing Knoll Planning Unit and subsequent "Knoll Look," created by Florence Schust Knoll Bassett, whose professional life and career provides a singular example of the issues regarding both professionalization and gender in American design. Note: Over the course of her educational and professional working life and after, in her retirement, the subject of this study used several names, which the author has tried to keep chronologically consistent. Thus, "Florence Schust" is used for the time up to her marriage; "Florence Schust Knoll" is used for the period from 1946, when she married Hans Knoll, until 1958, when she married Harry Hood Bassett. From 1958 forward she was publically called "Mrs. Bassett." From her days at Cranbrook forward (The Cranbrook community was established in 1904 by publishing mogul George Booth. Cranbrook Schools is part of the Cranbrook Educational Community (CEC), which includes the Cranbrook Institute of Science, the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and Cranbrook House and Gardens), Florence Schust Knoll Bassett has said "the people who really knew me called me Shu" (Makovsky, Shu U 80), a nickname only used in context in this study.
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