Cheech Sanchez
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Design Insider: I am not a Decorator

For literally thousands of years, architecture was a vocation dominated by  men, and the lesser important task of decorating was generally left for the ladies (or less important men). This trend continued until the early 1900s, when some seriously stylish suffragettes decided that decorating was more than just a pass time, and started selling their style as a service.

Fast forward to the 1930s, when a young lady named Florence Schust decided to attend the Kingswood School for Girls (part of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Michigan). Under the watchful eye of school president and Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen (who designed many buildings including the National Museum of Finland), Florence’s love of architecture blossomed and 2 years later she graduated on to Cranbrook Academy of Art, where she studied under the likes of Charles and Ray Eames. After Cranbrook, Florence studied architecture in England, and at the Illinois Institute of Technology with the legendary architect Mies van de Rohe.

Florence began working in New York as an architect, and was assigned many corporate interior projects. Then in 1943, Florence met furniture designer Hans Knoll. Hans asked Florence to do some interior design work for his company, Knoll. This was a huge turning point – not only in Florence’s career, but – in the entire history of interior design.

Pioneering the Knoll Planning Unit, Florence became one of the first in the design industry to insist on ‘brainstorming’ with everyone involved in a project. The meeting process not only helped define what each person involved in the project thought about the project, but what they needed as a result of the project.

Florence and Hans turned out to be quite a dynamic duo, both in design and in love. As the Knoll design business went from strength to strength, so did the relationship between Florence and Hans – they married in 1946 and founded Knoll Associates together.

Widely recognized for her amazing design flair that centered around art and Bauhaus sensibilities, Florence has been praised for her revolutionary methods in the practice of space planning for interiors. She believed in a holistic approach to design – architecture, manufacturing, interior design, textiles, graphics, advertising and presentation all working together – and her application of design principles in solving space problems were radical compared to the standard practices of the time.

When Hans was killed in a car accident in 1955, Florence became president of the company, which had now expanded from furniture through to design and textiles. The companies flourished under Florence, who herself continued to design sofas, tables, chairs and other goods – many of which remain part of the Knoll line to this day.

Florence famously said in the New York Times in 1964 “I am NOT a decorator” – and she couldn’t have been more right, because she was a visionary (even if she didn’t know it at the time!). Florence’s ability to combine principles of architecture, design, art, fashion and advertising have championed the notion of interior design as we understand it today.

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