Before there was “Mad Men” and Don Draper, there was Florence Knoll, as she was known, arguably the designer most responsible for the square-jawed corporate look that conquered American offices after World War II.
Florence Knoll Bassett, who died this year at 101, lived to see her spare, handsome office landscapes televised more than a half century after Knoll Associates — where she was the eye and force majeure — invented the structured style that we now call “midcentury modern.” Trained as an architect, she translated Bauhaus architecture into low, clean-lined, floaty furniture, and helped establish interior design as a profession.
“I am not a decorator,” she pointedly clarified in 1964 in a New York Times interview. “The only place I decorate is my own house.”
Phillips is now offering a peek into just how, in fact, Florence Knoll Bassett decorated her homes in New York, and then Florida, where, after the death of her husband Hans Knoll, she married Harry Hood Bassett, a Miami banker. Some 50 artworks are being offered at two evening sales, on Oct. 25 and Nov. 14.
From the late 1940s until the early ’70s, the most intensive period of her collecting, she bought from galleries and from artist friends during studio visits. Though she saw with the eye of a Modernist, her eye was eclectic rather than strict, and open to different forms of abstraction.
“Atmosphere Chromoplastique,” a gridded wood-and-acrylic relief by Luis Tomasello, offers optically subtle plays of geometry, as does “Torsions,” a relief in stretched polyvinyl by Walter Leblanc. Besides geometry, Knoll liked color. Rufino Tamayo’s “Five Slices of Watermelon” is, unsurprisingly, watermelon red, and Morris Louis painted “Singing” with stripes of rich, saturated colors. Some abstract works flirt with figurative forms, such as Paul Klee’s caustic “Der Exkaiser.”
A ceramic vase by Picasso captures in a few quick strokes the smile on a face. The exception to the Modernist rule is a collection of antique weather vanes that decorated a wall of her last living room.
Did Knoll’s personal eye differ much from her professional eye? The evidence at Phillips suggests that she brought her Modernism home. But if she designed her houses the way she planned offices, the artworks gave her rational designs a freer, more experimental, sometimes emotional dimension, and as biography of her intimate and abiding visual interests, the collection offers a key into how she thought and saw.
The collection is personal. Even when she moved, she never traded or sold. She bought what she liked, and then lived with it until she died.