Florence Knoll Bassett was born Florence Schust in 1917 and was affectionately known as Shu by her colleagues and friends. She was orphaned at age 12 and then cared for by Emile Tessin, a friend of the family whom her mother had appointed as Florence's legal guardian in the event of her death. When arrangements were being made for Florence to attend boarding school she was given the opportunity to make the selection. Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, held a strong aesthetic appeal for her and she "made an immediate decision that it was the right place for me," beginning her architectural studies under the school's art director, Rachel de Wolfe Raseman.
At Kingswood Knoll Bassett met the Saarinen family, studying under Eliel Saarinen and developing her interest in texture and color through her friendship with Loja Saarinen who supervised the school's weaving studio. Following Florence's graduation from Kingswood in 1934, Eliel Saarinen encouraged her to spend some time at Cranbrook Academy of Art before attending an accredited architecture school. She spent the next two years at Cranbrook working closely with advanced students and artists such as the Saarinens and Carl Milles, and gaining experience in all aspects of design.
Knoll Bassett then studied for two years at the Architectural Association in London, spending summers with the Saarinens in Europe. She completed her formal training at the Illinois Institute of Technology where she studied under Mies van der Rohe, whom she credits with having "a profound effect on my design approach and the clarification of design."
After graduation Knoll Bassett worked for architecture firms in Boston and New York where she met Hans Knoll who was then in the process of establishing a furniture business. In 1943 she began working for him in her spare time as an interior space planner and designer. In 1946 the two were married and formed Knoll Associates, Inc.
As director of the Knoll Planning Unit, Knoll Bassett established herself as one of the most important and influential interior planners and designers of the second half of the twentieth century. Believing that intelligent design "strikes at the root of living requirements and changing habits," she established the practice of working closely with the corporate sector to determine the needs of the people who would actually use the spaces that her company designed. Her connections with leading contemporary architects and designers, and the company's commitment to crediting designers by name and paying them royalties, laid the foundations for the strong working relationships upon which the commercial success of Knoll Associates was built. Drawing on a pool of top architects and designers, many of whom were personal friends, Knoll Bassett directed the company's Bauhaus approach, incorporating design excellence, technological innovation, and mass production in a seamless package of "total design."
While Knoll Bassett oversaw the creative process of the Planning Unit's operations in its entirety, she was also directly responsible for many of the individual elements used in the Unit's projects. During the war years, she worked with her designers to overcome the scarcity of materials, establishing Knoll Textiles in response to the dearth of available fabrics and textile colors, and developing the company's hallmark style of spare clean lines and vibrant colors in a functional, comfortable, and aesthetically appealing space. Finding that much of the "fill-in" furniture, primarily cabinetry, that she envisaged in many of her plans was not available, Knoll Bassett designed the pieces herself. She used the Knoll showrooms as "experimental laboratories" to convince clients to use modern ideas and materials, showcasing and putting into production the classic designs of people such as Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe, Jens Risom, Harry Bertoia, Isamu Noguchi, and Marcel Breuer.
After the war Knoll Associates expanded to Europe through a series of government contracts which resulted ultimately in the formation of Knoll International. When Hans Knoll died suddenly in an automobile accident in 1955 Florence became president of the company. She married Harry Hood Bassett in 1958 and began to divide her time between New York and Florida. In 1959 she sold her interest in Knoll Associates to Art Metal and retired as President of the company the following year, while continuing to work as a consultant and serving as Design Director. In 1961 she became the first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal for Industrial Design by the American Institute of Architects, one of many awards received over the course of her career. In 1965 she resigned from Knoll Associates entirely after completing the interior design for the CBS headquarters in New York.
Following her retirement Knoll Bassett devoted more time to private commissions and other interests such as her campaign against billboards in Miami in the mid 1980s. She spent summers in Vermont and winters in Florida with her husband, until his death in 1991. In July 2001, Metropolis magazine published a rare interview with Knoll Bassett in which she reflects upon the life she so skillfully documented in the extraordinary gift of her archival papers to the Archives of American Art.