When thinking of Florence Knoll Bassett and SOM, it’s only natural to visualize 1950s Bloomfield, Connecticut, and the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company headquarters. There, the glass and steel architecture of Gordon Bunshaft and SOM hosted the impossibly stylish office interiors done by Knoll Associates. It’s where “Shu,” as the pioneering designer and entrepreneur was known, showcased the abilities of her company’s interior planning arm known as the Planning Unit.
Her team, in collaboration with Bunshaft’s, tested out cubicle dimensions, lighting schemes, and materials on a full-scale mockup in order to accurately simulate the office environment. The total design experience of Connecticut General’s architecture and interiors was groundbreaking. Attractive, colorful, efficient, and amenity-filled, it set the bar for postwar corporate architecture upon its completion in 1957.
“It was a very happy joint venture,” Bunshaft once said, only to later have a falling out with Shu over the project’s authorship.
A year after Connecticut General’s completion, Shu married Harry Hood Bassett, whom she had met during the Planning Unit’s work on the interiors of the Miami-based bank he worked for. In 1960, she sold Knoll Associates but stayed on as its design director, before resigning in 1965 and starting a new life in South Florida.
A new book by Ana Araujo about the legendary designer, No Compromise: The Work of Florence Knoll (Princeton Architectural Press), details Shu’s journey to becoming one of the 20th century’s most celebrated interior designers. It also explores her professional work after leaving Knoll — a mystery of sorts due to a lack of interest from the press at the time and her own reluctance to discuss her experimentations. One of the few large-scale projects she worked on after 1965 was a new headquarters for her husband’s bank — the Southeast Financial Center in downtown Miami, designed by SOM and developed by Hines.
For what would be the city’s tallest building upon completion in 1984, Shu played a central role, similar to the one she held with the Knoll Planning Unit. In her archive, which is now digitized and under the care of the Smithsonian, she wrote, “It was my responsibility to oversee all aspects of the design. I acted as a design director and critic. We had frequent meetings [with SOM] and worked well together.”
The bank committee chose Edward Charles “Chuck” Bassett’s team in SOM’s San Francisco office to lead the architecture, in part because it had an established interior design department (SOM’s Houston office was responsible for the engineering work). Before arriving at SOM San Francisco in 1955, Bassett (no relation to Shu’s husband) had studied at Cranbrook and worked for Eero Saarinen. Shu had also attended Cranbrook and was essentially raised by the Saarinen family as a young adult, forming a close relationship with Eero (creator of the Shu nickname from when she still had her maiden name, Schust) that lasted until his death in 1961 and led to various professional collaborations including Saarinen furniture for Knoll and Knoll interiors for Saarinen buildings.
“One did not begin a meeting with Shu with t’s uncrossed or i’s undotted.”
For Hines and Southeast, Bassett delivered a modern office building, “touched with the flavor of the local climate and the devices of semi-tropical architecture,” recalls Rick Irving, the project’s interiors leader. Consisting of a 55-story tower and a 15-story parking garage, the public plaza in between the Southeast Financial Center’s two structures was — until a recent renovation — filled with palm trees and connected by a steel and glass space frame canopy. It maintains a significant presence on Miami’s skyline to this day, with instantly recognizable setback squares along the top 12 floors, which artfully maximize the building’s corner office inventory.
Bassett’s interiors team worked closely with Shu on each and every detail of the main banking hall, public lobbies, cafeteria, conference center, executive floors and penthouse dining floor. “We fondly referred to Shu as ‘The Design Committee,’” recalls Irving. “One did not begin a meeting with Shu with t’s uncrossed or i’s undotted.”
Meetings were held in Miami and San Francisco, with large black boxes filled with the presentation materials sent ahead of each session. “Shu possessed a sharp eye and a clear way of expressing her opinions,” says Irving. As the design progressed, the detailed plans integrated the actual furniture being used with the architecture. “In one meeting, preliminary sample materials and colors were discussed for the office areas. Shu felt some of the colors were muddy and suggested I follow her,” recalls Irving. “She rolled back a white lacquered door panel to reveal a wall of amazingly colorful espadrille shoes, each pair clearly lit and placed in perfect color sequence. ‘The project should have clear color,’ Shu stated in her calm, elegant manner. From that point on we searched for an array of clear colored materials to use.”
The interior architecture of the public spaces was driven by Chuck’s vision and approved by Shu. Detailed plans, elevations, models, sample boards and full-sized mock-ups were made for every major space. Irving coordinated with woodworking firms to make samples or mock-ups of jalousie panels for the banking hall, deal plates for the tellers stations, backlit louvered panels for the main auditorium, shutters and oak paneled walls for the offices, and special incised teak wall panels and coffers for the private dining areas. Claire Kahn, a designer on the SOM team, developed special focal treatments, including custom carpet patterns, carved glass for banquette cafe curtains, and cool colored mosaic panels for the cafeteria.
SOM also worked with Shu and the bank’s art consultant to provide context for the works that would be displayed inside. Site-specific artworks include a sail-shaped piece by Charles Hinman, hung on a piercing blue background at the executive floor lobby. Studio head Richard Tobias worked with kinetic sculptor Michio Ihara to coordinate synchronized air jets below his 60-foot-long work along the banking hall’s wall above the teller counter. Shu later wrote that the team approved the piece after the artist presented a model section, describing it as “mov[ing] lightly in currents of air like leaves in a tree,” and appropriate for the space because of its grand scale without being “too visually aggressive.”
Tobias recalls lively meetings in which Shu showed “no hesitation to argue with Chuck.” Irving remembers one disagreement in particular: “Shu felt the two executive floors should have a special architectural interconnecting stair which related to the building. I designed a stair of the building granite with glass and steel railings. Chuck felt it should be a wooden stair. Shu’s candid response to me was, ‘He thinks interiors people cannot do architecture.’”
It’s a telling quote considering her own ambitions. Having wanted to be an architect at a young age, Florence Knoll instead became an interior designer. Because, Araujo writes in No Compromise, “it took over a niche that was, at the time, largely neglected by architects… Rather than trying to compete on equal footing with her male colleagues for a position in architecture, Knoll spotted a career opportunity in a much less contested field.”(Shu got the granite stairs.)
While seemingly off-brand, Shu also integrated non-Modernist features into the interiors at Southeast Financial Center, much like at the private houses she designed after her departure from Knoll Associates. She wrote of her satisfaction in seeing pre-Columbian art pieces, Navajo rugs, sculptures from Asia, and antique lalique vases integrated into the building — not the kind of stuff you’d find at Connecticut General. But Araujo could only uncover so much on this approach in Knoll’s archives. “Coming from a culture where she had so much control of her image and her work [at Knoll Associates], I think she was perhaps not so secure about her later experiments,” says Araujo, who found various letters by Shu refusing press invitations after leaving Knoll. “It wouldn’t be comfortable for her to just say, ‘Oh, I’m collecting pieces and buying things in flea markets now.”
Interiors Magazine’s glowing approval of the project at the time started with a brazen introduction: “Many office designs are submitted to us here that make us laugh or, sometimes, cry. We roll our eyes and say to one another, ‘The president’s wife did it.’ But interference by a client spouse takes on a different meaning altogether when the client is Miami’s Southeast Financial Center and the chairman’s wife is Florence Knoll Bassett.” While Interiors unquestionably admired Shu, the compliment recalls other forms of sexism in design journalism at the time that Araujo describes as having “gradually reduced the more mature Florence Knoll to an upper-class housewife.”
For the young members of SOM’s team, working with Shu and Chuck Bassett was as good as it gets. “It was marvelous,” recalls Kahn, “She was soft spoken but firm, and pure in her ideology about design.”
“[It] proved to forever ground my career in the design sensibilities and values of the Saarinen School,” says Irving.
Both Shu and SOM are often celebrated for their creations from the 1950s and ’60s, but, as Araujo’s new book proves, there’s much to learn from Knoll’s later years. And, for an architecture firm with a portfolio as vast as SOM’s, the memories of individual projects by various offices from different eras can slip away too easily. A collaboration like the one that took place at Southeast Financial Center is always worth revisiting.
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