First Lady of Design

Visiting the White House with National Medal of the Arts winner Florence Knoll Bassett.

It was one thing to get the scoop of my career—an interview with media-shy Florence Knoll Bassett (see “Shu U,” Metropolis, July 2001). But two years later, when she invited me to spend the day with her at the White House, I was stunned. How many times do you get invited to the White House—let alone with a legendary designer? On March 6 I joined a small group of Bassett’s family members and friends to watch her receive a National Medal of the Arts from President George W. Bush. She was one of nine honorees celebrated that day with the nation’s highest honor for artistic excellence, a group including landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, museum director Philippe de Montebello, the late caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, and singer Smokey Robinson.

Educated by architects Eliel Saarinen and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Bassett designed the interiors of CBS, in New York; Connecticut General, in Hartford, Connecticut; and the Heinz Company headquarters, in Pittsburgh. As a pioneer of the Knoll Planning Unit, she revolutionized interior space planning. Bassett’s application of design principles in solving space problems was a radical departure from standard practice in the 1950s, but was quickly adopted and remains widely used today.

During an intimate ceremony in the Oval Office, President Bush bestowed a medal on each recipient in front of just family, friends, and the other recipients. Shortly after the official proceedings, Bush left to prepare for a news conference about the impending war while the First Lady hosted a small reception for the honorees and their guests in the State Dining Room. We sampled a buffet of Texas-style specialties, mingled with other medal recipients and guests, and had free reign to roam the first floor of the White House. A small group of us broke off from the party and went from room to room: we admired John Martin’s portrait of Benjamin Franklin in the Green Room, tested out the furniture in the Red Room, and listened to a string ensemble in Cross Hall. I liked the oval-shaped Blue Room best because it struck me as the most geometrically pure. I asked Bassett if this was her favorite too. She paused for a moment and said, “Yes, it is.” And then looking up at the curtains, she smiled and added, “But I’d get rid of all the tassels.”

Being with Bassett at the White House made me think of the work she did for the federal government during World War II and the following years, when she designed embassies and USO clubs abroad. (She even designed the offices of General Henry Stimson, who was secretary of war during World War II.) In redesigning one USO club at the north end of Times Square in New York, she found that the existing carpet was dirty from the boot tracks of military personnel. So Bassett cut off a piece of the carpet to take with her and had a rug dyed the color of the tracks. “It worked,” she said. “It wasn’t a bad color; the track marks just blended in with the rug.”

Bassett is one of a generation of designers who had a democratic and social understanding of design. At a time when resources were scarce, she did more with less and found inventive solutions out of necessity. Within these constraints, Bassett found the freedom to do what we refer to as Good Design. It’s a lesson that resonates in today’s economic climate. Smart designers can do well with less—and they can start by getting rid of the tassels.

Recent Programs