‘No Compromise’ Review: The First Woman of Modern Design

They’re loud, distracting germ factories. They prevent privacy and rarely provide personal space. Open-plan offices—the kind without physical barriers between workstations—have in recent years become both omnipresent and widely reviled. Yet the layout is anything but new. Open-plan offices were popular back in the 1950s, only they were far worse. While executives worked in wood-paneled offices with windowed views, everyone else sat in the office’s core, packed into tight rows of identical tanker desks. (If you think today’s setup is distracting, imagine being trapped in a pen of clacking typewriters.)

With her human-centered approach to corporate interiors, Florence Knoll (née Schust) nearly single-handedly reinvented the postwar American workplace. From communal lounges to art-covered walls, Knoll deserves credit for the more residential comforts that are hallmarks of desirable offices today. As architect, interior designer and entrepreneur, perhaps no other person did more to popularize modern design than Knoll. The eponymous company that she co-owned with her first husband, Knoll, manufactured some of the most iconic modern furniture pieces of the midcentury era—many of which are in production today.

No Compromise

By Ana Araujo

Princeton Architectural Press, 203 pages, $29.95

Ana Araujo’s “No Compromise: The Work of Florence Knoll” is the first monograph of Knoll’s work, which changed interior architecture, not to mention the furniture business, at a time when both fields were heavily dominated by men. Ms. Araujo, an architect and academic, borrows her title from Knoll’s dictum, “No compromise, ever,” reflecting her commitment to the highest design standards.

But Ms. Araujo argues that Knoll’s career was full of compromise. The author asserts that Knoll avoided clashing with male collaborators by letting them design standout sculptural pieces for her company while designing the lower-profile “fill-in” pieces. That misses the point, however: Knoll was less concerned about individual designs than she was about forging a new genre of architecture called space planning. In the orchestra of modernism, she considered herself the conductor and designers the musicians.

How did she come to call the shots as a woman among men? Through a rare combination of talent, connections and wealth. Orphaned at 14, Florence Schust was the heir of a baking business, Schust Baking Company, which was acquired by Sunshine Biscuits in 1930. She became the charge of a family friend, the banker Emil Tessin, who gave her the freedom to choose a boarding school. When she visited the Kingswood School for…

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