Hans Knoll (1914-1955) was born in Germany, the son of an innovative modern furniture manufacturer. In 1938 he moved to America with the same aspirations and started the Hans G. Knoll Furniture Associates in a tiny New York office. In 1946 he married Florence (Schust) Knoll (1917-), a Michigan born architect working with him as a space planner and designer. She had been trained at Cranbroook Academy of Art (under Eliel Saarinen), the Architectural Association in London and at the Illinois Institute of Technology (then known as the Armour Institute) where she was a student of Mies van der Rohe. After graduating, Florence worked in the Cambridge, Massachusetts architecture offices of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. She came to the partnership with Hans as an architect and designer with considerable experience and connections. In 1946 they changed the name of the company to Knoll Associates and began implementing the corporate structure that would make them one of the most important and influential companies of the second half of the century.
It was understood that Knoll would focus specifically on modern design, but they added to this the Bauhaus philosophy that they would exclusively make products that "represented design excellence, technological innovation and mass production." Also integral to the company was their policy of crediting and paying royalties to the individual designers, a practice that represented a high level of respect and yielded strong working relationships. Many of the designers working with them were friends and colleagues, like Harry Bertoia and Eero Saarinen who Florence knew from Cranbrook. A coup for Florence was acquiring the rights to her former teacher Mies' popular "Barcelona" series that helped Knoll to carve out a viable American market for the International Style.
In 1945 Florence established the Knoll Planning Unit to execute her belief that "Good design is good business" by creating the interiors for the Knoll buildings and managing the company image. In 1947 the textiles division emerged and was put under Florence's guidance. Florence also acted as Director of Furniture Design Development, designed a number of showrooms and planned entries for exhibitions like the 1949 "An Exhibition for Modern Living" in Detroit. She designed furniture for Knoll over the years as well and exhibited her own work at the Good Design shows put on by the MoMA in New York. Prominent buildings designed by Knoll designers featured Knoll interiors planned by Florence, like Saarinen's CBS Building. In 1950 Hans moved the Knoll base of operations from New York City to Pennsylvania, hoping to benefit from the numbers of German immigrants with craft skills and from returning soldiers looking for work. He died in a car accident in 1955 leaving Florence as the president. In 1960 she ceded herself to the position of consultant, leaving the company altogether in 1965, though she remains an important figure in American design. Her archives are held by the Archives of American Art.