Women Who Shaped the Furniture Industry

Posted on March 20, 2023

Believe it or not, women’s history was excluded from K-12 curriculum up until as recently as the 1970s. To mitigate this injustice, the “Education Task Force of the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women” coordinated a “Women’s History Week” celebration in 1978. Eventually, the movement gained national traction and with support from President Carter and the state departments of education, March was declared “National Women’s History Month.” These grassroots efforts to establish equity in classrooms now give us an annual opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the many women who changed— and continue to change— the world. Since the furniture industry is something near and dear to our hearts, Interior Motions would like to shine a spotlight on some of the amazing women who shaped the furniture industry. 

Women's History Month
Photo: Entertainment Tonight

The Women Behind MillerKnoll 

MillerKnoll is a dynamic brand collective consisting of a wide array of manufacturers, including the company’s two namesakes—Herman Miller and Knoll. Before the two companies merged and became the preeminent leader of modern design, they operated for decades as pioneers of the furniture industry in their own respective right. While there are many people who contributed to the success of Herman Miller, Knoll, and eventually MillerKnoll, it would be remiss to overlook the advancements made by two people in particular: Florence Knoll and Ray Eames. 

Photo: Wexim

Florence Knoll 

Florence Knoll
Photo: Interiors Magazine, July 1957

The creative force behind one of the most successful furniture companies in the world, Florence (Schust) Knoll, started from humble beginnings as the daughter of a baker in Michigan. By age 12 she was orphaned. Despite her tumultuous upbringing, she demonstrated a clear talent and interest in architecture and design. 

Her abilities landed her a spot at Kingswood School for Girls, adjacent to the Cranbrook Academy of Art. During those years, she cultivated meaningful  relationships with prominent figures such as Euro Saarinen and his family, which afforded her opportunities to further develop her skills, education, and network. Upon marrying Hans Knoll in 1946, Florence and her husband masterminded the Knoll furniture company, the international arbiter of style and design. Florence’s architectural background and innovative mindset helped define the standard for modern corporate interiors. 

Ray Eames

Ray Eames
Photo: New York Times

Ray (Kaiser) Eames was born in Sacramento, California to a loving family with a shared interest in art and entertainment. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that this environment formed the foundation for Ray’s passion for various creative mediums like art, ballet, furniture, textiles, architecture, film, and toys. 

She started her career as an abstract artist for the Hofmann Studio before making her way to the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Michigan. There, she met Charles Eames whom she married shortly after in 1941. The pair moved to Los Angeles and collaborated on furniture products, exhibitions, short films, etc. Ray noted that she did not feel like she was giving up painting, but rather expressing her love of form, color, and structure in a new avenue. Her contributions permanently altered the world of design and continue to do so through the Eames collection of products from MillerKnoll. 

Florence Knoll and Ray Eames were just two of the many women who shaped the furniture industry and the MillerKnoll legacy. However, without these pivotal players, modern interiors would look drastically different than they do now. Thus, it is important to remember their contributions, acknowledge the women who came before and after them, and never again allow women to be erased from the course of history. 

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