What is Modernism? It could be said that Modernism began with the Enlightenment and every age since has developed and evolved from that original forward-thinking, inquisitive and scientific impulse – each era giving the term its own meaning then relinquishing it to the next. If we are talking about it in terms of the twentieth century, Modernism usually signifies an art and design movement which eventually transformed our visual world and, although starting in the late Victorian era, coalesced into a cool, intellectual and minimalist style in the 1920’s. It rejected the accumulated clutter and excess of the Victorian era, finding beauty and elegance in balance, proportion and functionality.
To many designers the chair represents the ultimate design challenge. To design a chair and ‘get it right’ (which combines the holy grail of comfort, style, originality, useability and proportion) is considered to be a huge achievement, not least because of the amount of good (and bad) chairs that are already in existence! Mies van der Rohe managed to do this a number of times and is one of a number of architects to be remembered equally for the originality and distinctiveness of both his architecture and his furniture – if something is described as Mies-ian, we know what to expect. It is strange to see how many truly great chairs were designed by architects – Wiggle (1972) – Frank Gehry, Red Blue Chair (1918) – Gerrit Rietveld, Chair No. 406 (1939) – Alvar Aalto – to name a few.
Black leather and chrome steel immediately come to mind when mentioning Modernist furniture and why not, it was the look. The shiny chrome rendering it’s means of support almost invisible and leaving the black leather to dissect the remaining space.
The cantilevered tubular steel chair is one of the icons of the modern movement, it was revolutionary in style and construction – its slender frame created by adapting the manufacturing method used to create bicycles and applying it to an interior use. Until I began looking into the history of design I had always imagined that tubular steel furniture was a phenomenon of the 1960’s or 70’s, not a creation of the 20’s! I later found out that such furniture certainly became more mainstream and proliferated in the 60’s and 70’s due to the increasing ease of mass production and their subsequent sale through high street design shops, particularly Habitat. In the 1920’s such chairs, apparently floating on air almost without an obvious means of support, were seen as a radical departure from conventional four-legged furniture.
The name most closely associated with the cantilevered tubular steel chair is Marcel Breuer (1902 – 1981), but it was actually Mart Stam (1899-1986) who was the first to design such an audacious seat in 1926, two years before Breuer in 1928. The reason Breuer name has stuck is partly due to the better proportions and detailing on what is fundamentally the same chair, but also because of Breuer’s more far-reaching design legacy. Breuer had already designed one of the all time classic pieces of Modernist furniture in 1925 – the B3 or Wassily Chair (named by the chairs manufacturer in the 60’s because Wassily Kandinsky had admired an early prototype). I first sat in a Wassily Chair when I visited the Design Museum in London during my degree course – I remember being quite apprehensive about trying it out, it had the look of a man-trap about it, but when I finally overcame my fears I found it extremely comfortable – it really was the Modernist club-chair, removed of all the excessive and evidently pointless padding.
Personally, I believe the greatest exponent of the chair during this initial period of Modernism was Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). He was a master of modernist architecture and the pure simplicity of his buildings was equally evident in his furniture. He believed in construction as “nothing less than a total work of art” and that architects should be educated in “not only the actual construction, but also all the furnishings right up to the textiles”. I could spend many pages of text on his architectural legacy, but as this post is about chairs I must stick to the plan (maybe another time!).
The ideology of Modernism was originally an egalitarian one – reducing the cost of manufacturing high quality products through mass production – something which has now come to fruition for everyday household products, even if the austere aesthetic didn’t follow with it.
It is impossible to talk about Modernism without mentioning the Bauhaus and this school of design was fundamental in promoting the modern movement and the need for designing with industrial production in mind. In the words of Walter Gropius, founder and first master of the Bauhaus:-
The Bauhaus does not pretend to be a crafts school; contact with industry is consciously sought…the old craft workshops will develop into industrial laboratories: from their experimentation will evolve standards for industrial production…
The teaching of a craft is meant to prepare for designing for mass production. Starting with the simplest tools and least complicated jobs, he gradually acquires ability to master more intricate problems and to work with machinery, while at the same time he keeps in touch with the entire process of production from start to finish.
That said, many products produced by the Bauhaus, which had the look of being machine-made, were actually highly hand-finished. Production facilities were not yet ready for such precisely detailed constructions and the cost of making the small numbers required was too prohibitive to put them into production. Unfortunately the ideology never really matched the reality and I believe that Mies (the last Bauhaus master) understood this – his version of Modernism was not restrained by monetary economy, only visual economy. His furniture and that of most of the Bauhaus era Modernism have an air of exclusivity and refinement that still commands extremely high prices.
A perfect example of Mies’ minimalist opulence as opposed to Breuer’s more compact restraint is his curvaceous Wissenhof chair (1927) – this was a variation on his MR10 chair which lacked the arms and to me looked too bare. This chair was actually designed before Mies joined the Bauhaus, but is one of the many items which, although not officially linked to the Bauhaus (like all of Breuer’s cantilevered chairs – he had left the school before he designed them) have been absorbed into its mythology by association and a common aesthetic. Although verging on the Art Deco, this version with its woven seat (designed by Mies’s partner and collaborator Lilly Reich), seems more in keeping with the chair’s luxurious curves than the more usual black leather.
In 1929 Mies designed the German Pavillion at the Barcelona Exposition (a statement of Modernist intent if ever there was one!). He also designed a throne for the King of Spain to sit on before signing the book to open the Exposition (although the King never actually sat in the chair). In doing so he created another icon of modernist furniture – the Barcelona Chair. Based on ancient Greek and Roman ceremonial seating, only two were initially made but the chair has since become a symbol of corporate solidity and elegance.
The last chair by Mies I want to highlight is his MR50 or Brno Chair (1930). It was named after a town in the Czech Republic near to a house he designed (the Villa Tugendhat – which expanded the principles of his Barcelona Pavillion) and was intended for the bedroom. It has the all in one feel of Marcel Breuer’s B33 chair, yet incorporates arms much better than Breuer managed in other models. It uses the thick chromium plated steel bars which he utilised in the Barcelona chair (although is was also less satisfyingly produced in tubular steel) – it has comfort, restraint, formality and elegance and, in the way the seat appears to float in the air, it is probably the pinnacle of the Modernist chair.