Marcel Breuer’s Bauhaus minimalism redefined a household basic To paraphrase the great comic-strip possum Pogo, “We have seen chairs, and they are us.” This quote highlights the human tendency to anthropomorphize objects and assign them human qualities. It also suggests that our creations, such as chairs, are a reflection of ourselves and our needs.
A chair is never just a chair, unlike a useful table or a plain but inviting bed. Because of this and the fact that chairs are everywhere (at least in the West), some of the best architects and designers of the 20th century, like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames, and Frank Gehry, saw them as a big challenge. In the early 1920s, Europeans who went to the Bauhaus school in Germany were some of the most important people who tried to change the chair. Bauhaus designers made chairs that were light, strong, and simple by bending metal and combining it with canvas, caning, or leather, just like the bentwood furniture made by the Austrian and German Thonet company in the 1800s. With these chairs, the industrial age took a big step forwards. Marcel Breuer, a Hungarian architect and furniture maker who went to the Bauhaus and became one of its most important teachers, was one of the first to make chairs out of tubular steel. The B5 chair, made by Breuer in 1926, was just added to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City.
Marcel Bruer’s Biography
Breuer was born in 1902 in Pecs, Hungary. He is one of the people who started the Modernist movement, and his ideas were key to combining form and function in the simplest way possible. The B5 is one of two groundbreaking Breuer chairs that were a big change from the overstuffed chairs of the Edwardian era and helped start a new way of looking at furniture. The other is the B3 armchair, which was made the year before. It became known as the Wassily Chair because the painter Wassily Kandinsky, also on the Bauhaus faculty, liked it and had one. Both chairs, especially the B5, have a simple elegance that shows how clearly Breuer and his partner Walter Gropius made their buildings. But because a chair is easier to design than a building, the B5 is considered one of the best examples of modern design. After more than 80 years, it still seems new. Rob Forbes, who started the store Design Within Reach, says it looks like “Shaker meets Bauhaus.” He says, “This is a great piece, and I chose it for our first catalogue.
Don Chadwick, who helped design the popular Aeron office chair, agrees: “The side chair is one of the first attempts to industrialise bent steel tubing as the support structure for the sling seating surfaces. It is very pure and simple.”
Breuer’s first bent metal designs were made of aluminium, which is the most common modern metal. However, aluminium was expensive and hard to weld, so the designer quickly switched to tubular steel. The one that is now at the Cooper-Hewitt was a rare find. It was bought at an auction in New York City last spring. “”This is a vintage piece,” says Coffin. “It has chrome-plated steel tubes and the original Eisengarn [iron yarn] canvas fabric that Breuer used. The first chairs were black, green, reddish-brown, and blue. This one used to be red, but with time it has turned a shade of brown.”
In the 1930s, when Hitler came to power, Breuer left Germany for England, where he continued to try out new materials. It was there that he made the Long Chair, which is made of laminated wood that has been shaped. He then moved to the United States. He taught at Harvard with his friend Gropius. He taught Philip Johnson and others the Modernist creed. Later, Breuer made plans for houses and big buildings in cities, like the Unesco headquarters in Paris. He died at the age of 79 in New York City in 1981, but exact copies of the B5 are still being made. The B5 was very different for its time, but now it seems so logical. It is both delicate and strong, and its proportions are very happy and compact.
Magazine, Smithsonian, and Owen Edwards. “Breuer Chair, 1926.” Smithsonian Magazine, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/breuer-chair-1926-16379045. Accessed 13 Mar. 2023.
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