Marcel Breuer | The Wassily Chair – the chair that launched a thousand iconic furniture design ideas
“Modern architecture is not a style, it’s an attitude.” – Marcel Breuer
Hey, hey, Everybody! It’s the birthday of one of the most inspiring modernists! Marcel Breuer (May 21, 1902 – July 1, 1981) was born in Hungary and became one of the most influential Bauhaus furniture designers and architects.
In 1920, at age 18, Marcel Breuer left his home in Pecs (once Autria-Hungary and now Hungary) in search of artistic pursuits. After a short-lived stint at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna (one author claims he left the same day he arrived!), he found his people at Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany which had just opened in 1919. Gropius, 19 years Breuer’s senior, quickly saw the promise and talent in Breuer and became Breuer’s mentor in design, architecture, and life. They would spend decades together, teaching, collaborating, and creating an incredible modernist world around them that would stretch from Germany to London, and then would bring modernism to the United States.
Being a part of Gropius’s radical and revolutionary Bauhaus school in 1920 must have been incredibly inspiring for a 19-year old. Although Breuer was among the youngest students at the Bauhaus, Gropius soon tapped the young student to lead the carpentry workshop.
After graduating in 1924, he headed to Paris to study architecture and where he would meet the famed Le Corbusier.
When Gropius moved the Bauhaus from Weimer to Dessau in 1925, Breuer returned to join other Masters on the faculty such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Josef Albers. Eventually, Marcel Breuer would teach architecture at the Bauhaus.
It was in 1925 that Marcel Breuer would design the iconic Moden B3 chair – also known as the Wassily Chair (a name later chosen by an Italian furniture manufacturer Gavina who was producing the chair when it learned that Breuer had made a duplicate of the chair for Wassily Kandinsky who taught with Breuer at the Bauhaus).
The design was inspired by the tubular steel handlebars of his Adler bicycle – Breuer’s mode of transportation to the school. Breuer, a carpenter and expert woodworker, was the first to use tubular steel in furniture production and the Model B3 chair was Breuer’s very first tubular steel furniture design.
He was inspired by the overstuffed club chairs that were the rage during this Jazz Age, but wanted to streamline them and make the chairs out of materials that were more easily accessible and could be produced for the masses.
The Wassily Chair at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany
Kai ‘Oswald’ Seidler from Berlin, Germany, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
THIS was the influential and revolutionary chair that launched a thousand other iconic furniture designs for the modern era. From Mart Stam’s cantilevered chair, to Mies van der Rohe’s Brno and MR chairs, and on to Corbusier’s LC2 and LC3 sofas, and Eileen Gray’s iconic E 1027 sidetable, furniture made from tubular steel revolutionized furniture design and forever changed modern interiors.
After Breuer designed the Model B3 Chair, he went on to design the iconic Cesca Chair in 1928, shortly after he left the Bauhaus to start his own firm dedicated to furniture design and interiors. The Cesca chair is one of the first (if not the first, Stam and Breuer fought over who had the idea first) cantilevered side chairs. Knoll currently produces both models. The model was originally known as the B32, but was also renamed by Gavina – Cesca, which is short for Breuer’s daughter Francesca.
In October of 1934, Gropius left Germany for London to escape the growing hostile Nazi environment in Germany. Gropius encouraged Breuer to join him in London in 1935 to which Breuer agreed. By 1937, Gropius and Breuer were on their way to the United States to teach at Harvard. Gropius has accepted a position as chair of the Department of Architecture in the Harvard Graduate School of Design and offered Breuer a faculty job teaching architecture at the school. Together, the two men formed a partnership that would form the foundation of modern architecture and inform the ideas and work of other Harvard students such as Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, and Eliot Noyes.
Frick Madison Museum patron looking out from a Marcel Breuer designer building (formerly the Whitney Museum of Art).
In 1941, Gropius and Breuer dissolved their partnership and Breuer started his own architectural firm. Breuer continued designing homes, buildings and furniture, and became a US citizen in 1944.
Marcel Breuer moved to New York City in 1946 where he remained in practice. There he designed the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, and the Church at St. John’s Abbey in 1955. In 1966, he designed the Whitney Museum of Art in Manhattan (now the Frick).
In 1968, Breuer earned the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects at their 100th annual convention in our lovely Portland, Oregon.
The Abbey Church of St. John the Baptist by Marcel Breuer
Seth Tisue from San Francisco, CA, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
But is the Wassily Chair Comfortable? My Wassily Chair was.
My father loves and supports modern design and architecture and he thankfully passed along that love to me growing up. Furniture by the great masters was not something we read about, but it was something that held space in our home – a chair by Renee Mackintosh, stained glass by Frank Lloyd Wright, tables by Eileen Grey, a set of cantilever dining chairs by Mart Stam, a table by Noguchi, the “Bauhaus Lamp” by Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Carl Jakob Jucker. These were items we touched and lived with every day. It was incredible.
In his living room, we had two LC3 Grande sofas designed by Le Corbusier and 2 Wassily chairs designed by Marcel Breuer. Everyone seemed to gravitate toward the sofas at family gatherings, but I LOVED the Wassily chair. With perfect ergonomics and a flat arm to stack Christmas presents or a small plate of snacks, the Wassily chair was MY chair and everyone knew it.
The Wassily Chair gives the illusion of a club chair by providing a familiar form and outline of it. The leather strapping stretched between various planes of tubular steel seem to float in the air – it doesn’t occupy and command a space like a typical club chair does. It’s light, elegant, and sculptural. But the Wassily is not a chair for curling up with a good book in front of a fireplace. It is, however, a chair that feels great to sit in. The chair eases you to the back of it so that you maintain a perfect lounge position. The strapping has the right amount of give and flex so that it confirms to your body shape. It’s the kind of chair that makes you long for a martini in your hand. It’s the perfect chair for summer weather because of its open frame – it’s always the coolest place to sit and relax.
Marcel Breuer was iconic and inspirational, and his design legacy endures. He would be 121 years old today. Happy Birthday, Marcel Lajkó Breuer!