The history of the Barcelona chair
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If you think your bum is worthy of a seat fit for a king, you might consider parking it in the Barcelona Chair.
While it is said the royal behinds never did rest on van der Rohe’s creation, the Barcelona Chair caused a sensation that has lasted for nearly eight decades. Today, it is still a “must have” piece in the homes of wealthy aficionados, as well as architects and designers. The Barcelona was even honoured with the Museum of Modern Art Award in 1977.
Famed Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe and his partner Lilly Reich based the Barcelona Chair on the campaign and folding chairs of the Pharaohs and Romans, bringing a modern yet timeless flair to this ancient and regal design. The chair served as a centerpiece of the German Pavilion at the International Exhibition, which van der Rohe also designed. Germany was in the midst of a resurgence, after the devastation of World War I, and design and architecture was a huge part of the nation’s “comeback”. van der Rohe’s pavilion was a success, and his chair was the talk of the design world.
The Barcelona Chair has been in production for almost 80 years since, with very few changes distinguishing it from the first version. Originally designed before the advent of stainless steel and seamless ground welding, the frame was designed to be bolted together. However, in 1950, with the development of stainless steel, van der Rohe re-designed the chair with a seamless metal frame. Cowhide replaced the expensive pigskin used in the original chair. But other than that, the Barcelona chairs manufactured today are exactly as they were in 1929. Modern. Timeless. In a word, perfect.
A little about Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
When it comes to the big names of twentieth century design, they don’t come much bigger (or longer) than Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. A pioneering and hugely influential architect, a dedicated and passionate educator, coiner of several catchy aphorisms, and – luckily for us – a dab-hand at designing furniture.
Mies was, first and foremost, an architect. Even before taking on the influential role of Director of Architecture at the Bauhaus Design School, he had already been architectural director of the Werkbund, and had helped to found the architectural association Der Ring.
All of which is to say that Mies was never one of those "not fully appreciated in his lifetime" types.
No, Mies was big news from very early in his career, first driving modernist architecture forward in Europe during the early part of the twentieth century, and later (after emigrating to America in 1937) giving Frank Lloyd Wright a run for his money as “America’s Greatest Living Architect.”
Mies was also one of the most intellectual of all modernist architects, and spent much of his life pursuing a rational approach to design, his goal being a system that others could use to create buildings as powerful and beautiful as those Mies himself designed. Typically modest, when his students failed to achieve such impossibly high standards, Mies blamed flaws in his teaching method.
Much to our relief, Mies managed to encapsulate his philosophical pursuits in pithy aphorisms, such as "God is in the details", and "Less is more", and clean, innately appealing designs.
His most famous furniture designs – the Barcelona Chair, and the Brno Chair – reflect the same philosophical underpinnings that drove his architecture. Both are concerned with the use of space, their forms being defined as much by the space around them as by the structure of the chairs themselves, and both employ a striking combination of sleek modernist steel and luxurious leather.
Mies’s overarching ambition was to establish a style of design that would represent modern times, much as Classical and Gothic did for their own eras. In many ways he achieved this ambition, but we like to think that he also transcended it, creating designs that appear far more timeless than timely.
A little bit about Lilly Reich
The Barcelona chair was not designed solely by Mies alone! It is now accepted the chair's design was a collaboration between Lilly Reich, Mies' long time partner and companion, the brilliant architect and designer.
Confined to traditionally acceptable female careers Lilly Reich began her working life as a designer of textiles and women's apparel - but in 1912 she joined the Deutsch Werkbund - an organization often credited with the first seeds of modern design - and the precursor to the Bauhaus School She worked in the studio of the famous Bauhaus designer Josef Hoffman and by 1915 she had developed a professional reputation sufficient to be given increasing levels of responsibility at the Werkbund.In 1920 She became the first female to be made director of the Deutsch Werkbund. It was also through the Werkbund that Reich met Mies. In the twelve years leading up to 1938 when Mies emigrated to the US, they were inseparable. Even after Mies left Germany Lily Reich continued to manage his personal and business affairs until her own death at age 62 in 1947. She was at least as skilled a designer as Mies, she was probably more articulate than he. Those who knew them regard her as the detail and execution person, and Mies as the broad conceptualist. Reserved Mies rarely solicited anybody's comments but was always eager to discuss design with her.
Together they designed the Barcelona Chair. But history has played a cruel trick and as forgotten Lilly Reich. Many people maintain that this was never Mies' doing, that he never denied her contribution, but his quiet nature did not make him a vocal supporter either. Born and raised in a chauvinistic society Lilly herself was disinclined to self promotion - and publicly played only a traditionally supportive female role.
Today Lilly's many fans and chroniclers like to point out that Mies' fame as a furniture designer and exhibition designer were almost entirely attributable to the works that he produced during his years with Lilly, and that after he moved to the US in 1939 (without Lilly) he produced no successful furniture designs at all.
Lilly Reich was born on the 16th of June 1885 in Berlin. Her career as a modernist designer began in textile and fashion design. This particular choice of career focus may in all likely hood have been a product of prejudicial and altogether sexist cultural norms and expectations of the time. Vocations considered to be suitable for, and within the intellectual grasp of a women were few and far between - and this was one area where women were accepted.
However her fascination with contrasting textures and innovative use of fabrics no doubt began here, and was to be highly pertinent in her later career as a furniture designer, and to her work as a teacher of interior design at the Bauhaus School some years later.
At the age of 23 she moved to Vienna where she worked in the studio of Joseph Hoffman, a renowned Mid Century modernist designer, responsible for such furniture designs as the Kubus armchair and sofa.
In 1912 she joined a government sponsored organization called the werkbund, dedicated to the promotion of German products and designs. This was to be a lasting passion and reoccurring theme in her career. She opened her own design studio two years later at the age of 29, soon developing a good professional reputation. So good in fact that 6 years later in 1920 she was made the first female director of the Werkbund. It was her responsibility to plan and curate design exhibits intended to promote German designers. Including one just before the war at the Museum of Art in Newark, New Jersey.
It was also through their mutual involvement with the Werkbund that Reich met Mies Van Der Rohe, the famous architect and designer. For thirteen years between 1925 and 1938, when Mies emigrated to the USA, they were partners both personally and professionally.
Reich is credited with having co-designed some of Mies' most famous works - his Barcelona Chair, also known as the pavilion chair and the Brno chair.
Albert Pheiffer, Vice President of Design and Management at Knoll, has been researching and lecturing on Reich for some time and he points out that:
"It became more than a coincidence that Mies's involvement and success in exhibition design began at the same time as his personal relationship with Reich". and
"It is interesting to note that Mies did not fully develop any contemporary furniture successfully before or after his collaboration with Reich."
In 1930 Mies became the director of the Bauhaus School of architecture and design, and Reich joined the faculty as one of the first female teachers. She taught interior design and furniture design there until the late 1930s.
In 1939 Lilly visited Mies in the US but unfortunately did not stay, shortly after returning to Germany war broke out. In 1943 her studio was bombed. Luckily for us when the bombing started she had moved 4000 drawings including 900 of her own and 3100 of Mies' to a farmhouse outside of Berlin to protect them.
Reich was drafted into a forced labor organization from 1943 to 1945. After her release and before her untimely death in 1947 she was instrumental in reviving the Werkbund, although it did not receive full legal status, until three years after her death.
Bauhaus - Beginning of a design era
The German Bauhaus Movement had an important impact on the development of Design and Architecture in the twentieth century. It was truly avant-garde in its techniques and ideas. This famous German school of design had inestimable influence on modern architecture, the industrial and graphic arts, and theatre design. It was founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius in Weimar as a merger of an art academy and an arts and crafts school. The Bauhaus was based on the principles of the 19th-century English designer William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement that art should meet the needs of society and that no distinction should be made between fine arts and practical crafts. It also depended on the more forward-looking principles that modern art and architecture must be responsive to the needs and influences of the modern industrial world and that good designs must pass the test of both aesthetic standards and sound engineering. Thus, classes were offered in crafts, typography, and commercial and industrial design, as well as in sculpture, painting, and architecture. The Bauhaus style, later also known as the International Style, was marked by the absence of ornament and ostentatious facades and by harmony between function and the artistic and technical means employed.
A new education
In 1930 the Bauhaus came under the direction of the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who moved it to Berlin in 1932. By 1933, when the school was closed by the Nazis, its principles and work were known worldwide. Many of its faculty immigrated to the United States, where the Bauhaus teachings came to dominate art and architecture for decades. The work of these architects and designers has had an impact far beyond the circles of the audience for whom it was intended. The furniture especially reveals this in a very clear and perceivable way, a design still influencing our perception of beauty and usability to this day.
The new way of living
Traces in the US
Walter Gropius taught in Harvard and many important architects went through his lectures, like Philip Johnson, later Director of the MOMA in New York. Mies van der Rohe became the head of the architecture department at the Illinois Institute of Technology and many other former Bauhaus disciples became quite successful as architects and designers in postwar America. Charles Eames is an example how strong the influence of the Bauhaus design and architecture was. On his honeymoon to Europe he saw in 1928 buildings by Mies v.d. Rohe, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. Later Eames described the effect as electrifying jolt to his sensibilities, like "having a cold hose turned on you."