Michael Kroeger -- Breuer, Barcelona, Eames, Saarinen Chair Lecture
ComLink :: mkgraphic@aol.com | Return to :: MK Graphic Design

Breuer, Barcelona, Eames, Saarinen Chair Lecture
by Michael Kroeger

1928 Breuer Chair
Marcel Breuer's tubular-steel chair, designed soon after he opened his office in Berlin, culminates eight years of Bauhaus experimentation with the application of new production methods to traditional design problems.

Breuer, at the age of 18, entered the Weimar Bauhaus in 1920 as a student. When the Bauhaus moved to Dessau four years later, he became a master in the furniture workshop. The use of tubular steel for furniture structures was suggested to Breuer in 1925 by the handlebars of the bicycle he was learning to ride. He was intrigued by the strength and elegance of the bends in the metal and thought that continuous loops of polished steel would make a delicate yet strong structure for tables and chairs.

The enthusiastic Breuer tried to explain his idea to the manager of a bicycle factory, but the man concluded that young Breuer must be deranged to suggest using chrome-plated steel inside the home. "It has never been done," was his only comment as he turned Breuer down. Breuer, refusing to be discouraged, used the Bauhaus workshops to construct his first tubular armchair, now called the Wassily lounge chair. (It was named for Wassily Kandinsky who bought the first model. This chair, a classic on its own, is a fairly complex structure of bent and straight tubing with stretched canvas, seat back, and arm rests.)

The following year Breuer designed a simplified side chair with fabric back and seat that was the forerunner of his classic. Essentially it was the same, except that it was not cantilevered. The bent steel tubing was difficult to produce with the limited equipment at the Bauhaus--so Breuer went directly to Mannesmann Steel Works.

When the new Bauhaus buildings opened in Dessau in 1926, they were filled with Breuer's tubular-steel furniture. Anchored to the floor in the auditorium were tubular chairs with fabric backs and folding fabric seats. The offices and housing were filled with a variety of side chairs, nesting tables, stools, and other tube legged items.

The first cantilevered chairs were designed by Mart Stam, who was familiar with Breuer's work, and by Mies Van der Rohe. Both architects showed their chairs in the 1927 Stuttgart exhibition. Mart Stam's piece was constructed of straight rigid tubes linked by elbow joints, while Mies' chair was the first to embody a resilient cantilever expressed in a curved framework. The Breuer cantilever chair produced the following year is more angular; the wood-framed seat and back have caning inserts.

This chair exemplifies the Bauhaus principles with clarity. Breuer separated the support function into two sets of structures: one that carries the loads and another that supports the body. The product becomes a visual illustration of the way the principles operate. Once the concept is achieved, a break can be made with traditional forms and structures, then the designer can use new materials to solve the problem. The emerging solution adheres in its simplicity to Breuer's ideas as stated in "The Bauhaus 1919-1928":

"A piece of furniture is not an arbitrary composition; it is a necessary component of our environment. In itself impersonal, it takes on meaning only from the way it is used or as part of a complete scheme.

"A complete scheme is no arbitrary composition either but rather the outward expression of our everyday needs; it must be able to serve both those needs which remain constant and those which vary. This variation is possible only if the very simplest and most straightforward pieces are used; otherwise changing will mean buying new pieces.

"Let our dwelling have no particular 'style,' but only the imprint of the owner's character. The architect, as producer, creates only half a dwelling; the man who lives in it, the other half."

The chair is still in production and sells very successfully. During the 1930's Breuer's design was corrupted into banal dining sets and painted outdoor furniture of which millions were manufactured. Some of the new adaptations can be stacked, which increases the utility of his original design. Nevertheless Breuer's concept remains a classic turning point in furniture design, and it has inspired dozens of variations, both good and bad.

1929 Barcelona Chair
"The chair," said Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, "is a very difficult object. Everyone who has ever tried to make one knows that. There are endless possibilities and many problems--the chair has to be light, it has to be strong, it has to be comfortable. It is almost easier to build a skyscraper than a good chair."

Mies finds architecture and furniture design closely related; the problems, principles, and even the materials involved in building a skyscraper may also be found in the design of a chair. Architecture, in fact, led Mies to his interest in furniture design. "People asked for furniture to go with our buildings," he explains. "They thought they wanted a chair that someone else didn't have."

In 1929, Mies was commissioned by the German government to design the German pavilion for the Barcelona Fair, one of the most elegant pieces of architecture ever created and the classic example of a structure using continuous spatial flow. This building required furniture that simply did not exist, so Mies responded to this commission with the Barcelona chair.

It had to be an "important chair, a very elegant chair," said Mies. "The government was to receive a king, a dictator, an ambassador. This was not a private affair, this was a government building. The chair had to be important, it had to seem elegant and costly, it had to be monumental. In those circumstances, you just couldn't use a kitchen chair."

To achieve this sense of luxury, Mies used size and such materials as the finest kid leather for the cushions. In one sense, however, the Barcelona chair's combination of steel, webbing, and leather was a failure. "My idea," says Mies, "was to use the elasticity of steel. The chair was to open up for its occupant under the weight of his body. The back was to go back, the seat go down. But when we tried the chair in steel, there was no spring. It was too rigid to respond to the demands of the design." But although the chrome-plated steel frame had no give, it served well as a skeleton for the leather cushions.

The chair, now manufactured in the United States and 29 countries by Knoll Associates, represents the highest achievement in coordination of materials, craftsmanship, and design. Mies refined his original design in 1950 to take advantage of advancements in the formulation of stainless steel, and the result is a completely welded, one-piece stainless steel frame of superior spring, strength, and beauty. The unbroken flow of line is made possible by the integral strength of a special steel alloy, which eliminated the need for additional braces at welding points. The frame is polished by hand to a flawless mirror finish.

The production model of the Barcelona chair is upholstered only in top-grain natural leathers, tan or black in color. The seat and back cushions are formed from 40 separately cut panels, joined by narrow handsewn welts. Of foam rubber, the cushions are supported by straps of saddle leather. Despite its luxury price of nearly $1,000, the chair has shown a steady increase in production and sales. The number sold in 1960, for example, was almost triple that for 1956.

It is considered sacrilegious to criticize Mies, who is considered the world's foremost architect, but a note of caution might be sounded regarding the Barcelona chair, like many of Mies' architectural achievements. Curiously, Mies, who espouses the moduIar look, mass production, and advanced technology, often produces designs that demand the ultimate in hand craftsmanship. This chair is one example and the price reflects this problem. But the chair is what Mies set out to make it, a status symbol in the modern idiom. The chair's ingenious visual design operates as pure sculpture, and it is widely used in lobbies, along with a couple of rubber plants, to fill an otherwise barren space effectively. It is possible though that the Barcelona chair is, like much of Mies' work, the final word in chair design for this century.

1947 Eames Plywood Chair
The test of a designer may well be the chair, and judged by this standard, Charle Eames is the classic designer of the twentieth century. Using materials and processes developed in fields far removed from furniture, his designs are completely original.

Trained as an architect, he worked with Eliel Saarinen and his son, Eero, from 1939 to 1941, on various architectural and experimental design projects. Eames and Eero Saarinen were developing a shell chair to fit the human form, and in 1941 when the Museum of Modern Art announced its organic-design competition, they entered and won first prize. A full-sized plaster model, which had been reinforced with wire mesh and then fractured and reset until a shape offering continuous support of the seated body was achieved, was submitted. The actual shell was to be plywood for light weight and easy, cheap production. But Eames and Saarinen found their idea impractical. Production difficulties arose, and in desperation, Eames and Don Albinson produced a number of experimental shells themselves, but the expense and effort involved were tremendous. Wood, unlike metal, will not stretch in forming. Compound shapes had to be built up with pre-tailored strips of veneer in successive layers, a hand process not suited to mass production. As a result, the approach was abandoned.

Eames and his wife and partner, Ray, moved to California, where he worked in the art department of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. At night they tried to produce a feasible plywood-molding technique, but in 1944, with greater experience, Eames modified the concept of a single shell to "petals" to form a separate seat and back. The segments, smaller and shallower, could be formed in a hydraulic press. Later, as director of research for the Evans Products Company of Michigan, Eames continued work on the chair.

In 1946, the Museum of Modern Art held a one-man show of his new furniture. Aware of the cool response from manufacturers in the past, Eames expected this exhibit would end the project-but the pieces were an instant success, and Evans began to tool for mass production. When George Nelson, designer for Herman Miller, saw the chairs he insisted that Miller produce the designs, and in 1947 the dies and tooling were purchased. Eames's plywood-and-metal chair is a classic and one of the important turning points in design.

In 1948, aided by a research grant from the Museum of Modern Art, Eames went back to work on the continuous shell configuration. He experimented with a stamped-steel shell made like an automobile fender. Unfortunately, the models looked cold, and to make them warmer and to deaden the metallic sound, the shell was sprayed with a neoprene-based coating. Eames won second prize in a 1948 international furniture competition with this chair, but when Miller estimated the several sets of progressive dies needed to press the seat it proved to be too expensive.

In 1950 Zenith Plastics showed Eames a fiberglass-reinforced plastic Christmas tree base. Here, at last, was the way to mold the shell for his chair. Since the process needed only a single set of dies, it was considerably less expensive. The fiberglass chair was introduced in 1951, 12 years after Eames and Saarinen had conceived it. The basic model has rod legs, but there are a number of different base and finish combinations. One expensive variation, for example, is swivel-castered, with Naugahyde upholstery.

This design, "the negative of the posterior," is fine sculpture and represents the first successful use of fiberglass-reinforced plastic for consumer items. It is interesting to note, however, that the production problems posed by a continuous shell of plywood have not yet been solved.

Charles Eames calls himself an artist, and unquestionably he is, but he is also an inventor and technologist-the best example of the Renaissance man in the field today. He has done films and exhibition designs--from Toy Trains to the presentation of Modern America at the Moscow Fair and his work for IBM-and his achievements have merited many awards, among them an Emmy for his film, The Fabulous Fifties. In 1961 he was accorded highest distinction in the field -the Kaufmann International Design Award.

1957 Saarinen Stem Chair
Over the years, Eero Saarinen had been nagged by the sensation that all was not well in most indoor furniture arrangements.

In 1953, he "suddenly noticed that even the most modern living room settings were a slum of legs." Though most designers continued to experiment with the contour possibilities of reinforced plastic shell seats, they tended to treat the legs as a separate structure, entirely divorced from the form of the seat itself. "Modern chairs, with shell shapes and cages of little sticks below, mixed different kinds of structures," Saarinen said. "As a result, legs became a sort of metal plumbing."

It is curious that, with the countless number of modern designs that had been produced-especially those with pedestal -- leg bases, such as office chairs and built-in lunch-counter stools -- it took so long for this obvious solution to be conceived. It probably came from one of Saarinen's basic principles of design-a product is the connection between the human being and the floor, concave to hold the human at the top and flat at the floor. When one considers this, it is easy to see how he might have arrived at this fresh idea.

Saarinen set out to make the chair "all one thing again," bolstered by the knowledge that "all great furniture of the past has always been a structural total." Therefore, between architectural commitments, he tried to design a shell chair that would eliminate the ugly clutter of legs in the home.

Finally, he hit upon a solution: a chair that bore a startling resemblance to a stemmed wine glass. Saarinen carefully calculated the base of this tulip-shaped shell to achieve the stability of four legs without weighting the bottom of the pedestal, which was of cast aluminum and finished in fused plastic to resist scuffing. The seat itself is of reinforced plastic, and cushions may be dropped into it for added comfort. Designed in lounge and armchair sizes, with white the predominant seat and base color, some of the stem styles also swivel.

In addition to creating an exceedingly handsome line of furniture that lends an air of spaciousness to room settings -- especially to dining areas where many chairs are clustered around a table -- the structure of each piece is also ingenious, having just three parts: top, stem and bolt. To accompany the chairs, Saarinen had also designed complementary pieces - matching units of coffee and side tables, dining and end tables - with wood and marble tops. These tops are chamfered on the underside of the edges, giving a slim-looking elegance.

The entire pedestal group -- chairs and tables -- was placed in production in 1957 and marketed by Knoll Associates.

Saarinens "sitting sculpture" stem is typical of his adventurous and wildly creative attitude. Throughout his career, he has dared to take chances that other designers would not consider, making him the exact opposite of Mies van der Rohe, the refiner. This stance has brought many successes -- and some failures -- and well-deserved praise as one of the world's most creative architects. His TWA airport building in New York is a fanciful and rather weird collection of free forms, which overpowers both traveler and aircraft, while his building at Dulles airport in Washington is completely different, with the innovation of mobile lounges and suspended roof. It is amazing that two such unique solutions could be conceived only a year or so apart, or that the John Deere building in Moline, Illinois, and the CBS building in New York-each a masterpiece-could be the work of one man, not two diverse personalities.

One Hundred Great Product Designs
Jay Doblin
1970, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company

The Design Collection, Selected Objects
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
1970, Printed by Conzett & Huber in Zurich, Switzerland

For exclusive use of my students in DSC 121 Design Principles I -- Fall 1998, Arizona State University


Copyright © 1996-2002 MK Graphic Design. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be copied, reproduced, or electronically reused without written permission from Michael Kroeger at MK Graphic Design. (12.01.02)