Article—Fantasy and Futurism: The Barcelona and Brno Chairs

by Shane Filer, Berlin, Germany | July 28, 2016

I had a colleague whose fantasy was to own a Barcelona chair. To set it in a large white room furnished only by this chair, and a steel and glass table. Perhaps a small flat screen television mounted on the wall, and one white bookshelf stacked with old books. This then would be his perfect room. Then he would know he has made “it”. Then he would be happy.What was illusive about the Barcelona chair and the Michael Mann inspired room wasn’t the price tag so much (although the official version retails for about $5800), but the practical impossibility. He was married to a hoarder and had two small children. The design chic of the Barcelona chair in an (near) empty room was (likely) always going to remain a distant dream for him.

Blame Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for the impracticality of beautiful furniture design for modern life.

Mies designed the Barcelona chair in collaboration with interior designer and companion Lilly Reich in 1929, and it has been an ascetic staple in the foyers of architects, design companies, and knowing professionals ever since. Mies was a German-born designer and architect commonly regarded — alongside Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright — as one of the creators of modern architecture. So you can also partly blame him for all the metal and glass boxes I suppose.

Basically self-taught, he based his architectural design ascetic on philosophical thought, and theoretical ideas such as Constructivism that placed importance on space and rhythm, and art absorbed in industrial production. Throwing out traditional decorative design, Mies instead bathed in simplicity — unpretentious rectangular-like forms, clean lines, the use of black and white, and the desire to build space beyond and around walls.

Along with buildings, Mies also created several iconic examples of modern furniture following these design philosophies, including the Barcelona chair, couch, and table, and the Brno chair. These are among the first furniture items, that are commonly regarded as “modern.” This was furniture of the future. At least in 1930 it was. Is it functional or comfortable? That point is still under debate, but tellingly, over 85 years later the Barcelona and Brno chairs are still being manufactured and sold in great numbers, officially by US-based Knoll, and as unlicensed replicas.

The Barcelona Chair

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe ca.1929

 

“This chair can never be cozy and belongs only in waiting rooms. After twenty minutes you are ready to get up because there are no armrests,” — anonymous online commenter.

Whether a piece of furniture requires armrests to be comfortable or not is a matter of conjecture. Do most people fill their home with ugly, bulky, puffy, but comfortable couches? I suppose the versatility of a couch depends on what you’re going to do on it — sit and read a book, sipping tea, or blob out for hours in front of a TV screen. I suspect the Barcelona chair was not created with the latter in mind.

Tom Wolfe also hated and dammed it as overpriced object of fetish in his 1981 book, From Bauhaus to Our House, “The Platonic ideal of chair it was,” he wrote sarcastically, “the most perfect piece of furniture in the 20th century.”

The Barcelona chair is one of the most recognized objects of the 20th century, and an icon of the modern design. The chair was designed for the German Pavilion at the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona. The apocryphal story is the chair’s genesis came when an opening reception was scheduled at the Pavilion, and two chairs were required for guests, the King and Queen of Spain. In stepped Mies — the metal “X” form — possibly taking inspiration from ancient Roman Curule chairs. The Barcelona chair was first utilized in a home content in Villa Tugendhat, the modernist house designed by Mies in Brno (Czech Republic).

The Brno Chair

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe ca.1930

Speaking of the Brno Tugendhat House, this chair — with its slender profile, clean lines and meticulous attention to detail was specifically designed by Mies for it, and takes Zen-like simplicity to a new level. It consists of a single piece of steel bent into a C-shape from the middle of the back, round past the front to create arms, and back under to create a cantilever; the seat and back are upholstered in leather. The Brno chair has also become an instantly recognizable furniture classic. You can still buy them today in two versions, one in tubular steel and the other in flat steel.

Great design is great design, and in this light the Barcelona chair and the Brno chair are nothing short of triumphs, and definitely not just for the office foyer. In the right clean living space where they can breathe, they bring class and life. I wonder if my colleague ever managed to obtain his Barcelona chair and his close-to-empty white room? I hope he “made it.”  These furniture items are functional, enduring as well as being beautiful to look at.

Remember the TV show Nip/Tuck? The episode where the seemingly perfect replacement Dr. Taper has an unusual fetish? Sex with furniture. Who knew? The Barcelona chair and Brno chair are just the furniture pieces he would be attracted to.