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The Timeless Design of the Breuer Chair

CEO Khai Intela
Caption: Cheryl Carlin To paraphrase the great comic-strip possum Pogo, "We have seen chairs, and they are us." Unlike the practical table or the bland, beckoning bed, a chair is never simply a chair. Taking...


Caption: Cheryl Carlin

To paraphrase the great comic-strip possum Pogo, "We have seen chairs, and they are us."

Unlike the practical table or the bland, beckoning bed, a chair is never simply a chair. Taking the shape of a person, chairs are the most metaphoric of humanity's furniture, imitating us when we are in them, echoing us when we are not.

The Bauhaus Revolution in Chair Design

Many of the greatest architects and designers of the 20th century took up the challenge of reinventing the chair. One of the most influential movements in this endeavor was the Bauhaus school in Germany. European designers associated with the Bauhaus, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames, and Frank Gehry, sought to create chairs that combined lightness, strength, and minimalism.

Marcel Breuer, a Hungarian furniture maker and architect, was among the pioneers of using tubular steel in chair designs. In 1926, he created the iconic B5 chair, which has recently found a place in the esteemed collection of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City.

A Iconic Design, A Testament to Modernism

Sarah Coffin, curator of decorative arts at the museum, expresses her enthusiasm for the B5, saying, "This chair is an iconic design that has been on our furniture wish list for a long time. We like to tell the history of design by showing things as part of a continuum, and Breuer's work relates to bentwood furniture and industrial design."

Born in Hungary in 1902, Breuer is considered one of the founders of the Modernist movement, with his vision centered on merging form and function in the simplest way possible. The B5, along with its predecessor, the B3 armchair (later known as the Wassily Chair), represented a departure from the overstuffed seating of the Edwardian era and introduced a new way of perceiving furniture.

The Perfect Expression of Modern Design

The B5 chair, with its spare elegance, exemplifies the clarity that Breuer and his associate Walter Gropius brought to their architectural designs. The chair's delicate yet strong structure, coupled with its compact proportions, has kept it relevant even after more than 80 years. Rob Forbes, founder of the furniture retailer Design Within Reach, aptly describes it as "Shaker meets Bauhaus." Don Chadwick, co-designer of the Aeron office chair, praises the B5 for its simplicity and purity.

A Vintage Piece of Design History

Breuer initially experimented with aluminum, the quintessential modern metal, for his bent metal designs. However, due to cost and welding challenges, he soon switched to tubular steel. The B5 chair in the Cooper-Hewitt's collection is a rare vintage piece, showcasing chrome-plated steel tubing and the original paraffin-infused canvas fabric known as Eisengarn. The chairs were initially available in four colors: black, green, rust red, and blue. The rust red example in the museum's collection has beautifully aged into a rich brown shade.

Legacy of the B5 Chair

Marcel Breuer's contributions extended far beyond chair design. After leaving Germany due to Hitler's rise to power, he continued to experiment with new materials in England, designing innovative pieces such as the Long Chair in shaped laminated wood. He eventually immigrated to the United States and taught at Harvard, passing on his Modernist principles to a new generation of designers.

Breuer left an indelible mark on the world of architecture, including notable projects like the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. He passed away in 1981, but the legacy of the B5 chair lives on. Exact replicas of this timeless design are still being manufactured in Germany.

The Breuer chair, with its iconic status and enduring elegance, stands as a testament to the power of modern design to transcend time and inspire generations.