A History of Modern Chair Design: The Modern Movement
In 1923, the Swiss architect and designer Le Corbusier declared: ‘A great epoch has begun. There exists a new spirit.’ A new age was dawning, an age of power and energy, of electricity and machines, an age of Modernity. Architects and designers revered the technology of this 'first machine age’, as manifested in bridges, factories, ocean liners and aeroplanes. It was felt that art and design must reflect society and that modern society was characterised by the new technology. This resulted in a ‘machine aesthetic’: art and design made by the machine, expressing the machine age in its materials and shapes, and echoing the machine in its standardisation, repetition and anonymity.
In reality, the break was not as clear-cut as the architects and designers of the emerging Modern Movement imagined. Modernist designers frequently looked over their shoulders to the Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau, drawing inspiration from them. CFA Voysey and CR Mackintosh had conceived of their furniture as part of an all-encompassing design scheme, which included everything from the building itself down to the cutlery. This concern with the complete interior was taken up by the Dutch designer Gerrit Rietveld in his designs for the Schroeder House, 1924.
Rietveld's Schroeder House
The shift from the craft-based aesthetic of the late nineteenth century to the machine aesthetic of the 1920s and 1930s can be traced in the work of Rietveld, which was aligned with the Dutch De Stijl movement. His early furniture design owed much to Mackintosh and E.W. Godwin, with its transparency of structure and its emphasis on line and plane rather than mass. At the same time, however, Rietveld looked forward to forms which were less ‘artistic’, more brutal and machine-orientated.
Rietveld's Red-Blue Chair
Similar concerns are evident in Le Corbusier’s Pavilion de L'Esprit Nouveau, designed for the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion (1929) displayed the principles of the Bauhaus, a radical German design school founded in 1919.
Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair
Rietveld had a profound influence on Marcel Breuer and the Bauhaus. Breuer was an eighteen year old student at the recently-opened Bauhaus and the chairs he designed from 1921 to 1924 showed an assimilation of ideas and an urge to experiment. His first chairs were constructed in the traditional material of wood.
In 1925, however, the Bauhaus moved from Weimar to Dessau and what was the 'carpentry' workshop became the 'furniture' workshop. The change of title implied a widening of techniques and materials. Breuer’s chairs from this period are executed in gleaming tubular steel.
The first product of the new workshop was Breuer's celebrated 'Wassily' chair, named after the painter Wassily Kandinsky. This was the first chair to be made of nickel-plated steel tubing.
Breuer's Wassily chair
Furniture had entered the age of the machine aesthetic; new techniques and materials replaced traditional means of construction. In 1926, Mart Stam made the first chair based on the cantilever principle, and this was shortly followed by chairs of similar construction by Breuer and Mies van der Rohe. Beyond the Bauhaus, Alvar Aalto designed a laminated wood chair in 1929. The Modern Movement reached its zenith throughout these years and its products are now adjudged classics of modern design.
Breuer's Cantilevered chair