The Barcelona Chair is a unique and extraordinary chair of design and simplicity that certainly represents iconic modern style. A striking chair in any space. That perhaps is the magnificence of this stunning chair. Its modern and clean lines can truly be incorporated into so many interior styles. A blending with traditional is unfailingly sublime. Modern and classics unified in marvelous or simple spaces… A classy addition that adds a sense of timelessness and a modern edge, indeed.
What is striking even beyond the design of this infamous chair itself is the designer that, throughout its creation, has been linked to it. The acclaimed author of the iconic and infamous phrase “Less Is More”, German designer & architect Ludwieg Mies van der Rohe has been given the credit for the design of this iconic chair, yet, interestingly, he was not alone in the design of this chair nor in bringing this chair to completion. History’s details validate that both Mies and his long lime partner and companion, German architect & designer Lilly Reich, both designed this iconic chair.
Given this insight, of course it is only appropriate to delve a bit into the background of these designers to fully appreciate the timeless design they bestowed onto the world…
Ludwing Mies van der Rohe was born in Aachen, Germany (1886-1969) and began his working career working in his father’s masonry business. His future in design began as he became an apprentice for Art Nouveau architect and furniture designer Bruno Paul in Berlin, where he would join the office of architect Peter Behrens, whose preliminary work would be considered pre-modern. Mies established his own office in Berlin in 1912 and would eventually become a member of the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation: an association of artists, architects, designers and industrialistsan organization often credited as the heralder modern design) and Director of the Bauhaus (A school in Germany, (1919-1933), that combined crafts and the fine arts and was famous for the approach to design that it publicized and taught). In 1938, Mies immigrated and settled in the United States, continuing his architectural practice in Chicago, Illinois. Mies also became the head of the architecture department at the Armour Institute of Technology (later renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology. His immigration, however, ended his years of collaborations with Reich.
Born in Berlin, Germany, Lilly Reich (1885-1947) was a modernist designer of textiles and women’s apparel. Reich’s was said to have gained an interest in contrasting textures and material, in particular in its use with furniture. In 1908 Reich began working at the Vienna studio of Modernist designer, Josef Hoffman. In 1912 when she joined the Deutch Werkbund, the precursor of the Bauhaus School. It was here that she was introduced to Mies. Reich would eventually become the first female artistic director of the Deutsch Werkbund, responsible for the German contribution to the 1929 Barcelona World Exposition. The collaboration between Mies and Lilly began on many projects, including the famed exhibition that brought forth the Barcelona Chair, the Barcelona World Exposition. Reich not only played a fundamental role during the Bauhaus movement, but also would eventually manage her own interior design firm which holding a position as a faculty member at the Berlin University of Arts.
For over a decade, beginning in 1926, Mies partnered with Lily both personally and professionally. It is stated that their work in the fields of architecture, exhibition design and furniture design, in addition to their affiliation to the Deutscher Werkbund, fabricated them as the perfect choice for the commission of the German Pavilion at the Barcelona World Exposition. The purpose of the pavilion was to promote Germany’s skills and expertise in which Mies was responsible in designing a structure that would represent and communicate that adequately for the benefit of the cultivated and influential audiences. The building itself was considered the epitome of Modern. Shockingly modern and viewed as futuristic for the period, the design is attributed to the influence of technological developments of the time. Modernist designers, such as Mies, used the new materials of steel, plate glass, marble and travertine to create a structure of linear simplicity. Mies is said to have successfully created a linear and balanced structure. Fascinating even today. It was within his world-famous pavilion where the Barcelona Chair made its first appearance to the world…
Both skilled designers, it is thought that Mies was the broad conceptualist and Lilly did the execution. It is also thought that the exclusion of credit for the design of the Barcelona Chair was not intentional on the part of Mies Van Der Rohe, as he never denied her contribution, but rather, was perhaps attributed to his quiet nature. In fact, Mies was noted as being reserved and rarely solicited comments from others yet was continually eager to discuss design with Lilly. Of further interest, it is said that today many admirers of Reich’s work point out that Mies’ fame as a furniture and exhibition designer were seemingly attributable to the works that he produced during his years with Lilly. Upon his relocation to the United States in 1939, with the absence of Lilly, it is speculated that his furniture designs lost their success. Either way, the contribution to the world of design is enduring…
It is no wonder that the name of chair was taken directly from the location which brought it to the world- Barcelona, Spain. This icon of modern and classic design, the Barcelona Chair, has also been referred to as the “Pavilion Chair”. Perhaps due to the inspiration of the folding chairs of the pharoahs and the X shaped footstools of the Romans, it is understandable how the Barcelona Chair gained a reputation throughout its history of a “design worthy of kings”. The regal and formal lineage the chair is stated to possess is said to provide “intellectual and cultural weight that would be appreciated by the highly educated audience”.
The original chairs pre-dated stainless steel and seamless (ground) welds so that the legs had to be bolted together. Alas, who knew that the fluid seamless iconic chair we all know and love was once not as fluid as thought? The leather used in the first chairs was pig skin and the color of the chairs in the Pavilion were ivory. It was not until 1950 when Mies redesigned the chair using the newly developed stainless steel to allow the frame to be formed from one single piece of metal. The pigskin, which was too expensive for commercial production, was replaced with bovine leather and the rest is history!
Of interest, although the philosophy behind the Mid-Century Modernists was the idea that modern furniture should be accessible to the masses, financially and aesthetically, the Barcelona Chair was considered an exception. The expense of the materials and construction and labor costs made this chair unavailable to the masses. In fact, this is perhaps what gave the chair “instant cache” and royal associations that has increased throughout time. Endeared to the educated and the wealthy, the Barcelona has indeed become an icon. And the coordinating stool? An incredible addition to any visual setting paired with this marvelous chair or striking on its own.
Oh, the glorious piping and buttons of this iconic chair and stool! Tufted leather upholstery creates an elegant patchwork checkerboard of piped leather and leather covered buttons across foam cushions. With legs of polished or chrome stainless steel, with a fastening system of leather straps supporting the bottom of the cushions and on the back rest, this chair is enduring in style and design.
Timeless design that can truly be incorporated with a wide variety of interior styles. The Barcelona Chair is a chair that will continue to call attention to itself whenever it makes an appearance. Regardless of the credit of the designer, the gift of the Barcelona Chair to the world of design will never fade or wear out its appeal…
“A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier…”
-Mies van der Rohe, Time magazine, February 18, 1957