Architect + Furniture Designer (1902-1981)
Thanks to the innovative aluminium, tubular steel and plywood pieces he designed first at the Bauhaus in 1920s Germany and then as an émigré in 1930s Switzerland and England, MARCEL BREUER (1902-1981) is best known as one of the early 20th century’s most influential furniture designers. Equally influential were the private houses he designed on the post-war East Coast and the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.
When Marcel Breuer arrived in London in 1935, he was asked to design furniture for Isokon, alias the Isometric Unit Construction company. Breuer told its owner Jack Pritchard that he wanted to continue developing the metal pieces he had worked on as a teacher at the Bauhaus in the mid-1920s. Pritchard briskly informed him that, as the British were far too traditional to buy metal furniture, Breuer should work in wood instead, preferably plywood.
The result was a series of five pieces including an armchair, chaise longue and nest of tables in which the plywood is formed so fluidly and sinuously, that they are now regarded as landmarks in 20th century furniture design. Yet like the rest of Breuer’s early career as a furniture designer, the development of these plywood pieces was clouded by doubts and disappointment.
Born in Pécs, a city in south western Hungary, in 1902, Breuer went to high school there and won a scholarship to study art at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1920. Frustrated by the course, Breuer dropped out and worked in a Viennese architect’s office until a friend suggested that he apply to the Bauhaus, a recently founded art and design school in Weimar, Germany.
After completing a preliminary course in which students were introduced to all the subjects taught at the Bauhaus, Breuer became one of six apprentices to join the new furniture workshop in summer 1921. His first piece was the Romantic Chair (also known as the African Chair) which he carved and painted by hand in a grandiose throne-like form. By 1923, when he qualified as a journeyman, his work, notably the Wood-slat chair, was increasingly influenced by the abstract aesthetic of De Stijl, the Dutch art movement.
Although firmly established as one of the most prolific members of the Bauhaus and a protégé of its director Walter Gropius, Breuer had little patience with the intellectual debates that ignited the rest of the school preferring to design “without having to philosophise before every move”. In 1924, Breuer left the Bauhaus for Paris where he made ends meet by working for an architect and did “everything I can to forget about my Bauhaus cares”. Paris was another disappointment and when Gropius invited him to run the furniture workshop at the new Bauhaus in Weimar, Breuer said “yes”.
Back at the Bauhaus, one of his first projects was the 1926 steel club armchair (later renamed the Wassily, after the Bauhaus teacher Wassily Kandinsky) made from extruded nickel-plated tubular steel. Unusually light and easy to assemble from ready-made steel tubes, the chair was the result of Breuer’s years of experiments with bending steel and was immediately hailed as an important breakthrough in furniture design. “I thought that this out of all my work would earn me the most criticism,” he noted, “but the opposite of what I expected came true.”
He co-founded a company Standard-Möbel to manufacture his tubular steel furniture, although running it proved much trickier than he had thought. Breuer also designed furniture for the Bauhaus Dessau masters’ houses and for the Berlin apartment of the theatre producer Erwin Piscator. When Gropius resigned from the Bauhaus in 1928, Breuer followed suit and set up as an architect in Berlin. Barred from the German architects’ association because of his dearth of practical experience, he worked on renovations and more furniture. In 1931, he closed his office to travel in southern Europe, before returning to Budapest and another unsuccessful attempt at architecture. Returning to Germany was impossible after the National Socialists took power in 1933 and Breuer moved to Switzerland where he concentrated on furniture design. The tubular steel and aluminium pieces which he produced in Switzerland won universal praise, but Breuer was still strapped for cash and in 1935 he decided to join Gropius – and Isokon – in London.
When Gropius moved to the US in 1937 to become professor of architecture at Harvard, Breuer joined him, soon becoming a professor too. Together they formed an architectural practice which began by building their own homes as two storey villas made from glass, natural wood and stone rubble. Commissions for other houses followed, but the practice dissolved in 1941, possibly because Gropius felt frustrated at working on such modest projects after his public commissions in Germany. The younger Breuer, by contrast, was enthused by the experimental possibilities of housing and was equally enthusiastic about teaching through which he advocated the principles of European modernism to students including Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph and Edward L. Barnes, all of whom later became important US architects.
In 1946, Breuer left Harvard and opened an office in New York where his first partner was the industrial designer Eliot Noyes. His first building to be completed after the War was the Geller House on Long Island, a spacious, airy wooden structure hailed as a “house of the future” by the press. Just as Breuer’s furniture expressed each element in distinctive forms, so did his houses, which articulated each structural detail and the designation of different areas for different activities, daytime and night time, for example. Breuer continued to work with combinations of glass, wood and stone rubble thereby imbuing his International Style structures with the warmth and naturalism of their surroundings. The work of this Hungarian-born, German-trained designer-turned-architect came to typify an affluent, enlightened style of mid-20th century East Coast residential architecture.
Although, Breuer concentrated on architecture for the rest of his career, he still designed furniture for occasional projects like the Geller House and the exhibition house he built and furnished in 1949 for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where Noyes had been a curator. For that project, he developed the innovative cut-out plywood MoMA Chair made from a single board.
The MoMA project rekindled interest in Breuer’s work. As well as dozens of commissions for private houses – mostly in his favourite H-plan and T-plan shapes and in the East Coast states of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey – he won the competition to design the 1953 UNESCO headquarters in Paris with Pier Luigi Nervi, the brilliant Italian structural engineer, and the French architect Bernard Zehrfuss. In the same year, Breuer designed the Bijenkorff department store in Rotterdam.
For these large public buildings Breuer abandoned the naturalistic wood and stone of his private houses to experiment with monumental concrete forms which he christened “concrete sculpture”. These experiments culminated in the mid-1960s in his grandiose structure for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which is still his chief legacy to the city where the once peripatetic Marcel Breuer continued to live until his death in 1981.
1920 Born in Pécs, south western Hungary.
1920 Wins a scholarship to study painting and sculpture at Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Leaves after a few weeks to work in an architect¡¦s office. Moves to Weimar, Germany to study at the Bauhaus.
1921 Becomes an apprentice in the Bauhaus furniture workshop where his first piece is the ornate African Chair.
1922 Designs the De Stijl-influenced Wood-slat chair.
1924 Leaves the Bauhaus for Paris, where he works for an architect.
1925 Accepts Walter Gropius¡¦ invitation to return to the new Bauhaus in Dessau as head of the furniture workshop. Starts to develop the innovative tubular steel Steel Club chair, later christened the Wassily Chair.
1927 Co-founds Standard-Möbel to manufacture and distribute his tubular steel furniture. Designs furniture for Erwin Piscator’s apartment.
1928 Quits the Bauhaus when Gropius resigns as director and sets up an architectural office in Berlin, but struggles to find work.
1931 Still scratching for architectural commissions, Breuer takes several months off to travel in southern Europe.
1932 Dividing his time between Hungary and Switzerland, Breuer starts developing aluminium furniture with which he will win a competition in 1933.
1934 The first aluminium pieces go into production.
1935 Breuer joins Gropius in London, where he designs plywood furniture for Isokon, a company owned by Jack Pritchard, and opens an architectural office with F.R.S. Yorke. Together they design the Gane Pavilion in Bristol which combines local stones and woods with International Style glass and metal.
1937 When Gropius leaves London to become architecture professor at Harvard, Breuer follows. He is given a professorship there and opens an architectural office with Gropius which begins by designing their own homes.
1941 Closes practise with Gropius, but they remain friends and continue teaching at Harvard together.
1946 Completes his first post-war building, the Geller House on Long Island, and opens an office in New York with Eliot Noyes as his partner. This office will design some 70 houses mostly on the East Coast including Breuer’s own.
1949 Having staged a touring exhibition of Breuer’s work in 1948, the Museum of Modern Art, New York commissions him to design a house in the museum garden. This commission revitalises Breuer’s career.
1953 Designs UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris with Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss.
1957 Begins work on lecture halls and residences for New York University.
1963 Starts a three year project to design the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
1970 Designs Armstrong Rubber Company headquarters in West Haven, Connecticut with Robert F. Gatje and starts work on the Australian Embassy in Paris as consulting architect to former assistant Harry Seidler.
1981 Marcel Breuer dies in New York.