Depending on your perspective, the Bauhaus Movement (1919-1933) either gave birth to, or nourished modern design, a design style recognised by its clean, simple lines and truth to materials.
Le Corbusier LC3, 1928
Architect and designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was a well known exponent of International Style modernism. His refined philosophy had become a catch phrase throughout C20th design. Mies van der Rohe's early architectural career in Berlin included training in Bruno Paul’s office in 1905-7 and in Peter Behrens’ office in 1908-11 (with co-workers Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius). He opened his own practice in Berlin in 1913 and developed architecture that used the pure formalism of the International Style.
Bauhaus Academy opened in 1919, and soon had a popular furniture workshop; it created objects that borrowed from the designs of their predecessors. However they had more front-line materials and their production techniques were improved. Their furniture was made from plywood forms, glass slabs, steel tubing and geometric shapes, increasing the influence of Bauhaus and spreading it out from Germany.
The Chair with Colourful Woven Seat (1921) was designed by Marcel Breuer and Gunta Stölzl. Though built of wood and quite traditional in form, the woven seat and back showed the influence of De Stijl's bold primary-colours.
Under Marcel Breuer’s leadership from 1924-8, the workshop re-thought the crux of furniture, often seeking to reduce conventional forms to their minimal state. Here are the classic chairs of the Bauhaus movement in his era:
From 1926-32 Mies van der Rohe was vice president of the Deutsche Werkbund, designers and architects whose main aim was the development of well-designed, mass-producible architecture and home objects via an alliance of art and industry. In 1927 the Werkbund presented an exhibition that included the Weissenhof Housing Estate, experimental blocks of flats in Stuttgart, designed by Le Corbusier.
Under Mies van der Rohe's direction, some young architects who collaborated on the project designed furniture for the flats. A graceful, elegant and well proportioned MR chair, developed from a 1924 design for a cantilevered chair by Mart Stam, was introduced by Mies van der Rohe at the 1927 Stuttgart Exhibition. Note the tubular steel and cane seat, and note the armless design.
The Model B3 Chair was designed by Marcel Breuer (1925) while he was the head of the cabinet-making workshop at Bauhaus, Dessau. Inspired by the sleek body of Breuer’s bicycle, the Model B3 featured a steel tubular structure finished in bright chrome, while the seat and back were covered by strong leather strips. Note the chair was not designed for the non-objective painter Wassily Kandinsky who was also on Bauhaus’ staff. Kandinsky had simply admired the final design, so Breuer built a copy for his friend's rooms. Inspired, Breuer continued to experiment with metal furniture, ultimately creating lightweight, mass-producible chairs, some used in the Dessau building theatre.
The foldable design of another Breuer chair, the D4, succeeded with all audiences in 1927. Breuer’s fully ergonomic design led it to be one of the most iconic Bauhaus furniture pieces to have hit the market then. The tubular design with the canvas seat and back ensured sturdiness and comfort, an innovative combination.
Breuer folding D4 chair, 1927
While an architect, Le Corbusier’s passion for furniture design was unparalleled. Out of all his chairs, the LC3 armchair (1928) was the most famous one. The thick design of the chair offered modularity with the cushions, sleek, comfortable and sophisticated.
The Barcelona Chair was designed by architect Mies van der Rohe, in collaboration with architect Lilly Reich. This Bauhaus piece whose impact continued because of the minimalist design, chrome and black aesthetic, created for the Barcelona International Exposition (1929). It featured 2 slim rectangular cushions over a light, stainless-steel frame. The chair frame was initially designed to be bolted together, but it was redesigned using stainless steel, allowing it to be formed from a seamless piece of metal.
Mies van der Rohe, Barcelona, 1929
The Bauhaus was forced to close down in 1933 under Nazi pressure. The lecturers and students left for other countries as soon as they could, and continued to spread their philosophies and skills in the USA, UK and the rest of the world. Mies van der Rohe, last director of the Bauhaus, left Germany for America where he headed the Architecture Faculty at Illinois Institute of Technology.
*Now a new question (for me) is: how did Finland’s famous architect and a key figure of mid-century Modernism Alvar Aalto (1898–1976) make his international mark in furniture? How closely linked to Bauhaus was he?
Aalto studied with Josef Hoffmann & Wiener Werkstätte, and was inspired by Eliel Saarinen and by Gebrüder Thonet. In the late 1920s and 1930s he, working closely with his designer-wife Aino Aalto, also focusing much of her energy on furniture design. His furniture designs were a natural extension of his architectural thinking, using wood (mainly Finnish birch) and becoming the first chair designer to use the cantilever principle.
The Paimio Chair (1932) was named after the Paimio T.B Hospice in SW Finland. The chair was designed by Aalto to furnish the Hospice, particularly for sitting T.B patients. The chair was first shown to the public at an exhibition held in conjunction with the Nordic Building Forum in Helsinki in 1932. The experimentation in bent plywood chairs, especially the Paimio chair and Model 60 stacking stool (1933), was very significant. The armrests and legs were made by bending thin slats of solid timber to shape in a mould, at first in beech. The beech was replaced by birch in 1934 so the chair could be marketed as truly Finnish.