Story: Catherine Coyle
A 20TH CENTURY ICON, Marcel Breuer revolutionised furniture design with his modernist approach to form and construction. A master of Germany’s Bauhaus school of design, he quickly became part of an avantgarde movement, having been taken under the wing of Gropius, Klee and Kandinsky at an exciting social and political period in post WW1 Europe. On the 25th anniversary of his death, Catherine Coyle celebrates the life of virtuoso Marcel Breuer.
A master of invention, Breuer’s creations altered the landscape of 20th century design. Love them or loathe them, his designs, both in the field of architecture and furniture, have left a lasting and much emulated legacy. Perhaps most widely known for his tubular steel framed furniture, Breuer preferred to think of himself an architect; a pioneer of bold, concrete buildings synonymous with the modernist movement. At the centre of his work ran a common philosophy; one that he remained committed to throughout his career. Embracing technology, his goal was to produce work – be that a chair or a home – that was affordable, attainable and democratic.
At a time when Europe occupied a precarious economic position, Hungarian-born Breuer embarked on his career at the German Bauhaus school where his education under masters like celebrated architect Walter Gropius and artists Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky truly began.
It wasn’t long before Breuer’s talents were recognised. Spending long hours in the carpentry workshop – it was the Bauhaus ethos that no formal classes were scheduled and students were encouraged to be experimental – he came up with his ‘Wassily’ chair, modelled on tubular steel bicycle handlebars and named after one of his mentors and, later, friend Wassily Kandinsky. One year later, in 1927, Breuer established Standard-Möbel, a manufacturing company that produced his steel furniture. His foresight in radical furniture design had paid off and the acceptance and acclaim given to those early creations marked a turning point in 20th century design.
His ‘Cesca’ chair (named after his mother), a cantilevered creation using his winning formula of simple materials like steel, leather and rattan to produce sound ergonomic designs, caused controversy in artistic circles. While Breuer was working on his Cesca chair, prolific designers Mies van der Rohe and Mart Stam were developing similar pieces. Breuer, however, was eventually awarded authorship of this design and the legal wrangling went some way to giving Breuer widespread recognition.
In 1928, Breuer left the Bauhaus school, along with its founder Gropius and many other noted figures and opened up his own architectural firm in Berlin. His attempts to make as big an impact on the architectural landscape of Europe as he had within furniture design proved more difficult than he had anticipated. He had little experience and no formal qualifications in this area and was initially prohibited from joining the Association of Architects in Germany. Struggling for commissions, he was confined to furniture and interior design work. Directional, forward-thinking figures of the era like Berlin theatre producer Erwin Piscator commissioned Breuer to design their interiors, identifying this visionary’s talents. With the endorsement of his old friend Gropius, Breuer was eventually permitted to join the Architects’ Association, a move that helped to compound his credibility during a difficult economic period. Post-war Germany was certainly bohemian and experimental in its approach to design but it was also an ailing economy with little disposable cash for such luxuries as pioneering architecture.
His first architectural commission came from industrialist Paul Harnischmacher for whom he created a modern, angular home perched on a hillside. Augmented with railings, stairs and decks, this principal design became Breuer’s trademark and can be seen across the landscape of North America.
His move to the USA was, again, at the invitation of Gropius, who was a professor of architecture at Harvard. Together, the old master and his protégé formed an architectural partnership, building residential homes with a distinct European modernist edge but their practice soon closed; Gropius aspiring to the larger public commissions he worked on in Germany. Leaving Harvard in 1946, Breuer established his own practice in New York, teaming up with industrial designer Eliot Noyes. It was here that Breuer found his stride, building an abundance of wooden, glass and stone structures emulated globally today.
In 1953, he won the competition to design the UNESCO headquarters in Paris with Pier Luigi Nervi and Berhard Zehrfuss, a monumental public commission that would see him suspend his signature natural wooden residential designs in favour of a new experimental phase with concrete.
These ‘concrete sculptures’ marked a new period in Breuer’s career. He went on to design a series of public buildings including churches, lecture halls, and, perhaps one of his best-known creations, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. With concrete, he was able to experiment with form and structure, creating gargantuan, imposing buildings with curious latticed facades that were dubbed ‘brutalistic’. Indeed, while there is much to celebrate in what became his adventurous signature style, there is also the negative impact of this form to consider.
Cumbernauld shopping centre, recently featured on TV programme Demolition, Sir Basil Spence’s brutalist vision that was Queen Elizabeth Square in Glasgow (based on Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles and demolished in the last decade) and the countless high rise blocks that dominate the city skyline often took their lead from the very best of modernist architecture from Breuer’s more enlightened Europe.
Taken out of context and with little foresight to locale, climate and materials, the influence of this brutalist epoch means that much of this style of mid-20th century architecture transported badly and suffers largely from being executed in the wrong place at the wrong time. If these huge monolithic complexes could be uprooted to inner London, for example, they would, by this point be highly sought-after and expensively-priced dream houses relished by young architects and designers, at a time when post WWII design is, once again, en vogue.
Nonetheless, his idealistic perspective and willingness to believe in his vision has left a legacy of 20th century classics, both in furniture and architecture design, and has placed him at the vanguard of a movement boasting Le Corbusier, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe among its champions.–CHD–
The only UK showing of Marcel Breuer — Design and Architecture, an exhibition of the Vitra Design Museum, was held at the Lighthouse, Scotland’s Centre for Architecture, Design and the City. Tel: +0141 221 6362, www. thelighthouse.co.uk
Article reproduced with permission from Homes & Interiors Scotland International Magazines Ltd.