Tuesday, 5 June 2007
The Barcelona Lounge Chair is a classic of 20th century modernist furniture design by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and his partner Lilly Reich.
Barcelona Chair History
Mies was commissioned by the German Government to design the German Pavilion at the Barcelona World Arts Fair to be held at Montjuic in Spain in 1929. The building itself, remarkably modern even by today's standards, must have looked positively futuristic to the Fair's visitors of the day. Built of glass, steel and three types of marble, its linear simplicity is characterized by great flowing expanses, utilizing unbroken planes of each material, juxtaposed with one another.
Having completed the design for the building, Mies and Lilly began work on the furniture for its interior. In an interview the year following the fair Mies said the following regarding chair design:
"The chair is a very difficult object. Everyone who has ever tried to make one knows that. There are endless possibilities and many problems - the chair has to be light, it has to be strong, it has to be comfortable. It is almost easier to build a skyscraper than a chair."
The exhibition was an occasion of international importance, attended by the Spanish Royal Family, namely Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg, as well as numerous government officials from around Europe. Mies was well aware of this significance and of the challenges that faced him when he set about designing the chair for the Pavilion, he commented at the time that this was to be "an important chair, a very elegant chair and costly. It had to be monumental. You couldn't just use a kitchen chair" Mies 1929.
The chair that he designed for the Pavilion is said to have been inspired by both the folding chairs of the Pharaohs and the X-shaped backless chairs of the Romans. This regal and formal lineage was quite fitting and was no doubt intentional, affording this modern design an intellectual and cultural weight that would have been all the more obvious in such a futuristic environment. The over-sized proportions and elegant form rendered the Barcelona Chairs more as sculptural objects in the gallery-like Pavilion. The clear articulation of the structural frame and the seat cushions as separate components, and the use of both traditional and modern materials where appropriate to their functional purpose, presage Mies' personal vision of International Style architecture in the United States.
Sadly, the chairs were not actually sat on by the visiting royals. However their impact on design itself and the modernist movement was profound.
As designer Victor Papanek pointed out, in about 1970, every young architect has a Barcelona Chair that he has scrimped and saved to buy. It is prominently placed in his home and was regarded as a personal treasure.
Materials and Manufacture
The originals pre-dated stainless steel and seamless (ground) welds so the legs had to be bolted together. The leather used in those first examples was pig skin, and the color of the chairs in the Pavilion was ivory. Today's Barcelona chair is not so very different. Mies re-designed the chair in 1950 three years after the death of Lilly Reich, making use of the newly developed material - stainless steel. This allowed the frame to be formed from a single piece of metal, and so it was that the bolts of the original were replaced by the smooth lines that we are familiar with today.
The Barcelona chair, sometimes referred to as the Pavilion chair, quickly gained a reputation as a modern classic. It went into commercial production almost immediately and has remained in production ever since.
Philosophically mid century modernists including Mies generally subscribed to the idea that modern furniture should be accessible to the masses, both financially and aesthetically. However the Barcelona chair is an exception to this rule. The materials and construction are too expensive, too labor intensive and therefore too costly to make it widely accessible, and furthermore its design lineage and associations with royalty gave it an instant cache that has grown rather than diminished with time, and therefore has endeared itself to the rich and famous and the wealthy rather than to the masses.
The chair today
The rest of the Barcelona range was not designed by Mies, but true to his design, they use the same style legs, and the same type of quilted and piped leather upholstery. The high quality leather, (cow rather than pig skin today) is hand sewn, individually stitched and piped, requiring some 28 hours of highly skilled labor to produce.
As an established modern furniture design classic the chair and its companion pieces the Barcelona ottoman and table are still popular today, manufactured under license by Knoll, but available from dozens of unlicensed manufacturers - producing reproductions that vary greatly in accuracy and quality. The chair can often be found in lobby settings.