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Marcel Breuer – and his designs that have lived for 90 years and counting

Marcel Breuer/Cantilever Chair

Breuer was a student of the Bauhaus school and later furniture master before he followed his mentor Walter Gropius (director of the Bauhaus School) to teach in America at Harvard’s School of Design. The Bauhaus school was known for its radical education system where Gropius penned the Bauhaus Manifesto of 1919 to his first batch of students in which he quoted, “Together let us desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the future.”

The Bauhaus School is often referenced to as a school where it questioned its students on how the new world could be built or designed, encouraging guidance rather than the ordinary hand-held teaching. Bauhaus itself is known as a frivolous genre, attributed to classes where the Bauhaus students danced outdoors barefooted with music, put on masks of geometric shapes and held shows that had no relativity to design whatsoever. And yet, it posed the equivalent of the semicolon in the design world.

Instead of capturing what the future may look like, I believe Breuer captured the essence of ‘what could be’.

“Structure is not just means to a solution. It is also a principle and a passion.” – Marcel Breuer

Wassily Chair (LEFT) Cesca Chair(Right)

A common feature of Breuer’s furniture design and architecture is the ‘floating’ element. Both the Wassily Chair and Cesca Chair look as if they are floating on air, with its front legs leading up to the backrest of the chair in one fluid movement. Breuer minimized the form of his chairs as much as possible, coming up with the tubular steel method after seeing Thonet’s design of bentwood furniture. This design intention of restructuring form to create clean, curvilinear lines can be seen in both his furniture and architecture.

For example, Breuer’s pitch for the Whitney Museum of American Art started off with an almost pointless, but simple question. “What should a museum look like, a museum in Manhattan? It should transform the vitality of the street into the sincerity and profundity of art.”

Whitney Museum of American Art

Moat-Like Entrance of the Museum

The front entrance of the Whitney Museum of American Art, facing the street imitates the cantilevered look of perhaps, the Wassily Chair, putting into the effect that same “floating” appearance. At the time, most architects chose to use recessed shadows to off put this same floating element, but Breuer went as far as to break up the bulky form of the granite building with trapezoidal windows on both sides of the museum that faced outwards towards the streets of Manhattan, scattered here and there. This in turn, animated the surface, and the ‘moat-like’ entrance created a sense of grand welcome into the building, even though the museum was far from luxuriously ornamented.

Whitney Museum of American Art Interior

Breuer’s work strayed far from luxurious decorations and ornaments. Instead, he was purposeful with his choice of materials and intentionally left imprints of artistry into his work. The walls of the Whitney Museum for example, had traces of wood grain that was used to mould the concrete. The seams between the concrete panels were also left visible, instead of the grand white boxes that you would normally see in museums of today. I believe he did this with the intention of minimalizing the background or the architecture of the Whitney Museum as much as possible, and did his best to bring the similar senses and textures we are used to in city life/streets into the museum itself, so that as the guests enter the museum there is no inherent disturbance in the direct experience of the artwork, other than the sense of entering a new space.

Dining Room with Cesca Chairs

It is so interesting that Breuer’s works still challenge the norms of what we experience even today. For example, Breuer deliberately chose the combination of wood and bronze for the museum’s staircase rails as they would acquire a patina over time. He was very much interested in the contrasts of materiality, in which can be seen in almost all his cantilever chairs with the glossy, chrome sheen of the tubular steel frame versus the hand-made rattan backrests, paired with a wooden frame that would obviously gain a patina over time as well. Almost as if putting together, side by side the work of advanced technology and the work of craftsmanship. The Cesca chair is a good example of this. It was named after Breuer’s adopted daughter, Francessa and till today, is still one of the most iconic chairs.

Wassily Chair in the Living Room

The Wassily chair on the other hand, was modelled after the traditional club chairs that were originally made of leather for traditional gentlemen lounges and clubs. Again, Breuer took the form of the club chair, minimalized it as much as possible and added to it fabrics that were held by tension so that the steel frame itself would be visible from the outside. He did this purposefully, to re-create the ‘floating’ element to an otherwise originally very large, bulky chair.

Breuer’s entire body of work, both architecture and furniture I feel, pose to the design world one half of a sentence and urges the second half to be continued. It is a purposeful question mark, the possibility of ‘what could be’.


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