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 significant were the private houses he designed on the post-war U.S. East Coast and the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.
Early Career: The Bauhaus Years
Born in Pécs, a city in south western Hungary, in 1902, Breuer attended high school and subsequently won a scholarship to study art at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1920. Frustrated by the course, Breuer left to work in a Viennese architect's office until a friend suggested that he apply to the newly founded Bauhaus 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 the summer of 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 Dutch aesthetic of De Stijl.
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’. His move to Paris was not as fruitful as Breuer had hoped, and when Gropius invited him to run the furniture workshop at the new Bauhaus in Dessau, Breuer agreed.
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 product of Breuer's years of experimentation 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.’
Mid-Career: A Designer-turned-Architect
Breuer co-founded the company Standard-Möbel to manufacture his tubular steel furniture, although running it proved much trickier than he had initially thought. Breuer also designed furniture for the Bauhaus 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, Breuer closed his office to travel in Southern Europe, before returning to Budapest in 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 facing financial struggles and decided to join Gropius in London in 1935.
On arrival in London, he was asked to design furniture for Isokon, alias the Isometric Unit Construction Company. Breuer told 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 instead in plywood instead.
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.
When Gropius moved to the U.S. in 1937 to become Professor of Architecture at Harvard University, Breuer joined him, and also became a professor. Together they formed an architectural practice beginning 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, perhaps 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 what he advocated as 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 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 through 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 characterise an affluent, enlightened style of mid-20th century East Coast U.S. residential architecture.
Although Breuer concentrated on architecture for the rest of his career, he still designed furniture for occasional projects such as 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. In addition to 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 – Breuer won a 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 also 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 with 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 nomadic Marcel Breuer continued to live, until his death in 1981.
(Portrait) Breuer seated in Wassily Chair. Photo: Syracuse University Libraries
Construction Photograph, Interior of Conference Building. Photo: Syracuse University Libraries
B3 (Wassily) Chair designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925. Photo: Design Museum Collection
Cesca armchair (model B32) designed by Marcel Breuer in 1928. Photo: Design Museum Collection
Met Breuer, Whitney Museum of American Art
Detail of South Elevation, Ford House. Photo: Syracuse University Libraries
Low Table designed by Marcel Breuer in 1936. Photo: Design Museum Collection
Born in Pécs, south western Hungary.
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.
Becomes an apprentice in the Bauhaus furniture workshop where his first piece is the ornate African Chair.
Designs the De Stijl-influenced Wood-Slat chair.
Leaves the Bauhaus for Paris, where he works for an architect.
Accepts Walter Gropius's 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 after the painter and Bauhaus teacher, Wassily Kandinsky.
Co-founds Standard-Möbel to manufacture and distribute his tubular steel furniture. Designs furniture for Erwin Piscator's apartment.
Quits the Bauhaus when Gropius resigns as director and sets up an architectural office in Berlin, but struggles to find work.
Still searching for architectural commissions, Breuer takes several months off to travel in southern Europe.
Dividing his time between Hungary and Switzerland, Breuer starts developing aluminium furniture with which he will win a competition in 1933.
The first aluminium pieces go into production.
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.
When Gropius leaves London to become an 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.
Closes practise with Gropius, but they remain friends and continue teaching at Harvard together.
Completes his first post-war building, the Geller House in 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.
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.
Designs UNESCO's headquarters in Paris with Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss.
Begins work on lecture halls and residences for New York University.
Starts a three year project to design the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
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.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts a retrospective of Breuer's work, the first time the museum devoted to a living architect. The exhibition travels to Paris and Berlin.
Retires from professional practice.
Marcel Breuer dies in New York.
The Vitra Design Museum host a comprehensive retrospective of Breuer's oeuvre which tours across the world to Belgium, Italy, Spain, UK, Hungary, USA, Austria, Denmark and France over a 10 year period.
Syracuse University’s Special Collections Research Centre received the first of two National Endowment for the Humanities grants to create a digital repository for Breuer’s archive, which is now fully accessible online.
Marcel Breuer, Architect: The Career and the Buildings
Author: Isabelle Hyman
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams (2001)
In the Design Museum Collection
Low Table designed by Marcel Breuer in 1936. Manufactured by Isokon in the United Kingdom.
Laminated beech plywood
H 350 x W 610 x D 450 mm
B3 (Wassily) Chair designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925. Manufactured by Knoll International in the United States of America.
Chromium-plated tubular steel frame, leather seating.
H 730 x W 770 x D 700 mm
Cesca armchair (model B32) designed by Marcel Breuer in 1928. Manufactured by Gebrüder Thonet in Austria.
Chrome-plated tubular steel, wood, and cane
H 800 x W 600 x D 600 mm
Revealing Marcel Breuer's Masterpiece of Modernist Architecture
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