Art Through Time: A Global View
Domestic Life Art: “Wassily” Chair
Marcel Breuer was trained, and later taught, at the Bauhaus in Germany.
A school and collective, the Bauhaus was founded in 1919 in Weimar by the architect Walter Gropius. It moved to Dessau in 1925 and, under new leadership, relocated once again in 1932, this time to Berlin. A year later it was closed down by the Nazi authorities. Despite its short life, the Bauhaus had long-lasting influence not just on Breuer personally, but also on the history of modern design.
The initial concept behind the Bauhaus was the unification of traditional fine arts and design through craft. By 1923, the focus of the school shifted to industry, and design for mass production became the guiding vision. At the time Breuer first designed the “Wassily” chair (named for friend and colleague Wassily Kandinsky), he was master of the Bauhaus carpentry workshop. Although the chair was produced and manufactured independent of this official post, it embodied many of the values of espoused by Bauhaus philosophy.
The chrome-plated “Wassily” chair was both useful and appealing to modern visual sensibilities. Breuer’s aesthetic was a minimalist one. He rejected ornamentation, instead focusing on functionality and quality. Based on the form of a traditional stuffed club chair, the “Wassily” is stripped down to its most essential elements—a tubular steel frame and stretched canvas supports for the sitter. Purportedly inspired by the tubular steel handlebars of his new bicycle, Breuer adopted the material for its strength, flexibility, and light weight. The regularity and simplicity of Breuer’s design made it both affordable and easy to reproduce in large quantities. For all these reasons, it found a home in domestic and institutional settings alike.
Alexandra Griffith Winton, Design Historian
“The Bauhaus began in Germany in 1924 to create objects that are purely functional, objects that are beautiful and yet functional, and crucially, mass-producible—these were the underlying goals of the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus was in a sense a kind of a good design movement. It was an attempt to strip away what they believed was unnecessary, to strip away sort of false formalities. It was this very conscious attempt to create this new society that was getting rid of all those bourgeois values and getting rid of these material things connected with the nineteenth-century house with its formal dining room and its library, and these divided spaces. Spaces became multi-purpose. And furniture became metal. And it became very lightweight. And furniture became multi-purpose. You had chairs that were designed specifically to be used in almost any type of space.
One of the most famous objects that came out of that era is Marcel Breuer’s “Wassily” chair. It was inspired by this extruded steel framework of his bicycle. He was riding his bicycle one day and he thought, This is a marvelous material. It’s strong, it’s flexible, it’s lightweight—we should make furniture using this material. So completely abandoning the traditional wood, he was able to create this chair, which is essentially as dematerialized as a chair can be while still being a chair, while still having some structure and some presence. It’s chrome-plated steel with these two very slender runners connected by a leather seat and a leather back. It is stripped down and as pared down as it can possibly be. This object, which is now a part of our cultural consciousness, was born of really quite radical ideas about living, about technology, about something as basic and eternal as the chair.”
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James-Chakraborty, Kathleen. Bauhaus Culture: From Weimar To The Cold War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
Masello, David. Architecture Without Rules: The Houses of Marcel Breuer and Herbert Beckhard. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Rybczynski, Witold. Home: A Short History of an Idea. London: Penguin, 1987.
Sparke, Penny. The Modern Interior. London: Reaktion, 2008.
“Wassily Chair.” In Collection. The Museum of Modern Art Web site. http://www.moma.org/collection.
Wilk, Christopher. Marcel Breuer: Furniture and Interiors. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1990.