One of the most significant figures to emerge from the Bauhaus, the architect and designer Marcel Breuer had a pivotal role in bringing the revered art school’s modernist visions to life. From his beginnings as a bright student to his expanding career as a young master at the school, his designs remain a celebrated symbol of the rise of the Bauhaus and the modern movement of the twentieth century. Marcel Breuer was most famous for his original and highly influential use of tubular steel in his designs. He ultimately extended beyond his Bauhaus roots, creating an independent name for himself and leaving behind a substantial and diverse architectural oeuvre towards the end of his prolific career.
A Young Master
Marcel Breuer was born in 1902 in Pécs, a small town in Hungary. He left at the age of eighteen in pursuit of an education in the arts. He enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna on a scholarship, only to find the school a disappointing experience. The young Breuer was captivated by modernism and yearning for the opportunity to learn from a hands-on approach. It was something he didn’t find during his time in Vienna. Upon hearing about the Bauhaus, he moved to Weimar, entering the newly established school as one of its youngest students.
Breuer was quick to prosper at the Bauhaus. His versatility and craft skills made him stand out. His time at the school marked the beginning of his long-standing career as a modernist architect and designer and had a large part in shaping his design philosophy. A particularly important role model for Breuer during this time was Walter Gropius. He was the director of the Bauhaus school, who remained a great influence on Breuer for the rest of his life.
In 1924 Breuer graduated with a Master’s degree in Architecture. After a brief period spent in Paris, he was appointed the head of the carpentry workshop at the Bauhaus, earning the title of young master. In the following decade of his tenure, his work majorly evolved under the umbrella of the Bauhaus. During these years Breuer brought his most famous furniture designs to life. At the same time, important figures such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and László Moholy-Nagy, who Breuer met and worked with, also taught at the school.
During his student years, under the influence of expressionism predominant at the Bauhaus at the time, Breuer designed the framework of the “African Chair”. Only a year later, his style shifted with a rising interest in the work of De Stijl. His “slatted” chair design from 1922 bears a striking resemblance to that of Gerrit Rietveld’s Red and Blue chair. However, by far his greatest shift in style and greatest innovation came with the use of tubular steel in his chair designs, namely in the form of the widely celebrated Wassily and Cesca chairs.
Steel – the Material for Modern Times
Inspired by the tubular steel handlebars of his Adler bicycle, Breuer envisioned the same kind of framework for his furniture. The first was Model B3 chair, later known as the Wassily Chair because of Kandinsky’s admiration of the design, for whom Breuer created a copy of the original. The chair was designed in 1925 with the revolutionary idea of bringing chrome furniture into the home. It was made possible by the development of a technique for seamless steel tubing by manufacturer Mannesmann. The chair combines both the principles of De Stijl and integral aspects of mass-production. Tubular steel is inexpensive, hygienic and easily produced on a large scale. It makes it an ideal material for affordable, industrially designed living for modern times.
Marcel Breuer went even further in his bent steel designs with the Cesca Chair (also called B32), named after his adopted daughter, Francesca. The cantilevered steel framework with a woven cane seat and backrest brought Breuer significant fame. The chair is widely considered one of the most important chair designs of the twentieth century. Since 1968, the chair has been produced by the Knoll group, nevertheless with no shortages of copies on the market. It remains one of his most recognizable designs.
In 1927, Breuer received the task to design part of the interior furnishings for the Weissenhof Estate. The famed exhibition of the Deutscher Werkbund proposed a new way of living. It was very much in keeping with Breuer’s own visions, which were certainly influenced by the prominent association.
Marcel Breuer & Walter Gropius
A year later, Breuer established his own architectural practice in Berlin, having left the Bauhaus. Until then, his architectural work remained in the background. His furniture designs gained the most recognition, as well as being a primary source of income. Almost all of his architectural designs were unbuilt by this stage. A series of relocation marked the next decade of his career – first to Budapest, then London, before finally settling in the United States in 1937. There, he joined his mentor, Gropius, in teaching architecture at Harvard GSD. Among their most famous students were I. M. Pei, Phillip Johnson and Paul Rudolph. They also collaborated on numerous architectural projects together, widely influencing the development of the modern movement in the States.
The John Hagerty House was born as the first commission of the iconic duo. With its severely austere functionalist aesthetic, it represents an early example of the International Style just emerging in the USA. Breuer himself was a pioneer of the International Style, which was embodied by many of his unrealized early works materialized in glass and steel. The numerous commissions he received in the USA gave him a platform to finally realize his ideas in the form of multiple residential buildings. The partnership between Breuer and Gropius didn’t last, with Breuer later relocating to New York City in 1945. There he established a practice within which he would work for the remainder of his career. The break symbolized the end of Breuer’s work in the shadow of his more famous mentor and the beginning of an independent era.
His office was highly successful, with a number of large architectural projects realized during this period. Besides residential buildings, he was commissioned with designing important public buildings. Most notable are the Whitney Museum in New York and the Headquarters of UNESCO in Paris. His architecture of the post-war period is characterized by his shift from the International Style to Brutalism, as a new expression of his exploration of structure. With the International Style closely associated with the impersonal capitalist culture, he moved his focus in the direction initiated by Le Corbusier, for which he ultimately remains remembered.
It would be fitting to end with a quote from Marcel Breuer, since there are few who can summarize better than the artist himself.
“Structure is not just a means to a solution. It is also a principle and a passion.”
Despite the varying influences which shaped his style within the sphere of modernism over the many decades of his career, Breuer’s emphasis on structure remains an integral quality in all of his work. His innovative steel furniture designs expose the underlying structure almost as a sculptural and defining element of the whole. Therein lies his fundamental approach to design – treating the framework of an object as the foremost element of the object itself, revealing its simplistic and functional beauty. Marcel Breuer’s designs rightfully live on as timeless icons; his contribution to the definition of the modern home rightfully earning him a place in design history.