During the 1920s, Bauhaus designer and architect Marcel Breuer created numerous furniture designs which have today become classics that are widely used by interior designers for both home and corporate interiors.
Breuer’s innovation was to use bent tubular steel in the creation of furniture. At this time, using tubular steel for furniture was a revolutionary idea. Breuer had been inspired by his familiar bicycle handlebars, and using bent tubular steel was feasible for the first time because German steel manufacturer Mannesmann was able to refine the process of making seamless steel tubing.
As he said: If you can bend a tube into a handlebar, why can’t it be bent into furniture?” The result was a piece of furniture that was light-weight, functional and attractive. Because it was inexpensive to mass produce, it fulfilled both the social and aesthetic ideals of the modernist movement.
Although Breuer created many enduring chair designs, the Breuer Chair usually refers to the Cesca Chair which he created in 1928, and later named after his daughter Francesca. The innovative design of the Cesca Chair was its stylish cantilever form using the tubular steel structure and wood and cane seat and back.
But the Cesca Chair was not Breuer’s first breakthrough in modern furniture design – that honor belongs to the classic Model B3 chair, later named the Wassily Chair in honor of his Breuer’s friend, the artist Wassily Kandinsky.
Both the Cesca and Wassily Chairs have been in production since the late 1920s. The trademark name rights for both the Cesca Chair and the Wassily Chair are owned by Knoll, a company founded by Hans G. Knoll in 1938 in New York. The Knoll Group still produces several Breuer furniture designs, and in particular two of his classic designs, the Cesca Chair and the Wassily Chair. Reproduction chairs are also produced by other manufacturers around the world, who are using different names to market the furniture.
The Wassily chairs available today through Knoll have the following specifications: The dimensions of the chair are 31 inches wide x 27 1.2 inches deep x 29 inches high, with a seat height of 16 ½ inches. The seat surface is thick cowhide leather upholstery available in black, light brown or white beige.
Breuer’s next break-through design, after the Wassily Chair, was the Cesca Chair. The B5 Chair design was meant to be “a dramatic antidote to the overstuffed seating of the Edwardian era.”
A true cantilever design, the Cesca chair has no legs at the rear, and it relies for support on the tensile properties of steel tubing. Breuer’s brilliant idea was to use non-reinforced steel tubing, thereby creating a free-swinging chair that approached his ideal of “sitting on columns of air.”
This chair was Breuer’s greatest financial success and although radical for its time, today it seems logical – both delicate and strong. A large number of companies have produced this extremely popular design, so it can be difficult to select the “official” manufacturers of the Cesca Chair, and there have many excellent reproductions, but there have been three companies that worked directly with Breuer in the production of the Cesca Chair.
Thonet was the first, beginning in 1927, and until World War II. During the 1950s, Dino Gavina, a furniture manufacturer in Foligno, Italy, started making them with Breuer’s participation, Then during the 1960s, Gavina was bought by Knoll, who are today the only makers of authentic “Cesca” chairs.
When purchasing a Cesca Chair, there are some details to look at that differentiate a high quality Cesca chair from a poorly reproduced one: 1) the front edge of the wooden seat should curve down slightly with the downward sweep of the tubing; 2) the tube ends should be continuous with the tubes (no seam between tube and cap); and 3) the bends in the tubing should retain a constant radius and not flatten out a bit as it curves The Knoll Cesca Chair is available in both an armless and arm chair version.
After leaving the Bauhaus, Breuer continued his experiments with furniture design and worked briefly for the Isokon Company in Britain. His design for the reclining Isokon Chair was influenced by Alvar Aalto who was working with molded wood in Finland at the same time. Interestingly, Alvar Aalto, had himself been inspired by Breuer’s tubular steel furniture of the 1920s.
In 1935, when Breuer arrived in London to design furniture for Isokon, he had planned to continue his work using tubular steel. However, the owner of Isokon, Jack Pritchard insisted that Breuer should work in wood instead of metal, and preferably plywood. Pritchard had former experience in the plywood business which led him to begin a furniture company. When the former director of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius arrived in London in 1935, this solidified his plans. He became Isolkon’s Controller of Design and it was he that suggested to Pritchard to hire Breuer, the former Master of the carpentry workshop at the Bauhaus, as his designer.
The result was the design of a superb five-piece set that included an armchair, chaise lounge, and a nest of tables, that are now viewed as landmarks in 20th century furniture design.
Although the company produced furniture by several designers it was the designs of Breuer that eventually gave Isokon an international fame. Isokon’s designs of the 30s have endured into the present and are among the most important and original furniture designs of the 20th century.
All of these chair designs — the Cesca, the Wassily, and the Isokon Chairs — have remained classics since they were created during the early 20th century, and they continue to remain elegant and enduring addtions to any home or office environment.