How a Simple, Bauhaus-Designed Chair Ended Up Everywhere Over the Past 100 Years

If you don’t believe chairs can be art, you’ll have to take it up with the cura­tors, gal­lerists, col­lec­tors, archi­tects, and design­ers around the world who spend their lives obsess­ing over chair design. Every major muse­um has a fur­ni­ture col­lec­tion, and every col­lec­tion dis­play­ing fur­ni­ture gives spe­cial pride of place to the rad­i­cal inno­va­tions of mod­ernist chairs, from ear­ly arti­san cre­ations of the Bauhaus to mass-pro­duced mid-cen­tu­ry chairs of leg­end. Chairs are sta­tus sym­bols, art objects, and phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tions of leisure, pow­er, and repose.

Who could for­get Charles and Ray Eames’ icon­ic lounge chair, Arne Jacob­sen’s “Egg,” the ele­gant­ly sim­ple side chairs of Eero Saari­nen and Charles Eames, or even the more recent cor­ner office sta­ple, the Aeron Chair — the Her­man Miller orig­i­nal that has been part of the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion since 1992? “In chairs more than in any oth­er object, human beings are the unit of mea­sure,” says Muse­um of Mod­ern Art cura­tor Pao­la Antonel­li, “and design­ers are forced to walk a line between stan­dard­iza­tion and per­son­al­iza­tion.”

Artist Mar­cel Breuer, a Bauhaus design­er, archi­tect, and instruc­tor, applied more than his share of inno­v­a­tive ideas to a series of chairs and tables designed and built in the 1920s and 30s. The most icon­ic of these, from a design per­spec­tive, may be the “Wass­i­ly,” a club chair-shaped con­trap­tion made of steel tub­ing and can­vas straps. (The chair acquired the name because Breuer’s Bauhaus col­league Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky so admired it.) One rarely encoun­ters this chair out­side the envi­rons of upscale fur­ni­ture gal­leries and the fin­er homes and wait­ing rooms.

Breuer’s Cesca, how­ev­er, the Wass­i­ly’s small­er, more util­i­tar­i­an cousin from 1928, seems to show up all over the place. Also called the B32 (with an arm­chair ver­sion called the B64), the Cesca’s one-piece, steel tube design was, like Breuer’s full line of Bauhaus fur­ni­ture, inspired by his exper­i­ments in bike-build­ing and inter­est in “mass pro­duc­tion and stan­dard­iza­tion,” he said. Unlike the Wass­i­ly, which might set you back around $3,300 for a qual­i­ty repro­duc­tion, a Cesca comes in at around 1/10th the price, and seems ubiq­ui­tous, the Vox video above points out.

No, it’s still not cheap, but Breuer’s rat­tan chair design is wide­ly beloved and copied. “The can­tilevered cane-and-chrome chair is all over the place,” Vox writes, “in trendy homes, in movies and on TV shows, even tat­tooed on peo­ple’s bod­ies.… [This] some­what unas­sum­ing two-legged chair is the real­iza­tion of a man­i­festo’s worth of utopi­an ideals about design and func­tion­al­i­ty.” It sat­is­fies the school’s brief, that is to say, for the util­i­tar­i­an as utopi­an, as Breuer him­self lat­er com­ment­ed on his design:

I already had the con­cept of span­ning the seat with fab­ric in ten­sion as a sub­sti­tute for thick uphol­stery. I also want­ed a frame that would be resilient and elas­tic [as well as] achieve trans­paren­cy of forms to attain both visu­al and phys­i­cal light­ness.… I con­sid­ered such pol­ished and curved lines not only sym­bol­ic of our mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy, but actu­al­ly tech­nol­o­gy itself.

Learn more about the prac­ti­cal, com­fort­able, beau­ty of the Cesca — and the ideals of the Bauhaus — in the video at the top. Learn more about the chair’s design­er, Mar­cel Breuer, in this online MoMA mono­graph by Christo­pher Wilk.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How the Icon­ic Eames Lounge Chair Is Made, From Start to Fin­ish

Down­load Orig­i­nal Bauhaus Books & Jour­nals for Free: A Dig­i­tal Cel­e­bra­tion of the Found­ing of the Bauhaus School 100 Years Ago

The Women of the Bauhaus: See Hip, Avant-Garde Pho­tographs of Female Stu­dents & Instruc­tors at the Famous Art School

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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