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.