Tubular steel chairs are such a part of office furniture these days that we rather take them for granted. But their invention, less than 100 years ago, was an inspirational design by an inspirational designer. Marcel Breuer (1902-81) conceived the idea for making furniture from tubular steel while riding a bike. He reckoned that if steel tubes were strong enough to support a cyclist, they’d be strong enough to support a sitter. He had some extruded tubes made up by a local manufacturer, pre-bent until he worked out how to do this himself. In 1925, he designed what has now become known as the Wassily Chair, and showed it at the Bauhaus, where he was an apprentice. Kandinsky was most appreciative of this chair, which is why a firm in the ’60s named it after him. This appreciation gave Breuer the confidence to carry on tubing.
A couple of years later, he came up with an idea for a cantilevered chair, removing the need for four legs. The Dutch designer Mart Stam simultaneously came up with this idea – both men of course claimed that the other had pinched his idea…
For the next few years, Breuer continued to design tubular furniture, as well as teach at the Bauhaus and design buildings and interiors. In ’32 he was invited to redesign the shop of Wohnbedarf, and thus began his career designing furniture for the company.
By 1933, his mentor Walter Gropius had found living in Germany not just intolerable but hazardous, and had escaped to Britain. Two years later, Breuer followed his example and arrived in London. Here he was welcomed by, inter alia, Jack ‘Plywood‘ Pritchard, the power behind Isokon. Breuer designed various pieces of furniture for Isokon until his departure – again following Gropius – to the United States in 1937.
This particular chair has the Breuer hallmarks of cantilevered tubular steel legs/ arms. These are bolted onto a curved l-section steel frame. The seat is supported by 16 rows of flattened coil springs. The chair was made in Switzerland by Embru for Wohnbedarf. It was designed not by Breuer, but (my thanks to Simon Andrews of Christie’s for this), by Werner Max Moser, co-founder of Wohnbedarf.
Werner Max Moser (1896 – 1970) was a Swiss architect who, like Breuer and le Corbusier, believed in a system of architecture and design integrated with socio-economic politics. As well as setting-up Wohnbedarf, and designing some furniture for it, he was one of the founders of the Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne, or CIAM.
“Jack and Molly Pritchard were great friends of my mum’s (their boys and me and my sisters were involved in the early days of the Theta Sailing Club, which they set up on the Norfolk Broads) and when I first married in 1959, Jack gave us, as a rather rusty wedding present, the chair, which we restored later when I came to Cambridge and married my second husband. The metal was re-chromed, the arms re-laquered, the seat remade with leather cover, and at that stage , 1966-7 springs intact. We were very proud of it, but unfortunately family life with 6 children took its toll.”
The chair has distinctive flattened springs. The problem with these springs is that they are inclined to brittleness, and over 70 years of hard use quite a few have broken: the flattened spring was not a great idea. However, replacing them with, say, a Pirelli upholstery system would be deleterious to the integrity of the chair. The challenge is how to fix them – they are outside the normal scope of springs manufacturers.
Bridget Gillies, Archives and Special Collections Assistant at the UEA, unearthed this photo, taken in the Pritchard’s roof flat at Lawn Road Flats (Photographer: Edith Tudor-Hart. Copyright: W. Suschitzky).
Further reading/ links:
- Guardian article on Jonathan Pritchard (son of Jack and Molly)
- The Pritchard Papers
- M. Droste and M. Ludwig, Marcel Breuer Design (Cologne, 1992)
- C. Wilk, Marcel Breuer: Furniture and Interiors (London, 1981)
- Further photos on Flickr