Hungarian-American designer Marcel Breuer was the first craftsman to ever work with tubular steel in conjunction with textiles. He gave the world a chair concept that could not be remade, effectively inventing the proverbial design wheel once again. His legacy affected many present artists and a lot of his contemporary colleagues at the Bauhaus, where he made his first steps.
Personal and professional background
Marcel Lajos Breuer (“Lajkó” to friends and family) was born in the Austro-Hungarian city of Pécs, which still stands and has grown to become the fifth largest city in Hungary. Not much is publicly known about his family history, but we do know that he became the Bauhaus’ youngest student at the age of 18, under the wing of none other than Walter Gropius, its founder and patriarch.
His professional career starts at this point in 1920. After all, like we’ve seen before with other artists, the ability to innovate with passion and calling is decisive into becoming a celebrated artist, even when you’re a student. Breuer is famous for his affinity with steel, fabrics, and glass, but he started working (and learning) at a place that included neither of these elements.
The carpentry shop and beyond
Gropius quickly appointed Breuer as the head of the carpentry, and he worked there for four years. His talent became apparent from day one, and he marveled many colleagues and professors with his ideas, but the more he triumphed, the more he moved onto the next thing. His early Bauhaus years led him to discover concrete, which is also a material that’s highly associated with his work. However, what he learned at the carpentry department would stay with him to later show on his smaller house designs which had an emphasis on wood, brick, and other homely elements.
Breuer was not universally loved, for many Bauhaus giants he was just a young dreamer, one who had never really left the carpentry department. Ludwig Mies, Lilly Reich, Le Corbusier, and others didn’t really see him as an equal. However, he would successfully incorporate their particular vision and talents into his own work, even surpassing them in various regards, according to some opinions.
A legacy of influential concepts and works
Breuer’s Wassily chair of 1927 would grow to become his most iconic design. It should have been called the first Breuer chair, but an Italian manufacturer began marketing the object with the name “Wassily” because Breuer had gifted a prototype to the master Russian painter, Wassily Kandinsky.
Furniture wise, Breuer’s work with tubular steel produced the prototype for most of the steel bases that standard dining chairs use today. The Wassily chair itself is as famous a design as the Aluminum Office Chair, for example, and its marriage with soft textiles achieved a level of comfort and innovation that was unprecedented without the use of actual upholstery.
He experimented with other materials, always searching for an unknown figure of design. His 1921 African chair is a testament to his love for wood as much as his 1923 Lady’s Dressing Table is a testament to his love for newer and better ways to make furniture. Many people consider Breuer to be too much of a form-over-function designer, but that is highly debatable and reductionist, at best.
Breuer moved to the United States in 1937, and he would remain there until his death in 1981. 79 years old and completely in love with New York City. While he delved in the creation of a myriad of furniture items, from chairs to tables to dressers and cabinets, he also started realizing his architectural projects, many of which survive today in the United States. As an architect, Breuer is considered to be an influential pioneer of the International Style but also the architectural subgenre called Brutalism, which emphasizes the use of concrete structures to create sleek, unadorned monoliths.