Marcel Breuer

Marcel Breuer in the Wasily armchair, circa 1928. Getty Images

Marcel Lajkó Breuer (1902-81) was born in the small town of Pécs, Hungary, the son of a doctor. Although little is known of his childhood, art seems to have played an important role in his parents’ life. In 1920 he won a scholarship to the Vienna Art Academy but, dissatisfied with its teaching, soon left. Hearing of Walter Gropius’ new experimental school, the Bauhaus, he moved instead to Weimar and enrolled as a student.

Founded in the aftermath of World War One, the Bauhaus changed for ever the way in which art is not only taught but understood.  It placed practical crafts on a par with the ‘fine’ arts, taught through a radical programme of making, and engaged with industry and mass-production, emphasising experiment and problem-solving.  

The Bauhaus Dessau 1926 by Walter Gropius. Now part of a Unesco World Heritage Site. Istock

Graduating in 1924, Breuer returned the following year as head of carpentry at the reopened Bauhaus at Dessau, where he stayed until 1928. It was during this period that he developed the tubular-steel chair – including the B3 (later named Wassily chair) inspired by bicycle construction and considered by many to be the single most important furniture design of the modern era. The royalties on the tubular steel furniture were to prove useful to Breuer after his departure from the Bauhaus in 1927 to set up his own office in Berlin. Projects such as the Harnischmacher House (1932), showcased Breuer’s radical approach to design, but his European career was to be short-lived. By 1935 it was evident that Bauhaus ideals were untenable in Germany and, at the suggestion of his mentor Walter Gropius, he left for London. A lively two years saw Breuer form a partnership with young architect F.R.S. Yorke, work with plywood furniture manufacturer Isokon, and together with furniture designs, complete interior and architectural commissions for P.E. Gane Ltd in Bristol. Breuer’s tenure in England saw a change in direction away from the tubular-steel furniture designs he had developed at the Bauhaus to the warmer potentials of wood and a softer take on modernism.  “Plywood ahoy!” he wrote in a letter to Gropius as he left Germany for England, anticipating the furniture designs he would produce for Isokon and Gane’s. 

Despite these achievements, it was clear to Breuer and Gropius that England could not provide the fertile ground they had hoped for their ideas and in 1937 the pair left for the United States.

There, their Harvard teaching posts and brief business partnership influenced a generation of architects. Breuer continued to design private houses but as the 1950s dawned, began to receive larger commissions. Perhaps his best known is the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, designed in 1954 with the French architect, Zahrfuss. During the course of 40 years, Breuer’s studio produced over 100 buildings and by the 1970s Breuer himself was lauded as one of the world’s foremost architects. He died in Manhattan aged 79.

Ken Stradling Collection