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Design Classics

Wassily Chair
(B3 Chair), 1925

Designer: Marcel Breuer
Manufacturer: Knoll International

The Hungarian-born architect and designer Marcel Breuer (1902 – 1981) intended to be a painter but grew frustrated by the course at the Vienna Academy. So he enrolled at the newly formed, and radically inspired, Bauhaus school in Weimar Germany. Like all students, he was required to study the full range of visual and design subjects. He subsequently landing in the furniture workshop. Although one of its most famous graduates, he had little patience with the intellectual side of Bauhaus training and said he preferred to just design “without having to philosophize about every move.” Breuer went on to be a prolific designer and architect and immigrated to the United States in 1937, where he taught at Harvard University and practiced architecture.

The story goes that Breuer’s inspiration for this chair was the lightness and strength he saw in his bicycle and a vision of “shiny and impeccable lines in space.” Breuer was also trying to create furniture for a new way of living. Even so, he drew on the historic model of folding camp chairs and their light wooden folding supports and floating planes that formed seat, back and arms. While the first versions of the chair had four separate legs, the final version with its runners gives the impression of being constructed from one continuous piece of tubing. To the chagrin of his mentor and Bauhaus director Walter Gropius, Breuer produced his chair not in the school’s shop but in a studio he started. It wasn’t until the chair was put back into production in the 1960s that Breuer named it after an early supporter, the painter Wassily Kandinsky.

The Wassily chair has appeared in so many modern home and office interiors that it’s impossible not to designate it an icon – if not almost a cliché. Yet as the first examples of tubular steel furniture Breuer’s chair must have been startling. It burst on the scene at a time when stuffy and overstuffed upholstered furniture was the norm, and the use of industrial materials like metal tubing would have shocked the bourgeoisie. Breuer described the Wassily chair as his “most extreme work, the least artistic, the most logical, the least ‘cosy’ and the most mechanical.” The popularity of the Wassily chair means it has been knocked off ad infinitum. The best version is manufactured by Knoll. While strict modernists crave it in black leather and chrome it is available in white (for the Miami Beach look) and, my personal favourite, a tobacco-coloured leather that softens the look.