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Design Classics

Barcelona Chair, 1929

Designer: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Manufacturer: Knoll

Ludwig Mies, along with Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, was one of the avatars of 20th-century architecture. The son of a German stonemason, he added the “van der” and his mother's maiden name to distance himself from his working-class roots. He was a director of the famed Bauhaus design school until the Nazis shut it down in 1933. Then he emigrated to the United States, where he taught and practised architecture. He went on to design such modern monuments as the Seagram's Building in New York and its Toronto look-alike, the Toronto-Dominion Centre. He is famous for the minimalist manifesto “less is more.”

The Barcelona chair and ottoman were designed for the German pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. The temporary yet infinitely influential structure – with its uninterrupted flow of space, reflecting pool and walls of green marble, onyx and frosted glass – was a ceremonial building used “to receive a king, a dictator, an ambassador.” Mies thought a chair for such a purpose “had to seem elegant, costly, it had to be monumental ... you couldn't use a kitchen chair.”

Inspired by an Egyptian ceremonial stool, the chair is a sinuous welded and hand-polished x-shaped stainless steel frame with beefy leather straps that support tufted leather cushions (the original version was white leather) sewn from 40 individual leather panels. An overlooked fact: Mies worked on the chair with interior designer Lilly Reich – another example of a collaboration where the woman is a missing partner in design history!

Mies reported that a chair “is a very difficult object to design ... there are endless possibilities and many problems. It is almost easier to build a skyscraper than a good chair.” Few would argue that this is anything but a good chair and it has endured as long as Mies's buildings. With its modern materials and staggering amount of hand work, the Barcelona chair is generous in scale, refined, comfortable, opulent, modern and, in the best quality versions, expensive. It's informally formal, yet light on its feet.

National Post, February 23, 2006.