B 3, Wassily

Marcel Breuer

Design: 1925
Production: 1926 - 7
Manufacturer: Standard Möbel Lengyel & Co., Berlin
Size: 72.5 x 76.5 x 69.5; seat height 43 cms
Material: cold bent, nickel-plated tubular steel; polished-yarn fabric

Steel tubing was first used for hospital furniture as of about 1890, for car seats by Czech manufacturer Tatra starting in 1919, and for airplane seats in the Fokker plants as of 1924. It was first introduced to home furnishings with Breuer’s steel club armchair, which marked an aesthetic turning point in furniture production as well as the start of an important branch of industry. Although the chair was not a direct product of the Bauhaus workshops, its history is a perfect example of the spirit underlying this influential institution. For Bauhaus followers, industrial production was “ the most modern means of design,”1 as Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, wrote in 1923 – and thus its economic and aesthetic model. The choice of material and construction clearly place “B 3” in an industrial context that Breuer expected would lend living a more functional aspect: “This metal furniture is to be nothing more than a necessary device for modern-day living.”2
Breuer’s enthusiasm with the stability of his newly procured Adler bicycle gave him the idea of using tubular steel to make furniture. At that time, he was the director of the Bauhaus wood workshop in Dessau. He first turned to the bicycle manufacturer in 1925 in the hope of realizing his idea. However, Adler was not interested in furniture production. He then commissioned Mannesmann, the company which had developed the seamless cold-draw process for tubular steel in 1885–6, to bend the necessary components into the proper shape. Subsequently, he employed the services of a plumber and collaborated with him in building the first prototypes. In the same year – perhaps a historical coincidence – Le Corbusier presented a staircase made of tubular steel in the Pavillon de I’Esprit Nouveau in Paris, a staircase that was built “like a bicycle frame.”3 The most important innovation of Breuer’s design lay in reducing the basic design of a heavy club armchair to a light frame made of welded steel tubes. The “B 3” also reveals the influence that Gerrit Rietveld’s furniture had on Marcel Breuer’s Bauhaus designs, as the position of the seat and backrest clearly evokes Rietveld’s “Roodblauwe stoel.” To a far greater extent than with wood structures, the reflective nickel-plated surfaces of the steel tubes rendered the construction transparent, an effect further enhanced by reducing the surfaces to thin lengths of fabric. Breuer’s ideal, which he formulated in a film from 1926, was to make sitters think they were sitting on “springy columns of air.”4 The taut material prevents the user from coming in contact with the cold steel parts of the complex frame, and, in addition, forms an appealing contrast to the metal. In deciding upon the upholstery, which was to mirror the shine of the tubular steel, Breuer first considered a horsehair weave, which proved to be too expensive and too complicated to work with. Furthermore, he discovered that it was unstable, as the loops around the steel tubes broke easily. Finally, socalled “Eisengarn” was developed in keeping with Breuer’s concept. This material was used in many subsequent designs, such as the “B 35.” In what is presumably the first version, known only from a photograph, the welded frame of the tubular steel chair had four separate legs and the backrest was shaped like an upright U. The next version was sold as the “B 3” by Standard Möbel, a company founded by Breuer, Kálmán Lengyel, and Anton Lorenz in 1926 to market Breuer’s designs. The first “B 3” consisted of nine separate welded parts. The seat and back were separate units in a frame consisting of an endless loop of tubular steel, in which both pairs of legs were joined together to form parallel runners that served as the base. Breuer had most likely discovered this motif in the nearby Junker airplane factory, where the runners of the worktables enabled them to be pushed aside more easily. Standard Möbel then made additional changes to the design: to start, the components of the construction were no longer welded, but instead were held together with screws, nuts, and slot-in connectors. The back was no longer made of a U-shaped tube, but was now constructed of two separate L-shaped side pieces attached to the seat with screws. When taken apart, more than fifty chairs can be stored in a crate measuring just one cubic meter, even more than Thonet’s legendary model “No.14.” In a later stage of development, the back was stabilized by bringing together the side pieces to form an arch at the top. In 1929 Standard Möbel was bought byThonet, which kept “B 3” in its program for only two years, but during that time made even further changes: both runners were braced with a straight crossstrut, and instead of the connector located in front of the seat, which interfered with the sitter’s legs, a bent cross strut that ran under the upholstery was used to strengthen the seat frame. In 1962 production was relaunched by the Italian company Gavina, which was later acquired by Knoll. In honor of Bauhaus master Wassily Kandinsky, who from early on had called attention to the revolutionary aesthetics of the chair, Gavina dubbed it “Wassily,” as it is popularly known today. Initially “B 3” only caught the admiring attention of architects, designers, artists, and visitors at the Bauhaus in Dessau, where it stood in a number of homes in the master’s settlement. At Breuer’s 1926 solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Dresden, the chair was already being acclaimed as a masterpiece. Breuer’s fascination for space-saving collapsible furniture also led him to design a folding version of the “B 3” in 1926, and he obtained the German patent for both models in 1927. Along with the tubular steel furniture that had meanwhile been produced by Mart Stam, Mies van der Rohe, and others, Breuer presented his chair at the prestigious exhibit “Die Wohnung” (the apartment) in Stuttgart. For the first time, industry and the public at large were able to feast their eyes on the “B 3.” People quickly learned to appreciate tubular steel furniture due to its lightness, hygienic qualities, and resistance to wear-and-tear. In the thirties, it even became a fashion in its own right, and today is the epitome of the spirit of Modernity in the first half of the twentieth-century. MSC

[1] Walter Gropius, Ideen und Aufbau des staatlichen Bauhaus Weimar (Munich: Bauhausverlag, 1923).
[2] Marcel Breuer, “metallmöbel und moderne räumlichkeit,” (footnote 23), quoted in Werner Möller and Otakar Mácel, Ein Stuhl macht Geschichte (Munich: Prestel, 1992).
[3] Le Corbusier, Almanach d’Architecture Moderne (Paris, 1925), 145, quoted in Werner Möller and Otakar Mácel, Ein Stuhl macht Geschichte (Munich: Prestel, 1992).
[4] Marcel Breuer, quoted in Christopher Wilk, Marcel Breuer – Furniture and Interiors, exhibition catalogue (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1981).

Marcel Breuer

Marcel Breuer, B3, Wassily