MR 90, Barcelona Chair

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Design: 1929
Production: 1929 - 30
Manufacturer: Berliner Metallgewerbe Josef Müller /
Bamberg Metallwerkstätten, Berlin
Size: 75 x 76 x 77; seat height 43 cms
Material: chrome-plated steel bar, leather belts, leather cushions

In 1929, Mies van der Rohe erected the Pavilion of the Weimar Republic on the premises of the World Exposition in Barcelona. This modern work of architecture was to fulfil two purposes: to exemplify "clarity, simplicity and honesty"1 as essential values of of the young democratic country, and to provide a worthy ambiance for the visit of the Spanish royal couple Alfonso VIII and Victoria Eugenie, who were expected at the opening ceremonies. The design of the furnishings — which included the Barcelona Chair — also conformed to these requirements. ‘Clarity’ is evident in the design principles of the chair: load-bearing and non-load-bearing elements are clearly differentiated. ‘Honesty’ is demonstrated in the use of materials, which are suited to their applications: the frame of the armchair is made of steel. Intersections of the frame occur at those points that bear the greatest stress. The seat and back, by contrast, appear to be loosely attached to the frame. ‘Simplicity’ and elegance are characteristics imbued by the fine and sumptuous materials of the chair: the seat and back cushions are upholstered with a single piece of kid leather, and its frame has a chrome-plated finish — an innovative and costly technique at the time. Mies’ design is consequently based on considerations of structure and material. In this regard, his chair conforms to the criteria of New Objectivity. Another striking feature is the chair’s similarity to folding stools or scissor chairs used as thrones in ancient Egypt and other cultures of antiquity. What results is an unusual form: supported by a slender, shimmering base that has little in common with the four legs of a conventional chair, the cushions seem to float — uplifted enough, as it were, to be a suitable seat for a king.
When the Pavilion was dismantled at the end of the World Exposition, its furnishings were also lost to posterity. Nevertheless, a few Barcelona Chairs from the 1930s have been preserved. They are found in the Moravian Gallery in Brno (two pieces from the Tugendhat House), in the Grassi Museum, and in the estate of James Johnson Sweeney. In 1954, Knoll International commenced production of the chair based on a drawing from 1951.
Detailed examinations of the chair with X-ray analysis and other technologies were conducted by Friederike Deuerler, Professor of Safety Technology and Materials Research at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal. These studies revealed that the methods used to manufacture the chair have been constantly modified over the years, and in most cases, simplified. For example, the connections between the side members and lateral cross bars were fabricated in the pre-war period with several pieces: steel connecting pieces were brazed or riveted to the narrow sides of the chair’s side members. The horizontal bars, consisting of brass U-sections with steel inlays, were inserted over the connecting pieces and screwed to them from the front. Between 1953 and 1955, Knoll International constructed the connections with rabbeted lap joints, and from 1955 to 1958 as simple corner laps. For the rabbeted lap joints, steel lugs with half the thickness of the cross bars were welded to the side members of the chair and then screwed to the rabbeted ends of the cross bars. The method with corner laps is similar — however, this connection sits directly on the side members of the chair. With respect to stability, the overlap joint is inferior, since it does not prevent deformation of the frame under high loads. In addition, the reduction of the material’s thickness reduces the stability of the chair. A stronger joint solution was developed by the Stiegler company in 1958. New connecting pieces were cut to form a double rabbet, tapped for screws and welded onto the side members. The cross bars were rabbeted to match and joined to the side members with Allen screws.
The Barcelona Chair is a prime example of the effects that changes in production methods, especially when motivated by rationalization or cost reduction, can have on both the structural and aesthetic quality of an object. Additional screws or seams contradict the principle of simplicity that is essential to this chair‘s design. Pure, uninterrupted surfaces, on the other hand, evoke a feeling of sublimity. In this sense, less is more. AL

[1] Georg von Schnitzler, Speech at the opening of the German section of the World Exposition in Barcelona, 1929, quoted in: L.S.M. (Lilly von Schnitzler), ‘Marginalien: Die Weltausstellung Barcelona 1929’, Der Querschnitt 9 (August 1929), No. 8, p. 583.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Mies van der Rohe, MR90 Barcelona Chair