The Hungarian-born Marcel Breuer is perhaps best known for his tubular steel B3 (‘Wassily’) and B32 (‘Cesca’) chairs, which he designed while leading the carpentry workshop at the Bauhaus, after it moved from Weimar to Dessau, Germany, in 1925. Legend has it his experiments with tubular steel were inspired by his bicycle.
Breuer, who was Jewish, fled Germany for England ten years later. While living in London, he produced a handful of plywood furniture designs—essentially his tubular steel designs reiterated in wood—for the English furniture manufacturer Isokon, an early champion of Modernism. Perhaps Breuer was emboldened by Alvar Aalto’s earlier success with plywood. Indeed Breuer’s Long Chair for Isokon (1936) and Aalto’s Model 41, often called the Paimio chair (designed for the Paimio Sanatorium between 1929 and 1932), also in the collection of the Cooper Hewitt, share a certain woody undulating essence.
Model 41 (Paimio) chair, Museum purchase through gift of Linda and Irwin Berman and from General Acquisitions Endowment Fund, 2008-5-1
Aalto’s designs were popular in England, because its citizens preferred the warmth of plywood to cold tubular steel. Breuer, in partnership with the Isokon Furniture Company, was happy to satisfy their preference. Curiously, because it invited a sitter to stretch and rest, Breuer’s Long Chair was touted as an aid to digestion. The plywood seats of the few that were made were shipped from Estonia, affixed to English-made bentwood frames, and could be upholstered according to customer tastes.
Sadly, World War II forced the premature shuttering of Isokon, due to government requisitioning of plywood. But, by that time, Breuer had followed his mentor, architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, to America. The rest is history.
The Long Chair is now on view in the Cooper Hewitt exhibition Making Design.
Tanya Piacentini is a student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies graduate program at Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department.
Fiell, Charlotte, and Peter Fiell. Design of the 20th Century. Cologne: Taschen, 2013.
Slesin, Suzanne. “The Furniture of Marcel Breuer: Classics, and Some Surprises.” New York Times, July 23, 1981. Accessed December 14, 2014.