Marcel Breuer at Bryn Mawr College

An Important Prototype Chair

Shortly after Marcel Breuer moved to the United States in the fall of 1937, he was commissioned by Bryn Mawr College for the design of a set of furnishings to outfit the rooms of the new Rhoads Residence Hall. The college wanted something modern for the interior of the Gothic structure and Breuer’s designs for a desk, chair, bookshelves, dresser and mirror were quickly accepted, although not without some adaptation.

The present lot is a prototype design for the Bryn Mawr chair. This early design features a seat and back made of wooden dowels, a detail that would be replaced with solid wood. In response to critique of the dowel construction, Breuer wrote Charlotte Rowe who represented Bryn Mawr: “As I mentioned to you, I suppose the chair at first will seem a little strange, as its technique and form are quite new. I have already made very similar chairs which have been successful. I imagine that the students themselves would be able to transform their chairs (if they wanted to do so) to a more comfortable chair by making, in a very simple way, a braided seat and back out of thin rope. Please don’t let the criticism of the manufacturer discourage you; it is always the case with any new construction which is new for the manufacturer.” Despite Breuer’s defense, this design never went into production.

Various correspondence and drawings in the Marcel Breuer Digital archives reference the commission including this prototype design. It is unclear how many examples were produced, likely not many if more than one. This example is the only known prototype to come to market. It was acquired by the present owner as part of a suite of Bryn Mawr furnishings sold at Willis Henry Auctions in 2007. 

Image from the Marcel Breuer Digital Archive, Syracuse University Library.

Marcel Breuer 1902–1981

Marcel Breuer’s parents encouraged their children to take interest in culture and the arts from an early age, and when the Hungarian born designer turned eighteen he secured a scholarship to the prestigious Fine Arts Academy in Vienna. Uninterested in the lengthy discussions about aesthetic tradition and eager for a more practical education, he took a job in an architectural firm. When a friend told him about a new art school in Weimar Germany called the Bauhaus, Breuer promptly enrolled. Under the guidance of director Walter Gropius, Breuer became one of six apprentices to join the furniture workshop, producing his earliest known design in 1921, the African Chair. Breuer graduated in 1924 and after a brief time in Paris, returned to the school as the head of the of the carpentry worship in 1925. Inspired by his first bicycle, Breuer began working on designs for a chair made of tubular steel. The revolutionary steel club armchair, known as the Wassily, remains one of his most well-known designs to date.

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