Retrospection and Innovation

Breuer's Reclining Chair

While not invented in the 20th century, the chaise lounge exemplified modern ideals of comfort and leisure and Marcel Breuer was one of the many designers around the world who explored variations on the form. Early 20th century examples of the chaise were found in steel tube and aluminum; the LC-4, designed by Charlotte Perriand in 1928, was one of the first ergonomic chaise lounges made from an amalgamation of organic and industrial materials. Breuer too worked with tubular steel and then developed a series of furniture in aluminum, creating his chaise lounge, model 313. As technologies advanced and the availability of materials shifted (World War II made metal scarce), designs for the chaise progressed into works made of bent plywood and later from cut plywood. The present lot typifies Breuer’s creative process and influences, and the details evince the evolution of its realization.

In search of new opportunities, Breuer moved to England in 1935 to work for the Isokon Furniture Company under the direction of Jack Pritchard and Walter Gropius.  Isokon Furniture Company materially articulated modern thought through innovative design and cost effective manufacturing.  Jack Pritchard, the company’s founder, emphasized plywood as the firm’s material of choice as he hoped to eschew the cold, unforgiving qualities of metal.  With the goal of proliferating modern design in mind, Breuer’s first project for the company was to create a variation of the aluminum chaise lounge using plywood.  The resulting design, the Isokon Long Chair, incorporates aspects of Alvar Aalto’s plywood furniture and serves as one of the first truly ‘organic’ or ‘biomorphic’ designs of the time.  Unlike its aluminum predecessor, however, fabrication of the Isokon Long Chair necessitated twice as much material and posed several structural problems requiring additional supports and ultimately hindering the simplified, organic aesthetic he desired.   While a visual success, the Isokon Long Chair and the manufacturing of molded plywood was expensive. Not only were the parts outsourced to Venesta in Estonia but new tools and molds were also needed for each design modification.

In continual pursuit of cost efficiency, Breuer realized the present lot while investigating the advantages of cut versus molded plywood.  The components of cut plywood designs could be systematically and economically cut from large sheets of laminated wood so the construction of such designs inherently involved less time, labor, and money.  This reclining chair proved to Breuer the financial benefits of cut plywood.  The realization of this specific reclining chair is critical to understand the general lineage of Breuer’s designs as it portends his abandonment of molded plywood altogether and serves as the avant-garde predecessor of his creative output.  The armchairs created in 1936 for the Ventris apartment in London exhibit Breuer’s experimentation with cut plywood.   Once settled in the States in 1937, the reclining chairs commissioned for the Frank House reflect an even further mutation as it combined both the form of a reclining and with the cut out construction of the Ventris apartment arm chair. 

Welcoming new ideas, Breuer valued the work of his contemporaries and respectfully synthesized their influences with his own work, a testament to his admiration not only for the objects being created as well as those who created them, but also for the advancement of modern design as a set of principles to live by.  Designers such as Frederick Kiesler followed in Breuer’s footsteps.  His iconic biomorphic chair designed for Peggy Guggenheim in which aspects of molded and cut plywood are even further evolved into a multi-faceted and increasingly organic shape.  

Marcel Breuer

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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Auction Results Marcel Breuer