Hungarian-American Designer, Sculptor, and Architect
New York City, USA
Summary of Marcel Breuer
His friends and family affectionately called him Lajkó, but the rest of us know him as Marcel Breuer, the Hungarian-American designer whose career touched nearly every aspect of three-dimensional design, from tiny utensils to the biggest buildings. Breuer moved quickly at the Bauhaus from student to teacher and then ultimately the head of his own firm. Best known for his iconic chair designs, Breuer often worked in tandem with other designers, developing a thriving global practice that eventually cemented his reputation as one of the most important architects of the modern age. Always the innovator, Breuer was eager to both test the newest advances in technology and to break with conventional forms, often with startling results.
- Breuer's Wassily Chair (1927-28) became an instant classic of modern design, and even today it remains one of the most recognizable examples of Bauhaus design. For this chair, he used the newest innovations in bending tubular steel for the entirety of the structural frame, thereby demonstrating the possibilities of modern industry applied to everyday objects.
- Breuer's early success in education often overshadows his brilliant career as an architect. Although Breuer assumed the role of primary designer for some of his most famous buildings, on several others he was happy to work alongside other giants in the profession, often generously sharing credit with his collaborators - a sharp contrast with many other high-profile architects in the postwar era.
- A pioneer of the International Style in his use of steel and glass, Breuer's affinity for concrete later made him a key figure in the emergence of Brutalism, which has drawn criticism due to his designs' heavy-handed massiveness. However, Breuer counterbalanced this tendency in his small-scale houses that are notable for their sensitive handling of traditional materials, such as wood and brick.
- Breuer is one of the most important and best-known figures associated with the Bauhaus, where he was first a student and later led the furniture design workshop. His reputation as a teacher was further cemented when he joined Walter Gropius at Harvard University, teaching some of the most successful architects of the postwar era, including I. M. Pei and Philip Johnson .
Biography of Marcel Breuer
Marcel Breuer was born on May 21, 1902, in Pécs, Hungary, a small town near the Danube River. After graduating from high school at the Magyar Királyi Föreáliskola in Pecs, Breuer enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna to study painting, where he had been offered a scholarship. He almost immediately disliked the program, however, and within weeks of joining, he left to begin an apprenticeship with a Viennese architect. Breuer was eager to work with his hands and joined the cabinetmaking studio of the architect's brother. At age 18, in 1921, he moved to Weimar, Germany, to enroll at a new school called the Bauhaus, founded in 1919 with a mission to marry functional design with the principles of fine art. Its head, the architect Walter Gropius, immediately recognized Breuer's talent and promoted him within a year to the head of the carpentry shop. At the Bauhaus, Breuer produced the furniture for Gropius' Sommerfeld House in Berlin as well as his acclaimed series of "African" and "Slatted" chairs. But he also became acquainted with many of the most important artists of this era, who likewise worked and taught at the Bauhaus, including Wassily Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy, Paul Klee, and Josef Albers. Breuer later reflected that Klee served as one of his two greatest teachers in life, along with his high school geometry instructor.
Important Art by Marcel Breuer
Made of leather and cantilevered steel, the Wassily chair has become one of the world's most enduring and iconic pieces of furniture. Breuer designed the chair at the age of the 23, while still an apprentice at the famed Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany. Inspired by the Constructivist principles of the De Stijl movement and the frame of a bicycle, the Wassily chair distills the type to its bare essentials, reflecting the Bauhaus' proclivity for functionality and simplicity. Breuer viewed the bicycle as an object that represented the paragon of design, owing in part to the fact that its form had remained largely unchanged since its inception. The tubular steel of the bicycle's handlebars also intrigued Breuer, as it was light, durable, and suitable for mass production (a manufacturer by the name Mannesman had recently perfected a type of seamless steel tubing that was capable of being bent without collapsing). Breuer once mused to a friend regarding the bicycle, "Did you ever see how they make those parts? How they bend those handlebars? You would be interested because they bend those steel tubes like macaroni." Breuer bent the steel components so that they were devoid of any weld points and could thus be chromed piecemeal and assembled. He named the chair after the painter Wassily Kandinsky, a professor at the Bauhaus, who was so enamored by the piece during a visit to Breuer's studio that Breuer fashioned a duplicate for Kandinsky's home. First mass-produced by Thonet, the license for manufacturing the chair was picked up after World War II by the Italian firm Gavina, which was in turn bought out by the American company Knoll in 1968. Knoll retains the design trademark and the chair remains in production today.
Shortly after finishing his design for the "Wassily" chair, Breuer continued his explorations of the plastic possibilities of tubular steel with the B32, or The Cesca Chair, as it is now popularly called. In this case, he molded the material into a single, snaking outline onto which he attached two beechwood frames covered in caning. The form of the frame - where the seat and back are supported only by the legs at the front - comprises the first cantilevered chair design in history, a feat only possible due to the seamless steel tubing that resists collapsing when bent. With ease, Breuer's design thus marries the traditional methods of craftsmanship - the woven caning hand-sewn into the wood frame - with the industrially mass-produced tubular steel. The chair takes its popular name from that of Breuer's daughter Francesca; the moniker was suggested by the Italian furniture manufacturer Dino Gavina, whose firm started making the Cesca (and the B3 Wassily chair) with Breuer's permission in the 1950s before being bought out by Knoll in 1968.
Imitations of the chair are ubiquitous, with only slight subtleties - such as the distinctive patina of the beech, the curvature of the back, or the texture of the caning - differentiating knockoffs from the 1928 originals. As Elaine Louie wrote in the New York Times, the chair "costs $45 at The Door Store, $59 at The Workbench, $312 at Pallazetti or $813 at the Knoll store itself, and yet, to the average person, all the chairs look the same." Despite the iconic stature of the original design, Breuer himself made several modifications to the Cesca in later years, including choosing a shallower curve for the back and strengthening the beechwood frame by manufacturing it from two pieces instead of one. Since the Cesca's introduction, literally millions of versions have been sold to decorate homes and office buildings around the world, making it arguably Breuer's most popular chair.
Erected in 1938, on the Atlantic shores of Cohasset, Massachusetts, The Hagerty House represents the first commissioned architectural collaboration between Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer (they had previously worked together on Breuer's own Lincoln, Massachusetts home), and one of the first examples of International-Style architecture in the USA. The rectilinear structure uses an L-shaped plan, with the one-story longitudinal section running north to south and parallel to the coastline. The east side of the home features floor-to-ceiling windows intended to maximize the residents' views of the Atlantic Ocean, thereby blurring the distinction between interior and exterior space. In the words of John Hagerty, "The house was to be focused like a camera toward the magnificent expanse of ocean...blank walls would cut out the view of neighboring houses." The base and south wall, constructed from the site's granite, disclose their sensitivity to the rocky environment. The house thus appears as a prism partially nestled into and partially resting on top of the shoreline, creating a kind of belvedere for the ocean views.
With its exterior staircases forged from galvanized steel pipes, terracotta chimneys, and exposed radiators, the building reflects the architects' affinity for the preponderance of utilitarian building materials in the United States. Its austere, white wood siding and extreme reliance on rectilinearity - even in the design of the base and rocky south wall - and tubular steel railings tie it both to a precise, machine-cut aesthetic associated with prodigious American manufacturing and the power of man to reshape and control nature, even as nature itself weathers and batters the structure's exterior. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Hagerty House's radical departure from traditional aesthetics was unsettling to those who enjoyed the architectural conformity of the area's large collection of Federalist and Greek Revival homes. In response to the new minimalist intrusion, one of the Hagerty's neighbors jested that it looked like "the ladies' wing at Alcatraz."
But overall, the house rapidly became a preferred destination for students, tourists, and architects due to its pioneering stature in American modern architecture. Fully cognizant of this, during their tenure as owners the Hagertys generously welcomed visitors and even offered tours to inquisitive passersby.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Marcel Breuer
- Marcel Breuer and a Committee of Twelve Plan a Church: A Monastic MemoirBy Hilary Thimmesh
- Marcel Breuer: A MemoirOur PickBy I.M. Pei and Robert Gatje
- BreuerBy Robert McCarter
- St John's Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred SpaceBy Victoria M. Young
- Marcel Breuer, Architect: The Career and the BuildingsBy Isabelle Hyman
- Breuer HousesOur PickBy Joachim Driller