The Barcelona Chair
A Mies van der Rohe Masterpiece
The Barcelona chair is one of - if not the - most iconic and recognised pieces of furniture of the 20th century. It has permeated popular culture and has an aesthetic that bridges the classical and the contemporary.
Mies van der Rohe was selected to design the German Pavilion for the Barcelona Industrial Exposition in 1929. The Pavilion itself is recognised as a defining achievement in modern architecture which, according to Knoll, to whom Mies granted the production rights to the Barcelona chair and ottomans in 1953 and who still manufacture them today, “elevated industrial-age materials to a level of grace never before achieved”. It was the beginning of the modernist movement and both the Barcelona pavilion and chair quickly became symbols of this growing movement.
The Barcelona chair was designed by Mies van der Rohe and his partner Lilly Reich for the visit of the king and queen of Spain to the Pavilion, for them to rest on, and the matching ottomans were for their attendants. These were the only pieces of furniture in the Pavilion (along with one piece of art, Alba, a female nude sculpture by George Kolbe). Drawing inspiration from a royal Egyptian folding chair and a military Roman folding footstool, Mies’ gift was “to endow grace in otherwise monotonous substances…attesting to his mastery of form, function and beauty”.
Mies, as he is known, started his career as a tradesman’s son in his father’s stone-carving workshop, and had no formal training, which makes his phenomenal accomplishments all the more astonishing. His designs have been called “lyrical, cool, rational”. The “compelling, captivating and utterly enchanting” Barcelona Pavilion (reconstructed in 1986) is open to the public every day on Montjuic, its original site, in Barcelona.
He famously said it is easier to design a skyscraper than a good chair that has to be light but stable and comfortable. Mies’ two most famous quotes, however, “God is in the detail” and “less is more”, were never more aptly interpreted than in his Barcelona chair, which became an instant sensation and quickly achieved celebrity status. Like many of his buildings, it cannot be bettered.
The chair has its detractors however. Robert Venturi turned Mies’ “less is more” into “less is a bore” but later regretted it, saying that Mies was one of the great masters of the 20th century and “all architects should kiss the feet of Mies van der Rohe”.
For us, of course, there is always a flutter of the heart-strings when we see a Barcelona chair in a movie. When Bond meets M in her apartment in Casino Royale (2006), three chairs are shown on screen. In Die Another Day (2002) there is a black version. There is a black chair and ottoman in Dr Alvarez’s (Simon Andreu) office on Isla de Los Organos.
To continue in the theme of black, there are two black ottoman’s in Patrick Bateman‘s (Christian Bale) living room in American Psycho (2000). There is also a black Barcelona chair in In Bruges (2008) while Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sits in a black one in 500 Days of Summer (2009). The white leather version glows in the luminescent Safe House in Tron: Legacy (2010) and a white chair also appears in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011). Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has a pair in white in Iron Man 2 (2010). The Cullens have a pair in tan in their gorgeous bright living room in Twilight (2008).
Even though it was designed almost ninety years ago, the Barcelona chair still stands as a potent symbol of modernism. The design bears intentional cultural and intellectual weight. According to Galen Cranz (Berkley University professor of Architecture) a person who owns a Barcelona chair is “judged to be more educated, affluent and refined”.
It has certainly been used in that context in many of our favourite movies and will, without doubt, continue to be an on-screen icon for years to come. Its use in hundreds of movies and TV shows attests to that: set decorators continue to choose the Barcelona chair for their sets and it remains one of the singularly most used pieces of designer furniture on screen.
Today it is largely hand-made from 40 separate pieces of leather with a chromed stainless steel frame hand buffed to a mirror finish. And you can buy the enduring, enchanting, some would say, exquisite, Barcelona chair from Knoll.
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