Modern Furniture +
its Capacity for Space-Making
“The architect finally discovered the medium of his art – SPACE. And it was that medium, space, that informed all his work – furniture as well as architecture” -R.M. Schindler.3 Early 20th century architect’s keen understanding of furniture’s capacity for space-making as well as its intimate human-scale relationships thus affixed the two design fields. Variations on how to articulate the accoutrements of the interior landscape diverge greatly – from providing fixed and built-in furniture that defines the periphery of spaces – to designing lightweight and movable furniture that acts instead as screens in the space. Ideologies also vary accordingly as architects like Frank Lloyd Wright aligned with the Gesamtkunstwerk or total design theory, often detailing both free-standing and built-in furniture, whereas figures like Adolf Loos believed that only the walls belonged to the architects; therefore free-standing furniture should be entirely managed by skilled cabinetmakers.4 The constantly evolving role of materials also imparted an ideological influence as built-in furniture required the handcrafted skill of a woodworker or millworker, while Modern furniture embraced mass production. Somewhere in between the extremes of these ideologies, perhaps, remains the renowned furniture designer and architect, Marcel Breuer, whose work spans the full spectrum of fixed/built-in to lightweight/movable furniture in his pursuit to define space.
Breuer's sketch for one of his own houses 1
Breuer House III, living room, 1951 2
Bauhaus furniture workshop 5 1924 armchair 6
Modern Architects, especially those of the International Style and trained at the Bauhaus needed a new type of furniture for use in their built work.7 Thus, the demand for modern furniture unfolded simultaneously with the emergence of modern architecture under Walter Gropius’ leadership at the Weimar Bauhaus as “design and furniture created a modernist revolution demonstrating how materials and fabrication processes could influence design”.8 First as a student at Weimar, and later as head of the furniture workshop at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Marcel Breuer’s willingness to explore a variety of materials furthered the Modernist revolution and prevailed in his design work for the next 50 years.9 Essentially following the move to Dessau, Breuer also shifted the direction of the workshop from an Arts and Crafts approach to a bolder exploration in how mass production could be applied to the problems of design; as notable in his divergence from molded wood and plywood chairs, tables, desks and modular storage units at Weimar, to his later explorations in metal tubular furniture.10
In America Breuerâ€™s reputation as a furniture-designer preceded his reputation as an architect, as he designed his most iconic pieces of furniture before he ever practiced architecture. In 1925, at the age of 23, Breuer designed his first tubular steel chair, the Wassily Chair.14 Inspired to use tubular metal from his Adler bicycle, the Wassily Chair embodied practical, hygienic, light, and inexpensive material and fabrication.15 While the tubular steel of the Wassily Chair embraces Modernist Principles, the form of the chair itself is a culmination of the preceding styles Breuer studied in Weimar: boxy shapes from the Cubists, the composition of intersecting planes from the Dutch De Stijl movement, and the exposed complicated skeletal formwork from the Russian Constructivists.16
35 Wassily Chair 11 3 5
Knoll marketing photograph 12 Knoll Brochure, 1981 13
B5 chair, 1926 17
54 B35 chair, leather, 1929 18 4 Breuer’s spatial and furniture configurations 19
“A Bauhaus Film, Five Years
Long”, montage of Breuer designs 20
Brueur’s further explorations featured the addition of wood and cane maintaining the open and transparent look that suggested motion. Clean lines and geometries prevailed, furthering the Modernist aesthetic of hygiene as well as standardization of parts.21 In all of his furniture pieces, Breuer continued to express the inextricable relationship with the human form, and soon realized that designing a chair was not much different from designing a building, noting that “the stresses on chair are heavier than those on the factory floor.”22 Breuer’s furniture was thus prime for its later application in his interiors as the pieces themselves were “airly pierced, drawn, as it were in the space”.23
Fallingwater, living room, 1937 24 Darwin D. Martin House, 1905 25
Like the Modernist Bauhaus designers in Germany, those architects associated with the American Prairie Style also needed a new selection of furniture to match their wholly unique aesthetic. The Prairie Style, championed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the suburbs of Chicago in the early 1900s, emphasized a respect for natural materials, Arts and Crafts levels of hand-rendered details, and layers of thin, horizontal lines to derive its geometric forms. Because the style was new to America and to the world, Wright specified countless drawings of built-in furniture as well as free-standing pieces to â€œsoften the shockâ€? as well as to dissuade clients from bringing in poorly designed or inappropriately styled pieces. His works constituted a total of work of art, and even the movable and less frequently used pieces of furniture were believed to be small extensions of the building itself.26
On the contrary, Austrian architect Adolf Loos’ stance on furniture and the interior often stood in opposition to many of his contemporaries. In fact, even though Loos objected to ornamentation much like the International Style Modernists he criticized their interiors as being cold and uninhabitable. Loos instead believed that it was the walls that belong to the architect, and within the walls remains the power of warmth and comfort, as well as intimacy and control.29 He summarized that it was “no longer a matter of furniture, but of walls. Of built-in furniture”.30 Within these walls Loos designed closets, bookshelves, couches, sideboards and glass cabinets, all of which not only liberated the spaces from unnecessary furniture but also increased the space with which to arrange the essential movable fixtures.31 His interior spaces were conceived of as a “container of delicate moments”, and his built-in furniture was the tool that continually focused inhabitants’ attention back into their interior surroundings.32
Moller Villa, Vienna, 1927 27
Villa M端ller, Prague, 1930 28
Armchair and built-in light fixture for
a house on Newport Beach, 1926 33 4
Schindlerâ€™s unit furniture in a Los
Angeles home, 1933 34
Viennese-born R.M. Schindler was the son of a craftsman and the product of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau style, and the Viennese Secession – creating the perfect foundation for the Los Angeles based architect to obsess over the furniture designed for his 1920 residential projects in Southern California. Interestingly, it was Adolf Loos who convinced Schindler to take a job with Ottenheimer, Stern and Reichel in Chicago, knowing of Schindler’s interest in Wright’s work. Like Wright, whom Schindler met in Chicago and worked for at Taliesen West in 1917, he believed that architects were de rigueur to design the furniture for their respective buildings. Schindler considered built-in furniture “part of the weave” as he worked to blur the line of “where the house ends and where the furniture begins”.35 For Schindler the furnishings were to merge with the house “leaving the room free to express its form”.36
55 Rodriguez Residence, 1942 37 5 4
James Eads How Residence, 1926 38 Schindler drawing, 1943 39
In fact, Schindler’s work synthesizes many of Wright’s and Loos’ theories, although he was selective about the particular arguments he upheld. While Schindler tended to follow Loos’ outlook on ornament, he did disagree with Loos’ argument that a plain exterior should be utilized to reveal the richness of the interior. Likewise, Schindler’s admiration of Wright’s early work as published in the 1910 Wasmuth Portfolio faded as he believed Wright was pursing purely sculptural forms in his later work.40 Whereas Breuer believed that each piece of free-standing furniture had its exact placement in a space, Schindler conceived of “changeable and plastic interiors” where free-standing pieces “could be directed to views or sunlight, taken outdoors or left in their appointed corner place”.41 For Schindler furniture represented the final component in his theory of “space architecture: Furniture as object, furniture as building fabric, as interior and exterior, as light and as material, as space and form all rendered into a brilliant harmonious object.”42
Saarinen’s Miller House, 1957 43
Breuer’s Geller House II, 1969 44
The trend of built-in furniture continued into the middle of the 20th century as architects began to carve out fixtures from not only the walls, but also the floors. These conversation pits, categorized as “domestic landscapes,” worked best in open floor plans and combated singly purposeful rooms and furniture to instead create “surroundings amendable to new life styles and informal behavior”.45 In Eero Saarinen’s Miller House (pictured left) completed in 1957 and located in Columbus, Indiana, the conversation pit serves as the most impressive feature in the already rich interior landscape. Designed to avoid the ‘sea of furniture legs’ Saarinen tucked most of the seating into this recessed zone that was intended for reading, talking, and family musicals. “The marble sides of the conversation pit were covered in sumptuous fabrics, designed by Alexander Girard”, that were meant to be changed out depending on the season.46 The conversation pit represents a synthesis of Saarinen and Girard’s trend toward built-in furniture as Girard’s Michigan home featured a built-in, lounge-like, banquette, while Saarinen also used a circular version as the central feature for the Emma Hartman Noyes House at Vasser College.47
Breuer House I, 1940 48
Chamberlain Cottage, 1941 49
Because Breuer began by designing individual furniture pieces his opportunities to explore built-in and fixed fixtures as agents of space-making came at the later part of his career. Like the conversation pit for the Geller Residence II on the previous page, Breuer looked to integrate certain fixtures with not only the walls, but also the floors. For Breuer utilizing both built-in fixtures and free-standing Modernist fixtures like the Wassily chair framed precise and intimate spaces within his private residencies.
Breuer’s public work also featured sophisticated approaches towards integrated built-in furniture. His interest in contrast, made evident by his 1955 book Sun and Shadow becomes clear as the scale of his built projects contrasts intimate spatial moments established by built-in or even free-standing fixtures. Contrast aside, Breuer’s utilization of built-in wall fixtures in his private residencies and his public work represents an inherent desire to conceive of interiors as an “interconnected whole”.51
Ezra Stoller photograph of the Whitney Museum Personal photograph of Vincent James’ 2009
side chapel renovation in Marcel Breuer’s St. John’s Abbey Church
ShoP Architectsâ€™, work pods for Googleâ€™s
California office 2013 52 4
Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis proposal for the Arthouse
in Austin, Texas 53
While the utilization of lightweight and movable furniture pieces has never gone out of style, Saarinen has suggested that built-in features, especially conversation pits, became clichĂŠ and quickly faded out.54 Today, however, custom, built-in fixtures seem to be resurfacing among the work of contemporary firms. What has remained constant, however, today and in the beginning of the 20th century, is architects and designers understanding that â€œlike architecture, furniture design correlates the body and everyday experience enhancing our belonging in the world as embodied subjects more clearly than any other art or media.â€?55
Reproduced from Alexander von Vegesack, Mathias Remmele, Marcel Breuer Design and Architecture, (Germany: Vitra Design Museum, 2003), 218.
Marian Page, Furniture Designed by Architects (London: The Architectural Press Ltd., 1980), 130.
Daniel Opel, Adolf Loos On Architecture (Riverside, California: Ariadne Press, 2002), 175-193.
Reproduced from Magdalena Droste, Manfred Ludewig, Marcel Breuer, (Cologne, Germany: Benedikt Taschen, 1992), 12.
Reproduced from von Vegesack, Remmele, Marcel Breuer Design and Architecture, 117.
Otakar Mácêl, “Modern Architecture and Modern Furniture,” Docomono Journal 46 (2012): 14-19.
Jim Postell, Furniture Design, (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2007), 306.
Charles D. Gandy, Contemporary Classics, (New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1981), 29-43.
Marc Emery, Furniture by Architects, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1983), 62.
Reproduced from Marc Emery, Furniture by Architects, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1983), 68.
Reproduced from von Vegesack, Remmele, Marcel Breuer Design and Architecture, 163.
Page, Furniture Designed by Architects, 32.
Mácêl, “Modern Architecture and Modern Furniture”, 14-19.
Page, Furniture Designed by Architects, 34.
Reproduced from von Vegesack, Remmele, Marcel Breuer Design and Architecture, 129.
Reproduced from Droste, Ludewig, Marcel Breuer, 106.
Reproduced from von Vegesack, Remmele, Marcel Breuer Design and Architecture, 267.
Mácêl, “Modern Architecture and Modern Furniture”, 14-19.
Page, Furniture Designed by Architects, 35.
Mácêl, “Modern Architecture and Modern Furniture”, 14-19.
Reproduced from Daniel Treiber, Frank Lloyd Wright (Basel: Birkhauser, 2008), 163.
Reproduced from Page, Furniture Designed by Architects, 97.
Page, Furniture Designed by Architects, 92-107.
Reproduced from Ralf Bock, Adolf Loos Works and Projects, (Milan: Skira Editore, 2007), 243.
Bock, Adolf Loos Works and Projects, 57.
Opel, Adolf Loos On Architecture, 193.
Bock, Adolf Loos Works and Projects, 82.
Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity, (Boston: The MIT Press, 1994), 233-282. 33. Reproduced from Page, Furniture Designed by Architects, 129.
Page, Furniture Designed by Architects, 130.
Reproduced from Elizabeth A.T. Smith, Michael Darling, The Architecture of R.M. Schindler, (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2001), 116.
Reproduced from Smith, Darling, The Architecture of R.M. Schindler, 40.
Reproduced from Lionel March, Judith Sheine, RM Schindler Composition and Construction, (London: Academy Group, Ltd., 1995), 185.
Elizabeth A.T. Smith, Michael Darling, The Architecture of R.M. Schindler, (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2001), 127-130.
Lionel March, Judith Sheine, RM Schindler Composition and Construction, (London: Academy Group, Ltd., 1995), 207-215.
Reproduced from Jayne Merkel, Eero Saarinen, (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2005), 150.
Reproduced from David Masello, Architecture Without Rules, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), 112.
Karl Mang, History of Modern Furniture, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1978), 364-370.
Jayne Merkel, Eero Saarinen, (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2005), 157.
Donald Albrecht, Eero Saarinen Shaping the Future, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2006), 240.
Reproduced from von Vegesack, Remmele, Marcel Breuer Design and Architecture, 209.
Reproduced from Ezra Stoller, Whitney Museum of American Art, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), 40-41.
Magdalena Droste, Manfred Ludewig, Marcel Breuer, (Cologne, Germany: Benedikt Taschen, 1992), 119.
Reproduced from SHoP Architects Instagram, http://www.shoparc.com/mediaitems/instagram (accessed June 15, 2013).
Reproduced from Paul Lewis, Marc Tsurumaki, David J. Lewis, Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Opportunistic Architecture, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008), 19.
Albrecht, Eero Saarinen Shaping the Future, 241.
Edit Toth, “Breuer’s Furniture, Moholy-Nagy’s Photographic Paradigm, and Complex Gender Expressivity at the Haus am Horn,” Grey Room 50 (2013): 97.