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|The Roots of Modern Style &
a Chair from Barcelona
|When thinking of timeless designs, many people would first talk about
traditional furnishings like Queen Anne style or wing-back traditional seating.
Those styles have stood the test of time and function in a variety of decors, but
few recent styles have the endurance of the Bauhaus furnishings from the early
20th century. Of that group, one single item still evokes images of modernism
and timeless beauty, the Barcelona chair.
Designed in 1929 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, the iconic chair
was premiered in the Ibero-American Exposition in Barcelona. There in the
German Pavilion, also designed by Mies van der Rohe, the chair and other
custom designed furnishings adorned a spacious modern space. The glass walls
and open floor plan have become inspirations for decades of architects that
followed in van der Rohe’s footsteps.
|Today, the same chair design still graces modern homes and offices, though few
people who see it know of its lineage. Like many designs that are considered
modern, many date from the early 20th century when the modern movement
really took wing.
Much of the work done in the Bauhaus school was an attempt to distill designs
for architecture and furnishings to their basic elements. The result was the basis
of what modern design is today. Just as today, new building techniques and
materials heavily influenced architects and designers, in the 1890’s engineering
advancements brought the production of steel superstructures and elevators for
tall buildings. Without the thick brick or stone walls needed for multi-story
structures previously, architects ideas soared as did the buildings themselves.
Van der Rohe and other modern designers looked at the skeleton of the
building, the steel supports and braces and imagined the exterior hanging from
these supports like a curtain. Large expanses of glass would allow natural light in
unprecedented ways. Air conditioning made solid windows a practical
element and the modern skyscraper was born.
It may seem odd that today’s sleek soaring buildings with spacious floor plans
were all a product of the early 20th century, but they are. The broad glass
walled rooms of Van der Rhoe’s Barcelona Pavilion still look modern, without a
trace of period to break the illusion. The furnishings achieved the purity of form
and function that the architect intended and they still do today.
That is why the “modern style” has ironically had such longevity. The pure
shapes and spaces of good modern design are timeless. Unlike attempts to
create some kind of “future architecture” which betrays its origins like a 1950’s
coffee shop, good modern design gives no hint of its period and transcends its
own age to survive comfortably in the real future.
The Barcelona chair still graces thousands of homes and offices and retains its
simplicity and modernity after 80 years. The official license for reproduction
belongs to Knoll and the chairs are still available and have remained virtually
unchanged in their manufacture since their original appearance. And so unlike
the adage “everything old is new again” when it comes to god modern design,
“some things old still looks new”.