Marcel Breuer has touched so many lives worldwide with his great architecture, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and, of course, his iconic furniture.
The Wassily (B3) Chair as it’s commonly referred to, designed in 1928, is certainly one of Breuer’s most recognisable designs. Originally made in canvas with a tubular steel form (like many of his chairs), it has never faded from glory since it was first released by Thonet. As mentioned by Breuer, it was his “most extreme, least artistic, most logical, least cosy and most mechanical work”.
Despite this rather harsh description, the Wassily Chair was still one of the most popular designs of the 20th century. Many sources claim that the chair was inspired by the Russian modernist artist Vasily Kandinsky, a pioneer of abstractionism who, alongside Breuer, taught at the Bauhaus School in Germany. Shortly after the chair’s completion, a copy found its way into Kandinsky’s equally modernist home on the Bauhaus campus in Dessau, designed by the school’s founder, architect Walter Gropius.
Those fortunate enough to have visited a re-imagination of Kandinsky’s home at the Bauhaus School in Dessau, this writer included, would have instantly appreciated the artist’s reaction to Breuer’s chair. The home’s severe angular lines and parred back interior would have been the perfect backdrop for the Wassily. Unlike the overstuffed high-back English-style armchairs that were popular in the 1920s and ‘30s, the Wassily, or the Club Chair as it’s also referred to, does not include one smidgeon of stuffing! The only fabric that did appear was the flax used for the supports, with these being woven in the textile department at the Bauhaus School – an institution that brought in the idea of merging all the creative arts, including architecture, furniture, textiles and even artistic performances.
The idea for the Wassily came to Breuer after looking at the handlebars of his bicycle. The tubular steel handles were light and malleable yet also extremely strong, capable of withstanding the pressure placed upon them. So, this idea, along with the techniques used by plumbers, was transformed into two versions of the Wassily, one being foldable and the other fixed, creating a sculptural yet also surprisingly comfortable form. Now only available with leather straps to form the seat, backrest and arms, the Wassily is a popular choice with architects and designers.
Interior designer Lucy Marczyk has a strong affinity for the Wassily, given her grandfather was captain of the British cycling team for the Olympic Games in Melbourne. He later moved Down Under and established his own bicycle manufacturing business. “I still clearly recall walking into his office as a teenager and seeing two of the Wassily Chairs, although I didn’t know at that time what they were called, who designed them and, importantly, that they were inspired by bicycle handles,” Lucy says, who claims that this chair is her “all-time favourite”. “The chair’s also come to be synonymous with the modernist movement,” adds Lucy, who also finds that in spite of its angular form, the chair is extremely comfortable to sit in. “I tend to use the chair in pairs, often in living areas and placed next to a more curvaceous lounge.”
When Breuer later moved on to teach at Harvard University in 1937 at the invitation of Walter Gropius, recognition for both his architecture and furniture increased exponentially. It was also the right move given the Nazi Party’s abhorrence for anything modern and its obsession to return to the past. And as with many iconic designs that appear revolutionary at the time they were released, the Wassily Chair remains a truly contemporary design even as it approaches its 100-year anniversary.