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Marcel Breuer (American, born Hungary. 1902–1981)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American furniture designer and architect of Hungarian birth. In 1920 he took up a scholarship at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Vienna, but he left almost immediately to find a job in an architect’s office. A few weeks later he enrolled at the Bauhaus at Weimar on the recommendation of the Hungarian architect Fred Forbat (1897–1972). Breuer soon became an outstanding student in the carpentry workshop, which he led in its endeavours to find radically innovative forms for modern furniture. In practice, this meant rejecting traditional forms, which were considered symbolic of bourgeois life. The results of these experiments were initially as idiosyncratic as those of other workshops at Weimar, including the adoption of non-Western forms, for example the African chair (1921; see Rowland, 1990, p. 66) and an aggressively castellated style inspired by Constructivism.

Breuer was impressed by De Stijl, whose founder Theo van Doesburg made his presence felt in Weimar in 1921–2. Breuer interpreted the De Stijl aesthetic in his designs, which were characterized by asymmetry, discrete elements and a tendency to view the design of a chair, for example, as an architectural experiment. Gerrit Rietveld’s Red–Blue chair (1917; New York, MOMA) taught Breuer to distinguish between the frame of a chair and the supports for the sitter. Encouraged by Walter Gropius to think in terms of standardization, he used elements of the same width to facilitate manufacture. From 1923 he also turned to less expensive woods such as plywood, particularly in his children’s furniture. After a brief period working as an architect in Paris (1924), Breuer rejoined the Bauhaus in Dessau as leader of the carpentry workshop. By 1925 he insisted on the complete rejection of formalism: if an object was designed in such a way that it fulfilled its function clearly, it was finished. Suitability for a particular function was not, however, enough in itself; there was also the quality factor. Ornamentation was not necessary to form a coherent set of furniture: a good chair would go with a good table.

In spring 1925 Breuer began to experiment with tubular steel, beginning with his Wassily chair , which was allegedly inspired by the lightness and strength of his new Adler bicycle. Next he developed a side chair with sled-like runners instead of legs. The following crucial stage was the cantilevered side chair, first developed by Mart Stam, although Breuer claimed that he had conceived the idea on turning one of his nesting stools on its side and subsequently confided it to Stam. Breuer’s best-known side chair is the B32 (1928; New York, MOMA) in chrome-plated steel, wood and cane, which is still mass-produced. He also produced tables, for example in steel tube and wood . Breuer negotiated privately to secure marketing by Standard-Möbel, which in April 1929 was bought up by the manufacturer Thonet. These chairs and the glass-topped tables that accompanied them were intended to be light, transparent and non-specific in function. Thus, for example, his small stacking stools could also be used as occasional tables. He also developed a range of modular furniture (cabinets, desktops, shelving) that could be assembled according to need (examples in New York, MOMA). The interiors that he designed in conjunction with Gropius’s architectural office, such as the theatre director and producer Erwin Piscator’s flat, have a beauty that Breuer liked to consider impersonal, arising not from ornament but from what he called the tools of living themselves and from the contrast of textures and surfaces.

Breuer was too much of an individualist to remain at the Bauhaus under Hannes Meyer; from 1928 to 1931 he worked for Gropius’s office in Berlin and became increasingly involved in architectural projects. These were initially informed by an enthusiastically American style: his multi-level traffic scheme for the Potsdamer Platz of 1928, for example, was based on the flow diagrams of an American assembly line. A constructivist phase followed, for example the Khar’kov Theatre project (1931). Finally he arrived at a Corbusian purism, exemplified in the Harnismacher house (1932), Wiesbaden, a piece of humanly made perfection in white stucco set against the natural landscape. From 1932 to 1935 Breuer led a nomadic existence, travelling around the Mediterranean and in North Africa and admiring what he saw as the impersonality and rationality of the vernacular architecture. In 1933 he won the International Aluminium Competition in Paris for aluminium furniture by exploiting the material’s lightness and flexibility. In October 1935 he followed Gropius to England and on his suggestion designed a plywood version of his aluminium lounge chair for Jack Pritchard’s Isokon Company. The Isokon long chair (1935; New York, MOMA), an early example of biomorphic design, was followed by plywood nesting tables and stacking chairs. With his partner and architect Francis Reginald Stevens Yorke (1906–62) he designed a pavilion for the Royal Show at Bristol in 1936, using stone and wood in the slab and panel forms favoured by the modern movement. The ambitious design for a Civic Centre of the Future for the British Cement Industries (1936) contains elements of all their favourite projects such as Y-shaped blocks of flats, which Breuer was later to implement.

In 1937 Breuer joined Gropius as a professor at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, and together they created the Harvard school of third generation Modernists. Ironically, when Breuer finally arrived in the USA he was impressed not by large-scale American industry but by New England vernacular architecture. In their domestic architecture he and Gropius, who were partners (1937–41), successfully assimilated its use of wood and mortared rubble to the demands of the new architecture, and they delighted in the contrast between rough stonework and smooth white surfaces. In 1946 he formed his own partnership in New York. Although he experimented with wooden prefabricated housing and with the idea of the H-shaped house, he largely worked on ambitious projects for substantial industrial concerns and institutions in North and South America. In Europe he also designed resort buildings and housing, although his best-known building there is the Y-shaped UNESCO headquarters (1953–8) in Paris.

In 1963–6 he designed the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, a massive, granite-faced building on Madison Avenue, designed to stand out from the surrounding office buildings. The façade is punctuated by obliquely angled windows, intended to prevent direct sunlight reaching the works of art housed inside. Breuer maintained his interest in textural contrast and his fondness for Corbusian pilotis; however, after World War II he suffered a loss of direction, and his work was at times overblown and unconvincing. His religious buildings, such as the St Francis de Sales church (1961–7), Muskegon, MI, are often strenuously modern, relying on feats of engineering to create excitement. His designs for private houses, and in particular his interiors, were generally much more successful. His great achievement lay in devising furnishings, appropriate for the modern interior, which retained their refreshingly clear and modern appearance over time. Among the most renowned of Breuer’s pupils are I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson and Paul Rudolph.

Anna Rowland
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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