How Marcel Breuer and his bike changed the chair
Discover how the young Bauhaus lecturer's steel-framed bicycle helped him create his famous Wassily Chair
Few things go together as well as a young university lecturer and a bicycle. Yet fewer still shared as productive a relationship as Marcel Breuer and the steel-framed Adler bike, which Breuer bought upon arriving at the Bauhaus in 1925.
As we explained in an earlier story, having proved to be prodigious student, the school’s founder Walter Gropius invited Breuer to re-join the Bauhaus in 1925 at the age of 23, as director of the carpentry workshop. However, upon arrival, the young Hungarian architect and designer’s attention turned away from wood and towards metal. Here is how Robert McCarter puts it in our new Breuer book.
“Soon after arriving in Dessau, Breuer had purchased his first bicycle,” McCarter writes; “he learned to ride it by taking extended tours around the city. Breuer was impressed by his bicycle’s strength and lightness, the result of its being made of tubular steel. This seemingly indestructible material could be bent into handlebar shapes and could easily support the weight of one or two riders; why then could it not be used for furniture?”
“After failing to interest the Adler company in the idea of making tubular steel furniture, Breuer went directly to the tubular steel manufacturer, Mannesmann steelworks, which had invented the seamless extruded steel tube.” Mannesmann’s seamless steel, first produced towards the end of the 19th century, could be bent and reshaped without losing much of its strength. However, there was another advantage. As all good bike nerds know, steel-framed bikes are not only sturdy, they are also relatively springy, and are credited with soaking up the minor jolts much better than their aluminium counterparts; Marcel learned to exploit this in new ways.
“Breuer purchased lengths of 4/5 in. (2 cm) diameter tubing (matching the dimensions of his bicycle), had them pre-bent to his specifications, and then he hired a plumber to help him weld the steel tubes together to make furniture frames. The first design using the bent tubular steel was given the name B3, a numbering system Breuer would use for all his furniture for the next several years. It was an armchair, the first version made of nickel-plated steel tubes welded to form a rigid frame with four vertical legs that bent over and then down to support the seat and back, both of which were inclined steel frames, across which fabric was stretched.
“He found this version too stiff, lacking the resilience or flex he believed necessary for the comfort of the occupant, and he modified and refined the design to arrive at what he considered to be the “final” version, also dated 1925; in fact, Breuer continued to perfect the armchair’s design until early 1928, when he arrived at the definitive version we know today.”
This chair was of course, later renamed the Wassily, in honour of Breuer’s friend Kandinsky, and remains in production – commonly with leather, rather than canvas straps - to this day. Indeed, Breuer went onto design a whole suite of steel-tube furniture. His genius, as McCarter explains, lay in the way he combined the tubing’s properties – its strength, springiness, and the way the tubes could be slotted together, rather than welded – with a relatively recognisable furniture form.
“As opposed to the earlier welded joints, these bolted connections allowed a small amount of flexing when people sat in the armchair,” McCarter writes, “which when combined with the slight stretching of the fabric seat and back, provided far greater comfort than one would expect from this abstract cubic form, composed of glistening chrome lines and floating black bands. The armchair took up the generous space normally associated with a traditional “club” chair, with its wide arms and inset seat, yet it was remarkably lightweight, easily moved, its thin reflective frame rendering it transparent - when sitting in the armchair, one appeared to be suspended in a cube of space filled almost entirely with air.”
Many of Breuer's contemporaries were quick to recognise his ingenuity, adding his furniture to their homes and even incorporating his techniques into their own work.
“Well before 1930, Breuer’s furniture could already be found in the homes of architects around the world, including Hans Scharoun in Berlin, Robert Mallet- Stevens in Paris, and Aino and Alvar Aalto in both Turku and Helsinki,” McCarter writes. “For Aalto, Breuer’s tubular steel furniture served as both inspiration and provocation, leading Aalto to produce his own first bent plywood furniture in response to Breuer’s tubular steel chairs, which Aalto felt were too cold to the touch for his Nordic climate.”
Cheap and easy to manufacture the chairs proved popular across the world, while the principles of a simple steel frame replacing bulky old materials informed both product design and architectural thinking for the following decades. Not bad going for a 23-year-old and his bike.