Design Deconstructed: Barcelona Chair

A timeline of major developments delineates the evolution of Mies' masterpiece

The Barcelona Chair needs little in the way of introduction. One of the most iconic and celebrated designs of the 20th century, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair appears to us now “as if it has existed forever,” according to Michael Jefferson, Senior Vice President of Wright, the auction house. Jefferson has overseen Mies’ furniture at auction for decades, and is an authority on the chair’s design, production and manufacture.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Chair as manufactured by Knoll. Image from the Knoll Archive.

In the first of our series Design Deconstructed, Knoll revisits this landmark design from Knoll’s catalog to trace its evolution from initial concept to coveted collectible. Intended as a resource for customers and collectors alike, this timeline—assembled with the help, cooperation and expertise of Michael Jefferson—charts the major developments associated with Mies’ most well-known furniture design: the Barcelona Chair.

1928: Sketches

"Lounge Chair Without Arms" c. 1926-1946. Image courtesy of The Architecture & Design Study Center, The Museum of Modern Art.

In 1928, sketches for the Barcelona Chair first appear alongside other seating solutions Mies was experimenting with at the time. Inspired by classical forms, the Barcelona Chair’s basic, scissor-shape design (known as a curule seat) dates back to 1500 BC. A reprised form, examples of the curule seat have been found in Egyptian, Greek and Roman designs throughout history, often with strong connections to seats of power.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel's Cast-Iron Garden Chair, 1825. Image courtesy of Vitra Design Museum.

The most direct precedent for the Barcelona Chair arrived in the form of Karl Friedrich Schinkel's cast-iron garden chair. Seen now as a harbinger of modernism, the 1825 design was among the first to utilize the cast-iron process to produce furniture efficiently on a large-scale. Each identical side piece was forged as an entire unit, offering great stability with minimum materials.

Although influenced by Schinkel, Mies’ interpretation of the curule form merits its own special consideration. “As opposed to earlier precedents, where the axis is found at the front to rear elevations of the chair,” Jefferson explains, “the Barcelona Chair places the axis at the sides, producing a highly cantilevered seat, that really became possible only in the contemporary period with modern materials.” The result was an unadorned chair of “pure structure,” representing the perfect marriage of form and function.

1929: Barcelona Pavilion

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion, 1929. Image courtesy of The Architecture & Design Study Center, The Museum of Modern Art.

Originally made for display, only two iterations of the Barcelona Chair were specifically designed for the Barcelona Pavilion. Through their incorporation, “Mies sought a formal a solution to accompany the free-standing walls and planes of the Barcelona Pavilion,” intended to symbolize the new progressive spirit of the Weimar Republic. Mies said that the design had to be more than a chair, but “a monumental object.” As organizational elements, the chairs and accompanying ottomans were positioned throughout the pavilion as fixed pieces—Mies intended for them to remain in place.

Aware that King Alfonso XIII would be in attendance, Mies also famously said that the Barcelona Chair would be "fit for a king," giving way to the misconception Barcelona Chair was designed as a monarchic object—an idea since largely discredited by scholars.

A Knoll-produced replica of the original Barcelona Chair, presented as a gift to MoMA in 1953. Image courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.

The two original models had a bolted, chrome-plated construction with ivory-colored pigskin cushions. In 1953, Knoll created a replica of one of the ivory-colored chairs and presented it as a gift to The Museum of Modern Art.

1930: Philip Johnson's Southgate Residence

Philip Johnson's Southgate Residence. Image courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.

In 1930, Philip Johnson—who met Mies in 1928, when he was working on the Barcelona Pavilion—granted Mies his first U.S. commission. Johnson had returned from an extended trip to Europe as a proselytizer of the new International Style, and accordingly tasked Mies and Lilly Reich with designing his Southgate residence at 424 East 52nd Street.

The residence was the first to utilize Bauhaus concepts and introduced the Barcelona Chair to America. Johnson went on to use his Mies-designed furniture in subsequent New York apartments, which he designed himself.

1930: Josef Müller

The first commercial production of the Barcelona Chair followed shortly after the debut of the Barcelona Pavilion. The chairs were made by hand out of the Berliner Metallgewerbe studio of Josef Müller in Berlin.

1931: Bamburg Company

The Barcelona Chair c. 1931, produced by the Bamburg Company. Image courtesy of Wright.

One year later, the chair appeared in the 1931 product catalog of the Bamburg Company, signaling the first attempt to mass produce the chair. Chrome plating was a new process in furniture design, and the company lacked sufficiently large vats to plate the one-square-meter welded frame. As a result, components were bolted and lap jointed, with two screws placed on a diagonal. These early iterations of the chair featured horsehair-filled cushions, like those originally designed for the Barcelona Pavilion.

The Barcelona Chair c. 1931, produced by the Bamburg Company. Image courtesy of Wright.

1931-1932: Design Improvements