From the October/November 2018 Issue

Simple & Sophisticated

Writer Ren Miller
  • The Barcelona chair is often seen with black leather cushions, though the original ones were ivory pigskin. Many other colors of leather are also available today, as are coordinating ottomans, sofas and children’s chairs.

    Courtesy of Miesbarcelonachair/Wikimedia.org

  • This 1929 photo shows the first Barcelona chairs, part of the German Pavilion Mies van der Rohe designed for the International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain, that year. A well-known story about royal provenance says Mies designed the chairs for the king and queen of Spain to sit on at the exposition. That story is now known to be false, but there’s no question the chair became an icon of modern design.

    Courtesy of Yuichi/Wikimedia.org

The Barcelona chair looks as modern now as it did when introduced nearly 90 years ago

The height of sophistication is simplicity.” Editor, playwright, U.S. Ambassador and one-time Union City, New Jersey resident Clare Booth Luce used that phrase in her 1931 novel Stuffed Shirts. Though the character who spoke the phrase was referring to a person, the sentiment seems tailor-made for the Barcelona® chair.

German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed the chair and a matching ottoman in 1929 with a less-is-more maxim in mind. They were among the clean-lined furnishings created for the German Pavilion that Mies designed for the International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain. During this period, he was experimenting with classical forms, and the Barcelona chair is based roughly on a scissor-shape design (known as a curule seat) that dates back to 1500 B.C. Some have compared it to folding campaign chairs from Ancient Rome.

The simplified form, however, has a distinctly modern feel, even today. The frame is deceptively stunning. On each side, a chrome-plated flat steel bar curves gently from the top of the back to the floor in front. That bar connects to another one that supports the seat and continues in an elongated s-shape to form one of the rear legs.

The legs are joined by crossbars that support leather straps. Thick, rectangular, leather-covered tufted seat and back cushions sit on top of the straps. The seat is highly cantilevered because the chair’s axis is at the sides rather than the more typical front-to-rear-axis.

The curved frames and ivory-colored pigskin cushions of the original chairs and ottomans complemented the straight edges of the freestanding walls and planes of the German Pavilion (see bottom photo at right). Only two of the chairs were made, but the design was so popular that it quickly went into production in Germany until the outbreak of World War II.

Mies fled Germany and relocated to Chicago to become director of Illinois Institute of Technology. Production resumed, this time in New York City. While he was at IIT, his former student Florence Knoll broached the idea of producing his entire furniture collection. He agreed and granted Knoll Inc. production rights. The most distinctive feature of a Knoll-manufactured Barcelona chair is thick welted piping on the cushions, which are stuffed with a dense industrial foam rather than the original horsehair.

Imitations of varying quality are available. To get the real thing, check for the KnollStudio logo and signature of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe stamped into the leg. The chair is available starting at $5,991 with a polished chrome frame and your choice of leather type and color. Options include a stainless steel frame and a wide range of leathers and colors. Knoll.com.