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After World War I, progressive designers could take advantage of the emergence of new man-made materials and production techniques to create furniture in the glacially glamorous aesthetic of the "machine age". The decade was dominated by the race to design the first cantilevered chair, eventually won by the Dutch architect Mart Stam, and by the experiments in tubular steel of Marcel Breuer and Mies Van Der Rohe in Germany, and Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand in Paris.

Red / Blue Chair, 1918-1921

Design: Gerrit Thomas Rietveld

Beech, plywood

At a time when the monochrome palette of furniture designers such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland and Josef Hoffmann in Austria was considered to be startlingly innovative, the introduction of the primary coloured Red/Blue Chair in 1921 by the Dutch architect Gerrit Thomas Rietveld (1888-1964) caused a sensation. Conceived as an abstract composition of surfaces and lines in space, this chair is Rietveld’s three-dimensional vision of the minimalist paintings of Piet Mondrian, a fellow member of the De Stijl movement. Rietveld intended the chair for mass-production and it is made from standard lengths of wood, which require little skill to construct. Originally finished in natural wood, it was painted in then-radical bright by Rietveld in 1921.

Chaise Longue Model No. B306, 1928

Design: Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand

Chromed bent tubular steel, leather

The first project assigned to Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999) by Le Corbusier (1887-1965) was to design a series of chairs to furnish Maison La Roche, a house he was designing in Paris. He asked for three types of chair: one 'for conversation', another 'for relaxation' and a third 'for sleeping'. The first was the B301 slingback chair, the second the Grand Confort club chair and the third the B306 chaise longue. Inspired by the graceful curves of 18th century French daybeds, the chaise longue combined the utility of tubular steel with the decadence of ponyskin and leather. 'I thought of the cowboy from the Wild West smoking his pipe, feet in the air higher than his head, against the chimney-piece: complete rest,' recalled Le Corbusier. Charlotte Perriand posed for the publicity shots of the B306 with bobbed hair, a daringly short skirt and a necklace of industrial ball bearings.

MR10, 1927

Design: Mies van der Rohe, Lilly Reich

Chromium-plated steel, leather

Throughout the 1920s the German architect Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) collaborated with the interior designer Lilly Reich (1885-1947) on the development of furniture for his architectural projects. By the mid-1920s they, like other progressive designers, were fascinated by the possibilities of tubular metal. Mies and Reich were intrigued by the cantilever chair, which they saw as the acme of modernity offering the comfort of a conventional armchair without the bourgeois associations of upholstery. By 1927, they had developed the textile-seated MR10 and cane-seated MR20. Both chairs were exhibited at the 1927 Die Wohnung exhibition of modern living at the Weissenhof Settlement in Stuttgart.

Model No. B302 swivel chair, 1928-1929

Design: Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand

Chromed bent tubular steel, leather

Inspired by a simple office chair, this swivel chair was designed for use at a desk or dining table. Under Le Corbusier’s (1887-1965) supervision, Charlotte Periand (1903-1999) transformed the utilitarian form by upholstering the seat and back in luxurious leather. She envisaged the back as providing a solid comfortable cushion to rest against 'like automobile tyres'. Working with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret (1896-1967) instilled a strict discipline in Perriand. 'The smallest pencil stroke had to have a point,' she later recalled, 'to fulfil a need, or respond to a gesture or posture, and to be achieved at mass-production prices.' Perriand tried to persuade the French manufacturer Peugeot to adapt the tubular steel used in its bicycle frames for their furniture. When Peugeot declined, she successfully persuaded Thonet, the manufacturer of Le Corbusier’s favourite bentwood chairs, to make all the furniture, including this swivel chair, for the Salon d’Automne.

B32, 1928

Design: Marcel Breuer

Chromium-plated steel, wood, cane

The most refined and resolved of the pioneering cantilevered chairs produced in the late 1920s is the B32, designed by Marcel Breuer (1902-1981). By adding a robust wooden frame to the seat and back, he eradicated the need for the additional support of cross-pieces and hidden tubes to leave a light, elegant structure. Its lightness and modernity were enhanced by the textural and colour contrast of the polished steel tubing, warm wooden frames and translucent cane of the back and seat. Breuer then developed an armchair version of the B32 in the equally radical B64 in which he positioned the arms to float gracefully above the seat frame.

Grand Confort Model No. LC2 Club Chair, 1928

Design: Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand

Chromed bent tubular steel, leather.

When the 24 year-old furniture designer Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999) asked for a job at Le Corbusier's (1887-1965) studio at 35 rue de Sèvres in Paris, he replied: 'We don’t embroider cushions here.' A few months later he apologised after being taken by his cousin Pierre Jeanneret (1896-1967) to see the glass, steel and aluminium interior that Perriand had designed for her Bar sous le Toît installation in an exhibition. Until then Le Corbusier had furnished his residential projects and exhibition sets with the bentwood chairs manufactured by Thonet in Austria and club chairs from Maples in London. Perriand’s arrival offered an opportunity for his studio to develop furniture in the angular forms of the modern movement from industrial materials. Originally designed for Maison La Roche in Paris and exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1929, the Grand Confort was inspired by Le Corbusier’s favourite Maples club chair.

Barcelona Chair, Model No. MR90, 1929

Design: Mies van der Rohe, Lilly Reich

Chromed flat steel, leather

Among the most elegant and imposing of the chairs designed by Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) in collaboration with the interior designer Lilly Reich (1885-1947) is the opulent Barcelona Chair. Designed in 1929, it is one of the most recognizable early 20th century chairs and is still a familiar sight in corporate foyers. The chair was developed for the German Pavilion at the 1929 International Exhibition in Barcelona as part of Mies’ commission to design the pavilion and its contents. As the German Pavilion was to be the setting for the official opening ceremony, Mies decided upon a throne-like form for the chairs and modeled them on the sella curulis, an ancient stool used by Roman magistrates.

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