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1929 Barcelona Chair

"The chair," said Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, "is a very difficult object. Everyone who has ever tried to make one knows that. There are endless possibilities and many problems--the chair has to be light, it has to be strong, it has to be comfortable. It is almost easier to build a skyscraper than a good chair."

Mies finds architecture and furniture design closely related; the problems, principles, and even the materials involved in building a skyscraper may also be found in the design of a chair. Architecture, in fact, led Mies to his interest in furniture design. "People asked for furniture to go with our buildings," he explains. "They thought they wanted a chair that someone else didn't have."

In 1929, Mies was commissioned by the German government to design the German pavilion for the Barcelona Fair, one of the most elegant pieces of architecture ever created and the classic example of a structure using continuous spatial flow. This building required furniture that simply did not exist, so Mies responded to this commission with the Barcelona chair.

It had to be an "important chair, a very elegant chair," said Mies. "The government was to receive a king, a dictator, an ambassador. This was not a private affair, this was a government building. The chair had to be important, it had to seem elegant and costly, it had to be monumental. In those circumstances, you just couldn't use a kitchen chair."

To achieve this sense of luxury, Mies used size and such materials as the finest kid leather for the cushions. In one sense, however, the Barcelona chair's combination of steel, webbing, and leather was a failure. "My idea," says Mies, "was to use the elasticity of steel. The chair was to open up for its occupant under the weight of his body. The back was to go back, the seat go down. But when we tried the chair in steel, there was no spring. It was too rigid to respond to the demands of the design." But although the chrome-plated steel frame had no give, it served well as a skeleton for the leather cushions.

The chair, now manufactured in the United States and 29 countries by Knoll Associates, represents the highest achievement in coordination of materials, craftsmanship, and design. Mies refined his original design in 1950 to take advantage of advancements in the formulation of stainless steel, and the result is a completely welded, one-piece stainless steel frame of superior spring, strength, and beauty. The unbroken flow of line is made possible by the integral strength of a special steel alloy, which eliminated the need for additional braces at welding points. The frame is polished by hand to a flawless mirror finish.

The production model of the Barcelona chair is upholstered only in top-grain natural leathers, tan or black in color. The seat and back cushions are formed from 40 separately cut panels, joined by narrow handsewn welts. Of foam rubber, the cushions are supported by straps of saddle leather. Despite its luxury price of nearly $1,000, the chair has shown a steady increase in production and sales. The number sold in 1960, for example, was almost triple that for 1956.