The Wassily Chair

There are a pair of Wassily Chairs in the shop. Knoll Furniture in New York made them and owns the trademark on the design. The steel tubing and leather Wassily Chair was designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925 when he was on the faculty of the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany. He did not name the chair. He made one for the painter Wassily Kandinsky - and the design later took his name.



Marcel Breuer was one of the most important figures in modern design and architecture. How's that for vague - one of the 100 most important? No, one of maybe a half dozen people who really shaped modernist design and architecture.


Breuer designed the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. He also designed the Campus Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, my alma mater.


It was built in 1970, but true to the modernism of the early twentieth century it fuses design and architecture: all of the furniture and interior fixtures were designed by Breuer. The only feature not a part of Breuer's design is the sign outside that reads "no skateboarding." Bummer. Along with many other public and governmental buildings of the mid-century, it is in a style called Brutalist - characterized by units of poured concrete assembled somewhat like Legos. The term Brutalist refers to the raw state of the concrete - covered with neither paint nor any other finish - but suggests a blight on the landscape and the brutal regimes of the 20th century that employed the style. It's like a bit of downtown Bucharest in bucolic western Massachusetts.


As a student at UMass I set my mind to liking this building. I lingered in the stairwell (the piece protruding from the end of the building) admiring the truth in materials: the raw concrete showing the grain of the wooden molds in which it was poured. I wrote a research paper on the building, which gave me access to the hotel and dining rooms in the upper stories, some of which still have Breuer's original furniture, cabinets, and raw concrete walls. The wood too is raw.


'Truth in materials' - that is, not disguising or covering what something is made of - is, along with 'form follows function,' a major tenet of modernist design. The Wassily Chair embraces both these concepts. Breuer reduced the chair to a simple exposed structure, and to two materials, one hard (steel) and one soft (leather). Presumably the Wassily Chair looks the way it does because it is the essence of chair. But the real question, the question on your mind, the one that gets pushed aside in the discussion of the purist concepts of modernism: is it comfortable?


I'm sitting in the Wassily Chair as I write. I'm tall. Were I a little shorter there would be nice lumbar support. I want to slouch, cross my legs, put my elbow on the armrest and touch my temple or chin. I feel like I should have a cigarette but I don't smoke; feel like I should be reading something philosophical in a foreign language.


At first I want to treat it like a museum piece but it is actually very sturdy. The leather, which appears black from a distance, is a rich brown - and it is thick. I like the side straps. I shift to one side and throw my arm on the back.


Feels like a very masculine chair. Of course, anyone could sit in it, anyone wearing pants, smoking a cigarette, and reading Martin Heidegger in the original German - or binge-watching Mad Men. I like these chairs. They are comfortable - once you settle in - and they are a piece of history. And I can get this pair for less than I could get one new from the manufacturer. The leather is a little worn, but I like that too; as we say in the business "they've got a little age on them."




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