Modern furniture design: Five of the most iconic examples

Wassily Chairs by Marcel Breuer. By Kai 'Oswald' Seidler – CC BY 2.0

During the first half of the 20th century, a new philosophy in design emerged, where the accent was put on functionality and simplicity as opposed to previous designs that promoted decorative elements. The introduction of new technology and influence from architectural principles led to the introduction of what is called modern furniture where ornamentation was avoided and gave way to simple and precise products.

Architects, artists, and designers emerged mostly from three influential groups: De Stijl movement in the Netherlands, the Deutscher Werkbund in Germany, and the Art School Bauhaus also in Germany. New ideas and materials such as steel, molded plywood and plastics became essential for the new style designed by modernists. One of the main ideas was that furniture pieces would be designed and constructed for mass-production, allowing a larger number of people to have access to good design.

Many famous furniture pieces date from the beginning of the 20th century, most of them are still being produced today, which is a proof of their timeless design. So many of them are worth mentioning, but here are five modernist furniture icons that were designed by some of the pioneers of modernism which served as inspiration for generations of designers to come.

1.The Red and Blue Chair

Red and Blue chair. Author:Sailko. CC BY 2.5

The Red and Blue Chair was designed by one of the principal members of De Stijl art movement, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, in 1918. The original chair was constructed from beech wood and it wasn’t painted until the beginning of the 1920s. The primary colors (red, blue and yellow) associated with De Stijl movement, plus the black, were added in 1923. Rietveld aimed for simple geometric design and easy construction, hoping for mass-production of his furniture. Fifteen bars, two rectangular plates that served as seat and backrest and two panels at the side which were later removed from the construction, were combined to form a historic item. The chair was placed in Schröder House also designed by Rietveld. The black walls of the house and the color scheme of the chair combined, made the chair seem transparent. A slightly different version of this chair is still produced, it now has cushions to make it more comfortable.

2.The Wassily Chair

The Wassily chair. Author: Jeff Belmonte. CC BY 2.0

The Wassily Chair was designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925-26 while he was head of the cabinet-making workshop of the Bauhaus in Germany. The chair, as well as other tubular metal furniture designed by Breuer, was inspired by the frame of an Adler bicycle. A story exists, which is untrue, that the chair was designed by the famous Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky who was at the Bauhaus at the same time and was Breuer’s good friend. Kandinsky loved the chair’s design so much that Breuer had to make one for him. The chair, initially known as Model B3, was named “Wassily” years later, when the Italian manufacturer Gavina, re-released the chair.

3.Adjustable Table E1027

Eileen Gray’s side table.

Eileen Gray designed this famous side table for the guest room in her famous E-1027 Villa, that she built for her and her partner Jean Badovici in Cap Martin, France. The table was designed for Eileen’s sister who liked taking her breakfast in bed. The table’s open circular base allows it to get under a bed or a sofa and brought closer to the person using it. The top is made of glass, the body is made of chromed steel and the user can adjust its height.

4. Chaise Longue

Chaise Longue by Le Corbusier. Author:Edoardo Costa. CC BY-ND 2.0

Designed in 1928, the LC4 Chaise Longue is the most famous piece of furniture designed by the Swiss Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier, and the only piece that he had worked on personally. The chair would later be known as a “relaxing machine” due to the fact that it reflects the natural curves of the human body. Le Corbusier declared that furniture should be “extensions of our limbs and adapted to human functions”. The Chaise Longue embodies his words perfectly. The chair’s position can be adjusted without any kind of mechanism. Unfortunately, the chair’s complex design made its production expensive.

5.The Barcelona Chair

Barcelona chair and ottoman. Author:Paris on Ponce & Le Maison Rouge. CC BY 2.0

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his close collaborator Lilly Reich designed the Barcelona chair as a part of the German Pavillion for 1929 International Exposition that took place in Barcelona. It was inspired by the Egyptian folding chairs and Roman “X” shaped footstools. Only two chairs were made for the exposition, but the design became so popular that it is still being produced today. Originally designed to be bolted together, the steel frame was redesigned in 1950, allowing it to be molded from a single piece of steel. The initial material used for the seat was pigskin, later replaced with cow leather.