Design Friday. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair.

Last Friday I did a Design Friday post on the B.F.K. Chair by Jorge Hardoy. After I posted it I got an email from someone who had read it asking about other famous “mid-century modern” chairs like the “Barcelona Chair” by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. So I thought I would do a little post on that chair today.

First off, the Barcelona chair is NOT mid-century modern. It often gets lumped in with that period of furniture do to the fact that it shows up in so many interior architecture photos from the late 40’s through mid 60’s. The fact is though, the chair was designed 20 years before mid-century modernism starts, in 1929 for the German pavilion at the International Exposition in Barcelona Spain.

At the time van der Rohe shouldered a huge responsibility to create a special building that would announce Germany’s rebirth as a country of  cultural prowess, showcase their creative achievements and commercial viability in the 10 years following WWI.

The frame was originally designed to be bolted together, but was redesigned in 1950 using welded stainless steel. The new process allowed the frame to form a seamless piece of metal, giving it a smoother and more refined appearance. In addition, cow leather replaced the ivory-colored pigskin which was used with the original chairs from previous decades. The functional design and manufacturing elements of the chair that were patented by van der Rohe in Germany, Spain and the United States in the 1930s have since expired. Which has led to numerous knock-offs and fakes being produced world wide for far less money.

The “Barcelona chair” was manufactured in the US and Europe in limited production from the 1930s to the 1950s. In 1953 van der Rohe ceded his rights and his name on the design to Knoll, knowing that his design patents were expired, and realizing that Knoll was in a position to effectively promote the chair. The collaboration between van der Rohe and Knoll renewed popularity of the original design. Knoll is still the current licensed manufacturer and holder of all trademark rights to the design. In 1965, Knoll purchased the trademark rights to the Barcelona word from Drexel. In 2004, Knoll received trade dress rights to the design from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Despite the trademarks that Knoll holds, a large replica market continues to this day. Gordon International  has continued to manufacture the chair and accompanying furniture since the mid 1970s, even after a court battle against Knoll in 2005.

“van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair is an icon of “modernism”. The chair’s design was inspired by the campaign and folding chairs of ancient times. By transposing an ancient and regal design into a modern setting, the van der Rohe enjoyed instant acclaim. The chair was shown off perfectly in the environment of the Pavilion. Royal visitors, it is said, did not actually take advantage of this newly designed seating accommodation, but the chair quickly attained the reputation of being “a design worthy of kings”.”

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