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Chrome plated tubular steel may not sound like the material found in antique furniture. Steel does not have the patina, warmth, or graining of wood normally associated with antiques. However, the benchmark chair of contemporary furniture, the Wassily, which was designed in 1925 by Marcel Breuer of the Bauhaus School, will, in only 25 years, be considered an antique by government standards.

Architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus School after World War I in Weimar, Germany. Its mission was to unite the fields of creativity and craftsmanship in the design of all products. At the school there were master teachers in the areas of architecture, furniture design, painting, typography, textile design, music, sculpture and color, each with the emphasis on functional design. The familiar mottos of “form follow function,” “less is more,” and “a house is a machine for living” came from the Bauhaus School.

Sherrill Whiton states in his book Interior Design and Decoration, ”In retrospect, it was the most important school since Louis XIV had codified art in the Institut de France and Napoleon I had united art and science in the Polytechnique.”

There were many famous artists that were educated or taught at the school. In addition to Gropius, there were Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbussier. Besides being visionary architects, these men also designed furniture for their buildings, in the tradition of the Adam brothers of 18th century England. One chair in particular was to change the course of furniture design to this day.

By 1925, Gropius had designed a new campus for the Bauhaus School, and legend has it that 23 year old teacher Marcel Breuer had the assignment of designing furnishings for the teacher’s residences. As a designer, he sought, to integrate the geometry an simplicity of the Bauhaus philosophy with a strong desire for human comfort. The resulting chair for the home of faculty member Wassily Kandinsky, an Abstract Expressionism painter, was made from tubular steel. This was the first time the material had been used for general interior furniture, but its light weight, affordability, and strength made it an ideal choice. Although the chair is void of any decoration, the tubular steel frame gives a very complicated and boxy effect. The original version had back and seat slings of canvas that kept the body from contact with the nickel plated frame. By 1930, however, it was produced with chrome plating, which did not tarnish, and leather was option for the slings.

Shortly afterwards, many of the classic contemporary designs we see today were created. Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair and Bruno chair, Le Corbusier’s Longue and Grand Confort chair are just a few that are still popular. Throughout their production, adaptations have been made to improve the materials and durability.

And there are copies to suit all pocketbooks. What standards can be used in the future to judge the quality, authenticity, and value of this new breed of antiques? Lauren Cadmus of Knoll International gives these guidelines: “The licensed version has only three options for upholstery: brown leather, black leather or natural canvas. The frame is chrome plated tubular steel, and the dimensions are always per Breuer’s original design, 30 _” wide x 27” deep x 28 _” high. Look for normal signs of wear on the upholstery and frame. Also, all Knoll manufactured chairs include a product number, identification number, and the signature of Marcel Breuer.”

The next question then asks whether the authorized version of this chair with an I.D. number of 1,000 become more valuable in the future than the identical chair, made by the same standards, with I.D. number 100,000? It is clear that we will have to rethink the definition of “antique” for these steel and leather contemporary chairs.

*Published in NFocus magazine in May 2000.

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