In our new regular, Reclaim’s editor looks at an iconic piece of furniture or homeware design. This month, she takes a seat in the Barcelona chair.
I first saw the Barcelona in the nineties. A wide-eyed new graduate, I’d just moved to London and was going for a job interview at an advertising agency. Everything about the office was smooth. BBC News played at an understated volume on a giant wall TV; haughty ad execs seemed to glide across the blonde wood floor. And I – overdressed probably, nervous, definitely – was asked to wait in the foyer. The chairs I was faced with, in black, were more intimidating than the receptionist. Polished and arrogant, they seemed to sneer at my audacity at even thinking about using them for their primary purpose – sitting down.
For the Barcelona isn’t just a chair, it’s perfection. Designed by celebrated Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, in collaboration with his partner Lilly Reich, for the 1929 German Pavilian at the Barcelona Exposition, they caused an immediate sensation. Originally only two were created, one each for King Alfonso XIII and his wife Ena. They didn’t sit in them, either.
Based on the folding chairs favoured by the Pharoahs and Romans, the Barcelona captures the timelessness of an ancient throne with the clean lines of modernity.
It was van der Rohe who coined the much-used phrase ‘Less is more’ and the Barcelona is the ultimate example of this. Made from top quality leather and steel, it’s as much about the space, even the person and atmosphere, on and around it as the chair itself. And that space almost always exudes glamour – perfection attracts beauty – so it’s little wonder that it’s a James Bond favourite, appearing in both Casino Royale and Die Another Day.
Instantly recognisable as a symbol of success, the Barcelona has had just one design tweak since 1929. Originally the metal frame was two pieces bolted together, but in 1950 when stainless steel became available, van der Rohe incorporated it to make one seamless piece. It’s been in production for 80 years, and in 1953 the designer gave exclusive manufacturing and sales rights to Knoll, who continue to produce the chair to his exact specifications. Although there are many copies, the genuine article has the Knoll Studio logo and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe signature stamped onto the leg; it’s hand-upholstered and the frame is even hand-buffed to achieve that glossy mirror finish.
Eventually I did sit – well, perch – on the chair. It’s certainly not a seat for slouching, and it was perfect at that moment. For the Barcelona forces you to bring your ‘A’ game.
- Knoll gifted a replica of the original 1929 chair to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
- The chair has its own page in the Barcelona Yellow Pages
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe first used the term “God is in the details.”
- The Barcelona ottoman and footstool weren’t designed by van der Rohe, but follow the same design principles.
- The chair’s cushions are upholstered with 40 individual panels cut, hand-welted and hand-tufted from a single hide.