Modernist Monday: Marcel Breuer

Welcome back to #ModernistMondays! At TTC, we are constantly inspired by modernist architects and artists from past and present. To showcase some of our favorites, we launched #ModernistMondays, where we highlight one modernist each month to explore with ten quick facts. You can keep up with #ModernistMondays on the TTC Blog, or our Instagram page! Our March feature is original Bauhaus student and Modernist pioneer, Marcel Breuer.

Marcel Breuer was born in 1902 in Hungary, but left when he turned 18, moving to Germany and becoming one of the first students at The Staatliches Bauhaus. The school’s founder, Walter Gropius, quickly recognized his talent and became his mentor. After graduating, Breuer taught at the school’s new Department of Architecture.

A portrait of Breuer in his iconic Wassily chair

He was fascinated with bicycle handlebars, and became widely known for his bicycle-inspired invention of tubular furniture, using metal to create modern forms. The result was the Wassily chair, named for one of its first owners, Breuer’s friend Wassily Kandinsky, the great Russian abstract painter.

The chair is now recognized as one of the most iconic chairs in history, and did so well commercially that Breuer lived off of the chair’s sales when commissions were less frequent.

Moving to London in the late 1930s, Breuer worked at the Isokon company, a furniture and home design firm. While there, he began experimenting with new materials, such as plywood, and designed a second popular chair, the Long Chair.

Soon after, in 1937, Breuer moved to America to join his mentor Gropius as a faculty member at Harvard University. During this period, he and Gropius designed multiple homes, including the Frank House in Pittsburgh, which is considered by many historians to be a Modernist masterpiece.

The Frank House interior

In 1941, Breuer and Gropius terminated their friendship and work relationship. Breuer married the pair’s secretary, Constance Crocker Leighton, and moved to Manhattan to pursue a solo career in architecture. 

In New York, Breuer developed a new style of residence: the ‘binuclear’ house, with separate wings for the bedrooms and for the living, dining, and kitchen area, separated by an entry hall, and with a ‘butterfly’ roof. This prototype became a common Modernist form. He built two of these homes for his own family in Connecticut, and a prototype for the MoMA, which eventually became the property of the Rockefellers.

Breuer’s model of a ‘binuclear’ house

Bruer shifted from residential to larger institutional work in the 1950s, the first two being the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, and Saint John’s Abbey in Minnesota. It was rumored that his ex-collaborator, Walter Gropius, was the initial choice for the Abbey, but that Gropius suggested that it go to Breuer instead.

In the late sixties, Breuer designed a facility in New Haven, Connecticut, for the Armstrong Rubber Company, uniquely built with two forms; a research and development space on the lower floors, a two story suspension, and administrative offices on the upper block. This design helped to prevent noise from the development labs from reaching the administrative unit. In the early 2000s, the building was owned by Ikea, but remained empty. In 2019, Connecticut developer Bruce Becker announced plans to turn the building into a zero-net energy hotel and conference center.

The Pirelli Tire building

Concrete became the primary medium for Breur’s buildings, including milestone projects such as the Sarah Lawrence College theater in New York (1952), the IBM Center in France (1962), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, DC (1968).

The Department of Housing in Washington, DC

Probably Breuer’s most celebrated project is The Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan (1966), which is now known as The Met Breuer, an extension of the Metropolitan Museum of Art named after its designer. The Met Breuer closed permanently in 2020 due to financial cuts caused by the pandemic.

Before his retirement in 1976, he proposed an office building to be built on top of Grand Central Station, which was a controversial and highly-criticized idea. Prior to his death in 1981, he told a reporter that he believed his greatest contribution was adapting the work of previous architects (likely Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe) to fit the needs of today’s society. Today, he is an architectural legend whose furniture and architectural design talents live on in homes and buildings around the world.

The Met Breuer

Sources:“Marcel Breuer,” Wikipedia; “Marcel Breuer,” Britannica; “Marcel Breuer,” Design Within Reach; “Marcel Breuer Digital Archive,” The Marcel Breuer Digital Archive (Syracuse University)