The Collector’s Minute: The Minimalist Barcelona Chair
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was decades ahead of his time when he designed the Barcelona chair for the 1929 International Exposition.
The Barcelona chair is a stylistic icon designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, known for his minimalist glass-box architecture. The same principles that guided his building designs he applied to this chair: simplicity, strength and lightness.
This type of chair, probably his most famous creation, was originally made for the Barcelona’s International Exposition in 1929, debuting in the German Pavilion, which Mies also designed.
His design is simplicity itself; almost a modern variation of the Renaissance Dantesca chair, with two curving metal legs forming an X-frame to support the rectangular upholstered foam seat cushions.
This design was well ahead of its time, even for the Art Deco period during which it was made. Metal-framed furniture was rarely seen outside of industrial or institutional settings, it’s low slung armless form looking more like it was designed in the late 1950s than 1929. The original Barcelona chair was manufactured in both the US and Europe as a limited-production item from the 1930s to the 1950s
In Mies’ original design, the frame was bolted, but it was refined in 1950 when new stainless-steel alloys allowed a stronger and springier one-piece welded frame. Such design tweaks also allowed for larger-scale production.
In 1948, the Knoll furniture company received the exclusive rights to produce this chair. It makes the frame in two different types of steel—chrome or stainless—and even with changes to the design it still requires a lot of hand labor to produce. On the Knoll chairs, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s signature is stamped into each one.
Knoll is attempting to protect this design via legal action, but unlicensed reproductions are still currently being made worldwide and marketed under a variety of different brand names in varying degrees of quality. In the current market, if you can find an authorized chair, be prepared for a bit of a shock; even a pair of later Knoll Barcelona chairs could set you back $3,500 at auction, with unlicensed copies by unknown makers currently going for about $600 to $900.
Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.
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