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Remembering Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s unparalleled contribution to Modernism

On the German-American architect's 136th birth anniversary, STIR spotlights the ideas that guided his designs through some of his furniture pieces.

by Almas SadiquePublished on : Mar 26, 2022

Glazed facades, concrete columns, steel frames and austere interiors: these definitive features that characterise the structures designed by several 20th century architects, and that are ascribed as entities that can be itemised under the modernist movement, hardly demand any explanation or elaborate discussion to facilitate the understanding and identification of the designs that fall under this categorisation. This usage of alternate and advanced materials and reduced ostentation in both facades and in the interiors of structures is often attributed to the pragmatic rationale that there was a plethora of new products and materials that were available in the post-war industrialised cities. However, the philosophies or concepts behind them are often forgotten or ignored. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the German-American architect who is often touted as the patriarch of modernist architecture, derived inspiration for his Modernist designs from more philosophical and emblematic ideas. With a retinue of remarkable buildings that have received their fair share of appreciation, criticism and scandal, and an equally impressive collection of furniture products enriching his portfolio, Mies consistently instated his affinity to spartan designs.

Portrait of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe standing in stairwell of the Arts Club of Chicago, Illinois, 1952Image: Courtesy of miesvanderrohe on Instagram

The importance levied by Mies on individual autonomy often appears to be in dissonance with his insistence on impersonal and universal designs. However, these proclamations by the late architect are not meant to confound and confuse, but, instead, they highlight his unequivocal commitment to creating designs that on the one hand, allow for personal interpretations and additions against the "skin and bones" designed by him, thus adding soul to his "skeletons", and on the other, present themselves as challenges to the users, all the while never shifting away from ascribing to the modernist architectural movement that he had not only adopted against the culture of classical designs being strenuously pulled into the 20th century, but also took it to extremes. While the pure lines, shapes and forms that characterise his designs fit perfectly within the definitions of modernist architecture, it is perhaps the source of his inspiration behind these scantily ostentated creations where one can find the solicitude that guided the venerated architect.

Mies van der Rohe at the 1947 MOMA show dedicated to his work Image: Courtesy of miesvanderrohe on Instagram

Known to have read Nietzche on a regular basis, Mies's designs embody the idea of negation to catalyse the process of self-realisation. Cradled against the fast growing, fast urbanising metropolises that despite embracing technological innovations and non-ostentatious aesthetics, did not shy away from grandeur and fullness, Mies's austere and vast open designs appeared like ascetic spots not meant solely for habitation or visitation, but to also serve as voids that could both enhance civic life as well as help the users and visitors to distance themselves from the humdrum of bustling cities. Against this elaborate reasoning, Mies’s identifying lines "less is more" stand taller and evokes a deeper sense of introspection. It is perhaps this layered reasoning behind Mies’s work that halted him from distancing himself from modernism, unlike several other harbingers of modernist architecture.

Barcelona chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Image: Courtesy of nest_co_uk on Instagram

Born in 1886 in Germany, Mies, apart from playing his part in the facilitation of modernist architecture, also served as a director at the Bauhaus school, a German art school dedicated to heralding a new age in art and design by combining individual creative vision with the offerings of modern technology that made mass production possible. Guided by the goal to create an identifying architectural style that could be listed on the same pages as the Classical, Baroque and Gothic styles, Mies dedicated himself to creating the minimalist designs that now populate his portfolio. Like every other well-known and hailed architect, Mies also dipped his fingers in to create an array of furniture products. Almost like business cards that communicate the style and calling of a person, chairs and other furniture items serve to present the artistic styles of their makers. They serve as miniature creations that can be acquired and placed in indoor or outdoor settings sans context.

On his 136th birth anniversary, STIR pays tribute to the revered architect through some of his most iconic furniture creations.

1. Barcelona Collection

Barcelona chairs, day bed and stool by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Image: Courtesy of whatsculture on Instagram

Designed by Mies for the German Pavilion at the Barcelona Exposition in 1929, the Barcelona Chair was the first product in the collection to gain the attention of design enthusiasts. The chair borrows inspiration from the likes of the ancient Egyptian folding stools as well as 19th century neoclassical seating and re-interprets their curves and shapes using chrome-plated, flat steel bars, with leather seating. In doing so, the design attunes to the grandeur associated with important seatings, while also resonating Mies's characteristic minimalistic style that features uncluttered elements on elegantly framed forms. Despite the passing of almost a century between its initial launch and today, the chair has regularly been produced and reproduced over the years and commands an envious presence in the spaces it occupies. The other pieces that comprise the Barcelona Collection include the Barcelona Couch, Barcelona Table and two variations of the Barcelona Stool. Each piece in the collection is a fusion of modern minimalism and expert craftsmanship, characteristics that render the pieces timeless and long-lasting, respectively.

Barcelona day bed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Image: Courtesy of miesvanderrohe on Instagram

2. MR Collection

MR 20 chair (with armrests) by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Image: Courtesy of miesvanderrohe on Instagram

Developed as a lounge chair by Mies in 1927, the MR Chair served as a precursor to the several variations of the MR table, stool, chaise lounge and armless chair. The elegant and minimal chair was created in an attempt to design a chair devoid of back legs. This grants the MR chair the appearance of a risky cantilevered surface. However, the curved tubular steel rods that frame the chair stay taut and firm against human weight. The chair bears the architect's defining style, but also borrows inspiration from the shape and form of 19th century rocking chairs as well as from Mies's fellow Bauhaus designer, Marcel Breuer, who influenced the usage of steel in his design. The MR chaise lounge, stool and table, developed later, are iterations of the lounge chair. They carry the same curves, are made up of the same materials and are light and unostentatious, yet refined.

MR Table by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Image: Courtesy of knoll on Instagram

3. Tugendhat Chair

Tugendhat Chair by Mies van der Rohe Image: Courtesy of Awsome on Pinterest

Created in 1930, the Tugendhat Chair, originally known as Federsessel or 'spring chair', was initially installed in the Villa Tugendhat designed by Mies. It was crafted by the architect with the intention of creating a resilient, comfortable and elegant piece of furniture. This demanded the usage of a tubular steel framework to support the chair and square buttoned leather upholstery to cushion the seating area. Since the first design of this chair was not favoured by the clients, a total of five chairs with minor modifications were designed and installed within Tugendhat. Such was its association with the villa, that it was recognised more with the name of the house than with its actual name, and thus, the rechristening of the chair.

4. Brno Chair

Mies van der Rohe's Brno Chair appears like a cantilever  | Ludwig Mies van der Rohe | STIRworld
Mies van der Rohe's Brno Chair Image: Courtesy of Knoll

Touted as a modernist cantilever chair, the Brno Chair was exclusively designed by Mies for the Tugendhat House in Brno, Czech Republic. Developed in the year 1930, the steel and leather chair draws strong references from Mies's earlier furniture pieces and is defined by a cleaner, sleeker and more elegant appearance than its predecessors. It soon became a defining icon of the 20th century furniture design and has since found usage in interior spaces in multifarious capacities. The chair features a single steel frame that is interestingly curved and bent into a C-form. It comes in two variations, one of which employs the usage of flat steel bar and the other utilises tubular stainless steel.

Brno Chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Image: Courtesy of lafloexperience on Instagram

5. Four Seasons Barstool

Four Seasons Barstools by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Image: Courtesy of knoll on Instagram

Mimicking the cantilever style that came on to define Mies's niche in the furniture world, the Four Seasons Barstool, designed in 1958, employed the same mechanism and materials as its predecessors, but in a leaner and taller format, so as to birth the barstool that could complement the Brno Chair with its flair and elegance. The stool was originally designed to occupy the spaces of one of Mies's collaborative projects with Philip Johnson, the Four Seasons Restaurant at the Seagram Building in New York. The stool, however, commands a strong presence in isolation as well. This classy piece recently went into mass production.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, over the years, has served as an example and inspiration to architects, designers and design enthusiasts. While the architect has been levied with equal parts appreciation and criticism, that are backed with reasonable explanations, his impact and imprint in the field of architecture, and more importantly, as a modernist architect, cannot be discounted.

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