In 1928, Mies met with Fritz and Grete Tugendhat, a Czech couple who wanted him to build them a house in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Mies had been working on a new idea for residential building. In his view, the point of a home must not be the building itself, but the flow, the way one moves through it and lives in it. This approach appealed to the Tugendhats; Fritz Tugendhat is on record as being "utterly horrified by rooms full of figurines and blankets."
Working with his colleague Lilly Reich, he designed the Villa Tugendhat with an open plan, spaces defined by pale velvet curtains and partitions made of exotic hardwoods. One central partition, called the onyx wall (image 9), was cut so as to best display the natural variegation of the material (which is not actually onyx, but calcium carbonate.) Mies and Reich had workshopped this approach to interior architecture in the pavilion they designed for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona.
It was for the Barcelona pavilion that the duo debuted the famous chairs that came to be known as the Barcelona chairs. They used these chairs in the Tugendhat house, and also designed cantilevered steel chairs that are now known as the Brno chairs.
The authorship of the Brno chair is somewhat up for grabs. Although Mies is typically credited with their design, Knoll's Albert Pheiffer points out that "Mies did not fully develop any contemporary furniture successfully before or after his collaboration with Reich." In 1930, when Mies became head of the Bauhaus, Reich was appointed a master of furniture design there. So it seems likely that the chairs were largely Reich's design, though of course they were created in the context of her collaboration with Mies, and of the Tugendhat commission.
The other issue of authorship is the tricky history of cantilevered chairs in general. The Dutch architect Mart Stam seems to have been the first to design a cantilevered chair out of tubular steel (image 10). His design apparently inspired Marcel Breuer's famous Wassily chair and Mies's various cantilevered chairs, including the Brno. In fact, Breuer and Stam went to court to determine who had ownership over the patent for the cantilevered chair, and Stam won. It's a little confusing, because the Breuer chair is typically dated to 1925, while the Stam chair is dated to 1926 … but who am I to argue with the German court?
In the photos of the Villa Tugendhat you can see Barcelona chairs and Brno chairs in various materials throughout, some with and some without arm rests (images 1-8).
In 1938, just a few years after the completion of the home, the Tugendhats, who were Jewish, fled Czechoslovakia for Switzerland. The government confiscated the house shortly thereafter, and still owns it; it is now a museum. The same year, 1938, Mies left Germany for the US. Reich stayed in Berlin. She was sent to a concentration camp in 1943 and remained there until the end of the war. She died in 1947.
Images: 1-9 Villa Tugendhat; 10 Mart Stam chair via Thonet
Sources: You can buy a Brno chair at DWR for $1831-2297. The chairs are now produced by Knoll.
Originally published 3.10.11 - JL