Meet the Wassily Chair, an Icon of Modern Design Whose History Dates Back to the 1920s

Combine a bicycle frame, a leather club chair, and a genius, and you get a design revolution.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Wassily Chair is that it was designed in 1925 when the Ford Model A was considered cutting-edge technology. Nearly a century later, the Wassily Chair still looks as contemporary as when it first reached the mass market.

With an elegant form traced in gleaming steel, a back and arms that seem to float in space, and its ability to hold somebody on its canvas seat without touching the metal framework, the Wassily Chair looks like something out of the Information Age rather than the Jazz Age.

Some people think the Wassily Chair came out of the mid-20th century's era of Modernism since that's when it was mass-produced and spread to the American suburbs. But its origin story begins nearly two generations earlier, across the Atlantic in pre-World War II Germany, where a bunch of architects and designers set out to turn the world into an artfully designed utopia.

Here's the backstory on the Wassily, the highly sculptural, minimal chair that forever changed the course of furniture design.

Architect and Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer seated in a Wassily chair of his own design
Marcel Breuer seated in a Wassily Chair. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Bauhaus Beginnings

The Wassily Chair was designed by Hungarian architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer, an apprentice at the Bauhaus. Founded in 1919, this influential German school of modern art, architecture, and design maintained that form should follow function.

Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius believed artists and designers could create beautiful, useful objects that could be mass-produced to make the world a better place. Too much ornamentation meant an item couldn't be affordably made en masse, so Gropius and his acolytes championed minimalist forms and creative use of materials like steel, glass, and steam-bent wood.

Back to Breuer. Around this time, he was in his early 20s, in Dessau, Germany, and had just bought his first bicycle. He loved its lightness and tubular steel frame and began to wonder if he could make a chair out of the material. So he starts experimenting with the material in Bauhaus workshops.

Dr. Anna Ruth Gatlin, assistant professor at Auburn University

It strips a classic chair down to its core as a celebration of what's great about technology, materials, design ... It's hopeful and energetic; the essence of modernism.

— Dr. Anna Ruth Gatlin, assistant professor at Auburn University

Breuer wanted to make a tubular steel version of the traditional overstuffed leather club chair that was in every gin joint from Detroit to Paris at the time. Talk about opposites. But put a steel bicycle frame and an overstuffed leather club chair through the prism of Breuer's genius, and you get the Wassily Chair, an entirely different creation.

"Where a club chair is oversized, cushy, comfy, and so solid it grounds a room, the Wassily Chair is diminutive, especially in perceived scale, since it has so much negative space," says Dr. Anna Ruth Gatlin, an assistant professor at Auburn University who teaches a two-part course in the history of interior design. "The Wassily is not cushy and comfy. Its seat and back are leather straps. It's got good ergonomics, so it's comfortable, but you don't want to curl up in it in front of a fire with a book. This is a chair with no fluff."

Compared to the ornate, heavy wooden furniture that preceded it, the Wassily was nothing short of a revolution.

Breuer called his creation Club Chair model B3. The chair was dubbed the "Wassily" after painter Wassily Kandinsky, a Bauhaus instructor, praised the design and asked Breuer to make one for his studio.

pair of brown Wassily chairs from Knoll in styled home
Santi Caleca / Courtesy of Knoll

The Wassily Chair's Journey to the Masses

Before Breuer could get his Wassily Chair to the American masses, though, history got in the way. Nazis forced the closure of the Bauhaus in 1933, deriding the work of artists like Bauhaus teachers Paul Klee and Kandinsky and decrying the school as a breeding ground for "cultural Bolshevism."

Many Bauhaus bigwigs fled for their lives, emigrating to the United States where their work and philosophy influenced generations of architects and designers. Breuer and Gropius taught at Harvard, and Breuer designed the Whitney, a Modernist icon in Manhattan that houses the world's preeminent collection of 20th-century American art and design.

"American modernism comes straight from the Bauhaus," Dr. Gatlin says. "It was a powerhouse of modern culture and we feel its influences to this day."

red Wassily chair on white background
Courtesy of Knoll

But because of World War II, you don't see Bauhaus modernism make it into mainstream U.S. home decor until the late 1940s and 1950s. That's when U.S. factories begin making consumer goods again instead of bullets and tanks.

Knoll has been mass-producing Wassily Chairs since the 1960s, so you can still find them in waiting rooms and living rooms across the country. Wassily Chairs were never especially affordable, despite all the utopian intentions and despite the mass production. Expect to find the chairs for about $3,000 for leather seats and $2,800 for canvas seats.

Breuer died in 1981, but the Wassily Chair remains one of Modernism's most iconic chairs. "It strips a classic chair down to its core as a celebration of what's great about technology, materials, design," Dr. Gatlin says. "It's hopeful and energetic, the essence of modernism."

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