True Icons of Modern Design

Wassily Chair
Barcelona Chair and Ottoman. Photo courtesy of Knoll, Inc. www.knoll.com.

When it comes to modern design three chairs stand alone as true icons. The Eames chair and ottoman, the Barcelona chair and the Wassily chair are easily recognizable even to the most notices decorators.

The Wassily chair like many designs of the modernist movement has been mass-produced since the late 1920’s and continuously in production since the 1950s. Designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925 while he was still an apprentice at Bauhaus, in Dessau, Germany. He was inspired by the frame of a bicycle and influenced by the constructivist theories of the De Stjil movement.

Wassily Chair

Wassily Chair. Photo courtesy of Knoll, Inc. www.knoll.com

Although the patent designs are expired, the trademark name rights to the design are owned by Knoll of New York City. A Wassily chair from Knolls will cost you about $2,400.

The Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman debuted in 1956. It was designed by furniture designers, Charles and Ray Eames. The Eameses’ modern take on a 19th century club chair has endured for more than 50 years and become one of the most recognizable symbol of the Mid-Century modern design movement.

The chair is composed of three curved plywood shells; the headrest, the backrest and the seat. The wood layers are glued together and shaped under heat and pressure. The shells are then upholstered in soft leather.

Charles’s vision was for the chair was to have the “warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt.”

Since its introduction, the chair has been in continuous production by Herman Miller in America. As popular as the lounge chair and ottoman have become, they remain grounded in the handcrafted details that continue to distinguish this classic, authentic design.

Part of the permanent collections at New York’s MoMA and the Art Institute of Chicago, the chair and ottoman have been the subject of documentary films and books. Still in production the Eames chair and ottoman are available from Herman Miller for around $5,000.00

Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair rounds out our three icons. The most modern of our three designs it was first introduced in 1929. With its clean styling, metal base and leather cushion, this 80+ year old chair still looks very contemporary. In 1957, Mies van der Rohe said to Times magazine, “A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier.” Prized by designers for its simplicity and comfort Knolls of NYC is still producing it for a cost of $5,000.

If you have your heart set on buying an original, vintage icon you can always shop the auctions. But be ware, original Barcelona chairs have sold for as little as $9,600 in 2004 to as much as $204,800 for a circa 1929 at Christie’s (in London) in 1997.

Beware of knockoffs! Furniture is considered a functional object in the US and therefore not protected by copyright laws allowing plenty of knockoffs of all three icons. When buying new or vintage design classics, if there is no mention or markings of the manufacturer, the piece was probably not made by the original or licensed manufactured. In other words – it’s a knock-off. Designers view buying knockoff furniture with as much distain as purchasing knockoff designer handbags.

Icons aren’t cheap, but then good design always comes with a price.

Vicki Payne
Vicki Payne is a nationally recognized designer, home improvement, gardening and decorating expert. Each week, for over 15 years, millions of viewers both nationally and internationally have tuned in to watch her popular television show, For Your Home.

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