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The Barcelona chair is Barcelona Designs’ foremost item, the star of our Barcelona Collection and our Best Sellers. The Barcelona Chair is a shining exemplar of the Bauhaus movement that swept Germany and the rest of Europe during the 20th century, with its distinctive simple design, straight lines, and geometric makeup.

It has become known as a luxury item, but that has not always been the case. In the case of its Bauhaus origins, the Barcelona chair passes the two requirements of the Bauhaus test:  to be aesthetically pleasing and architecturally useful.

Behind the Scenes is a series of articles for you to learn more about the fascinating history of the Barcelona chair if you aren’t already convinced that this is a truly special piece.

The Barcelona Name’s Origins

Two Barcelona Chairs in the Barcelona Pavilion

The birth of the Barcelona chair comes from the International Exposition of 1929, the second World Fair that was being held in Barcelona, Spain. 20 countries participated in this exposition based on architecture. The exposition had the purpose of exchanging ideas for urban development within Barcelona.

Germany was one of the participating countries in the exposition, which was designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s homeland.

He was tasked with building the German submission for the exposition, a pavilion that served as Germany’s official entry. Thus, Mies van der Rohe built the German pavilion, considered one of the masterpieces of the movement in modernism.  It was revered for its simple design and use of unconventional materials such as marble, red onyx, and travertine.

The Barcelona Chair Designers

German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe often gets the most or sole credit for designing the Barcelona chair. However, it was more of a combined effort of Mies van der Rohe and German architect and van der Rohe’s long-time partner Lily Reich.

Who was Mies van der Rohe?

Barcelona Chair Designer Mies Van der Rohe

Mies van der Rohe is one of the most recognized names in 20th-century architecture. He is especially known for his involvement in the Bauhaus movement, particularly in serving as the director of architecture in one of the Bauhaus Design schools.  Before joining the Bauhaus school, he had already directed two design associations: Werkbund and Der Ring. He designed buildings across Europe and America, after his emigration there. His involvement with the Barcelona chair came about to accompany his design of the German Pavilion.

Who was Lily Reich?

Barcelona Chair Designer Lily Reich

Lily Reich was a German architect and designer of sorts. She began her career in design in a more traditional role: as a designer of textiles and women’s clothes.  She met Mies when she joined the aforementioned Werkbund organization, a modernist architectural organization headed by Mies before the Bauhaus. Reich became the first woman to direct the organization.

By those close to the couple, Lily was known for her meticulous observation and innovation, while Mies was more of a broad strategist.  Being a woman living under a conservative time, Lily was not as fully credited with the design of the chair as was Mies, especially in the early days of the Exposition’s aftermath.

The Royalty and the Barcelona Chair

With an understanding of the Spanish Exposition and designers Mies and lily Reich, we can move through the next part of the chair’s history: the reason behind its creation. Mies van der Rohe’s major task was designing the German pavilion itself. 

Given that the Exposition was an important cultural event, attended by 200,000 people, including the Spanish king and his wife, there was another issue at hand.  King Alfonso XIII and his wife Ena were set to visit the German pavilion; being the regal attendees that they were, their comfort was of high importance.

Thus, Mies was also assigned the task of designing two chairs for the royal couple in case they grew tired. In collaboration with Lily Reich, van der Rohe completed the chairs, the first Barcelona chair prototypes.  As it turned out, the king and queen did not get to sit on them in the pavilion.

The Barcelona Chair After the Spanish Pavilion

It is hardly a coincidence that Mies was appointed as Director of architecture in 1930, the year following the design and construction of the Barcelona chair. The school closed in 1933 due to the Nazi occupation and Mies immigrated to the United States in 1937 and became a citizen. His architectural career continued to grow in the United States in which he designed Chicago’s twin towers, the Seagram in New York and was appointed the head of the Architecture Department at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Mies redesigned the Barcelona chair in 1950, having implemented modern techniques like a single stainless steel chunk comprising the frame instead of multiple pieces being bolted together.  Instead of pigskin which was used in the original designed, Mies opted for cow leather upholstery. Although Mies had separated from Lily Reich after his immigration to the United States, she still managed his business affairs until her death in 1947.

Historians argue that Mies’ furniture designs came about during his partnership with Lily and he hadn’t produced any successful furniture since his split with Lily. Today, the Barcelona chair is as popular and esteemed as ever. With its unique history, it is an item to behold and own.