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Object Timeline

1936

  • Work on this object began.

2013

2014

2016

2017

  • You found it!

Long Chair (Estonia), 1936

This is a Long Chair. It was designed by Marcel Breuer and manufactured by Isokon Furniture Company. It is dated 1936 and we acquired it in 2013. Its medium is bent birch (frame), bent and molded birch-faced plywood (seat). It is a part of the Product Design and Decorative Arts department.

This chair is significant in the history of 20th-century design. It represents a stage in the history of bentwood furniture, a material process that has evolved from the early 19th century to the present day. It also represents the evolution of a major designer, Marcel Breuer, and his collaboration with other designers.
The Long Chair exemplifies the transformation and adaptation of a design from one medium to another. The first iteration of the bent form lounge chair by Breuer was a frame for a reclining chair in aluminum and steel with wood arm rests. The chair’s design is a derivation of an earlier Breuer aluminum chair (1932–33), whose design followed his innovative Bauhaus designs in chrome-plated metal, such as the B2 and the B5 chairs of the 1920s (both in the museum’s collection). The Long Chair was Breuer’s first foray into bentwood and the first chair produced by the newly formed British based Isokon Furniture Company, founded by Jack Pritchard after discussions with Walter Gropius, which grew out of the principles of the Isokon Company. Pritchard helped convince Breuer to move to England, and his commitment to plywood as a medium for furniture ensured the firm’s direction.
Although the chair’s design derives from Breuer’s earlier work, the use of plywood is influenced by the molded furniture of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Christopher Wilk, in his important book for MoMA's 1981 exhibition, Marcel Breuer: Furniture and Interiors, cites a memorandum that indicates the firm’s desire to develop upmarket modern furniture to attract the design savvy in England that would use variety and individuality in each object to create a taste for subsequent mass market production. In the memorandum, Pritchard explains that “the principal material to be used in the preliminary work must be plywood. . . . Metal may be incorporated just where it performs a function better than plywood. . . . The furniture will be primarily useful and its aesthetic qualities will be due to its form rather than superimposed ornament. . . . In chairs, comfort will be the objective. Much recent modern furniture has failed to give the traditional English comfort tho´ its form and shape has been pleasing. . . .”[1]
It was Pritchard who suggested Breuer start by basing a plywood chair on his aluminum version. The use of wood, warmer in color and touch and not as austere as tubular metal, along with an interest in comfort, was intended to attract an English audience toward modern style in an era when neo-18th century plush interiors were the prevalent. The result was the first Isokon Long Chair design in December 1935. The chair under consideration incorporates a modification with a cross bar for greater stability, added in 1936, but this version is from an earlier production because the plywood is marked with a stamp “Made in Estonia.” The Venesta Plywood Company’s factories in Estonia made the first prototypes of the seats for the Long Chair. These seats were sent to London and assembled by Harry Mansell, a furniture maker who worked with Breuer, Gropius, and Pritchard. In his workshop, Mansell made the frame in his own wooden forms, and then assembled the chairs with the seat sent pre-bent from Estonia. Only a few chairs were made during the pre-World War II production phase because the outbreak of World War II in 1939 put an end to Isokon’s manufacturing.
While the translation from aluminum to plywood was largely successful, the wooden chair had less stability and greater lateral movement. Breuer’s first adjustment was adding a strip to give the arm additional support. Numerous subsequent iterations exist, including a shorter version, a variety of upholstered versions, and versions made to order in England. The chair under consideration for acquisition has no upholstering, which allows the organic nature and warm color of the wood shine through and also retains the purity of the form’s sinuous lines.
The chair proposed for acquisition is a significant design in the history of bentwood furniture. This would be the first example of Breuer’s bentwood furniture to enter the museum’s collection.
[1] Christopher Wilk and Marcel Breuer, Marcel Breuer, Furniture and Interiors: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 25-September 15, 1981, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1981).

This object was featured in our Object of the Day series in a post titled Bending for the Brits.

This object was purchased from Modernity and purchased with funds from: George R. Kravis II, Judy Francis Zankel and Anonymous. It is credited Museum purchase through gift of George R. Kravis II, Anonymous Donor, and Judy Francis Zankel.

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Its dimensions are

H x W x D: 74 x 62.6 x 136 cm (29 1/8 x 24 5/8 x 53 9/16 in.)

It has the following markings

Stamped: Made in Estonia branded in two lines on leg support area of seat.

It is inscribed

Paper label for Torbjörn Lenskog Collection on underside of seat.

Cite this object as

Long Chair (Estonia), 1936; Designed by Marcel Breuer (American, b. Hungary, 1902–1981); bent birch (frame), bent and molded birch-faced plywood (seat); H x W x D: 74 x 62.6 x 136 cm (29 1/8 x 24 5/8 x 53 9/16 in.); Museum purchase through gift of George R. Kravis II, Anonymous Donor, and Judy Francis Zankel; 2013-17-1

This object was previously on display as a part of the exhibitions Ellen DeGeneres Selects and Making Design.

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<ref name=CH>{{cite web |url=https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/51681337/ |title=Long Chair (Estonia), 1936 |author=Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum |accessdate=22 September 2017 |publisher=Smithsonian Institution}}</ref>

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