20th-Century European Furniture

Reform and revolution in the arts, including furniture design, marked the turn of the century. Prominent among the leaders of the revolt was the Austrian architect and designer Josef Hoffmann, who, with other architects and artists, founded the Vienna Sezession in 1897 and the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop) in 1903. The Werkstätte produced, among other types of decorative arts, furniture in cubicular forms that contrasted radically with the art nouveau obsession with curvilinear forms. They are reminiscent of Mackintosh's restrained designs, which were much admired by the group. The right angle was used consistently, and detailing was rigidly austere. Sezessionstil was the precursor of two major 20th-century styles: the German Bauhaus and the French art deco.

1. Bauhaus Furniture

The Bauhaus, founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, by the architect Walter Gropius, was a comprehensive school of art and architecture that proved to be one of the most influential forces in the development of 20th-century art. Classic contemporary furniture, still being manufactured, was designed by its most renowned architects, Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Breuer designed his “Wassily” armchair, of chrome-plated steel tubing and canvas, in 1925 and his much-imitated cantilevered side chair, of tubing with wood-framed cane seat and back panels, in 1928. Mies created his world-famous Barcelona chair, a masterpiece consisting of two elegantly curved X-frames of chromed steel strips supporting rectangular leather cushions, in 1929. The aim of both architects was to devise aesthetically pleasing furniture for mass production.

2. Art Deco Furniture

Art deco, although its name is derived from the 1925 Paris exposition of decorative arts, can be traced back to the first decade of the 20th century, especially to the sharply defined geometric forms of the Sezessionstil. The Bauhaus concern with the use of new materials also had its influence. The art deco style persisted through 1939 and has had a revival of interest and even imitation in the 1970s and 1980s. The most accomplished art deco designers were French: Louis Majorelle, André Groult, Pierre Chareau, and Jacques Émile Ruhlmann. Their pieces have a streamlined richness that owes as much to superb handcrafting - lustrously finished rare woods with inlays of such exotic materials as ivory in angular, abstract designs - as to their daring geometric shapes. The style was rapidly debased, however, by shoddy mass-produced pieces.

3. Scandinavian Furniture

Some of the most widely admired contemporary furniture originated in Scandinavia, especially in the years following World War II (1939-1945). To name two of a host of designers, the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and the Danish designer Arne Jacobsen created laminated wood furniture of exquisite proportions and eminent practicality for mass manufacture.

20th-Century American Furniture

Until 1946, furniture designers in the United States were, with few exceptions, overshadowed by their European counterparts and were heavily influenced by them.

1. American Furniture to 1939

American arts-and-crafts movements led at the turn of the century to the establishment of numerous ateliers and small factories, such as that of Gustav Stickley. Stickley created the mission style, ostensibly based on old Spanish furniture in the California missions. His carefully constructed oak furniture, made between 1900 and 1913, was rectilinear, simple, and utilitarian, with decoration limited to the handsomely crafted hardware. American mass manufacturers took up the mission style with a will and produced great quantities of ponderous imitation Stickley.

With the exception of the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, who designed furniture primarily for his own use, the United States produced no outstanding art nouveau furniture. Art deco flourished in the United States, mostly in mass-produced furniture of lesser quality. A notable exception is the work of the studio of Donald Deskey, which in 1932 created the palatial art deco interiors and the furniture of Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright also designed furniture, but its idiosyncratic appearance defies categorization, since the furniture design was entirely subordinated to the design of the building; the same motifs appear in both. Wright consistently favored built-in furniture, which tended to merge with the architecture.

2. Contemporary American Furniture

In the decade following World War II, many American furniture designers came to prominence. Among the best known were the architects Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. Adapting wartime technology in the use of wood, metals, and plastics, they collaborated on the design of the so-called Eames chair and ottoman, constructed of subtly curved molded plywood with deeply padded leather upholstery, set on a metal pedestal base. In 1956 Saarinen designed an entire range of pedestal furniture in molded plastic and metal; the white chairs, in silhouette resembling a wineglass, have loose cushion seats in bright fabrics; the tables, ranging in size from side tables to conference tables, have tops of either marble or wood. These, like many other well-designed modern pieces, have been copied extensively by mass manufacturers. Other gifted designers included the sculptor Harry Bertoia, who in 1952 produced the lightweight wire mesh chair that bears his name, manufactured by Knoll Associates; Florence S. Knoll, like Eero Saarinen and Bertoia a graduate of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and later president of Knoll International, New York City; and Paul McCobb, who based his widely marketed Planner group on simple and functional 18th- and 19th-century Shaker furniture.