An architectural language that withstands time
-Mies Van Der Rohe
Ludwig Mies was born March 27th, 1886, in the German city of Aachen. By the time he died in 1967, he was recognized as one of the most significant pioneers of modern architecture.
Mies made many lasting contributions to the architecture and design of the 20th century. He pioneered the use of modern materials such as plate glass and industrial steel, and the familiar exposed steel structure seen in many skyscrapers today. He designed iconic buildings such as the Farnsworth House, the Seagram building, and the Barcelona Pavilion. He gave us the unmistakable contours of the Barcelona chair and the Brno chair.
As a young boy, Mies worked in his father's stone carving shop. In 1905, he became an apprentice to Bruno Paul, a furniture and interior designer. From 1908 to 1912, he worked as an apprentice in the studio of Peter Behrens, rubbing shoulders with luminaries such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, other renowned modernist architects. Mies began designing upper-class homes, and it was around this time that he took on the additional surname "van der Rohe." The name sounded more imposing and aristocratic, a more fitting name for a man who had become a popular architect among Berlin's wealthy and elite.
How did Mies manage to leave such a lasting impression on twentieth century architecture? Part of it was his commitment to the philosophy behind design. He didn't just want to develop a new architecture; he wanted to invent an intellectual groundwork from which this architectural style would naturally follow. He wanted to express the culture of modernism: industrialization, technology, and mass production. Put simply, Mies strived to find a style of architecture that represented the twentieth century.
This style of architecture was spare, elegant, and austere. Mies worked toward efficient designs, produced with modern materials. He aimed for clean lines, pure colors, and simple structures, which interacted naturally with the surrounding space. This meant open floor plans for buildings, and elegantly utilitarian designs for furniture.
In the twenties, drawing from this new architectural style, Mies designed the Barcelona Pavilion, the Barcelona Chair, the Villa Tugendhat, and the Brno Chair. He joined the Bauhaus design school, and in 1927 he began working with Lilly Reich, a Bauhaus alumna. They worked together on many of Mies' most familiar furniture designs.
In 1937, Mies emigrated to the U.S. His reputation as an architect had preceded him. He was offered a position as the head of an architectural school in Chicago, which would later become part of the Illinois Institute of Technology. He went on to design many of the buildings on campus, as well as elsewhere in Chicago.
His most well known building on the IIT campus is Crown Hall (1956), which houses the College of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology. In this building, a thin glass facade creates an impression of transparency, and a spacious interior is supported by steel girders above the roof.
Just outside of Chicago, in an area that was once rural, is the Farnsworth house (1951), perhaps Mies' most famous building. Intended to be harmoniously integrated with the surrounding natural landscape, the building is small (1,500 square feet), designed with simple horizontal lines. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls provide a view of the outdoors, and a patio terrace connects the living area to the ground.
Another hugely influential work was the Seagram Building (1957) – a New York skyscraper that has served as model for many corporate high-rises to follow. Towering and rectangular, with a dark sheen, it utilizes a steel frame hung with glass walls. The structure of the building is revealed by non-structural bronze-toned vertical beams.
Mies' most comprehensive work – one which involved both architecture and furniture – was the Barcelona Pavilion. The Barcelona Pavilion (1929) was designed for Germany's exhibit in the 1929 World's Expo hosted in Barcelona, Spain. The Pavilion was a modern building with a simple structure: a steel frame, flat roof, and glass walls. Marble featured prominently in the building, which stood next to a shimmering pool. The floor plan was luxurious and airy, and Mies designed furniture to match: masterpieces such as the Barcelona Chair, the Barcelona Daybed, and the Barcelona end table.
Designing furniture arose naturally from Mies' goal of creating buildings with harmony in their spatial design. After all, the furniture is the most important part of the inner space of a home or a building. Mies took the process of designing furniture seriously; he once said, "It is almost easier to build a sky scraper than a chair." Most of his famous furniture pieces were designed while he was still in Germany.
The Brno chair (1930) is one of his most recognizable pieces. It is a modernist cantilever chair: a chair with no back legs, supported by its front legs and structural design. The cleanly designed Brno consists of a one-piece stainless steel frame, bent into a C-shape. The seat and back are upholstered in leather.
The Barcelona chair (1929) is Mies' most famous work. The Barcelona chair consists of a one-piece stainless steel frame, covered with a padded cushion. Thick leather straps, screwed into the steel frame, support the cushion of foam padding, which is wrapped in leather. It is almost completely handmade. This beautiful chair won the Museum of Modern Art Award in 1977.
The Barcelona Daybed (1929) follows the same design principles. A flat, horizontal bed with sleek lines, it is constructed with tubular steel legs that support a hard-wood frame. The cushion is hand-paneled with luxurious black leather. The Barcelona End Table (1929) consists of a glossy stainless steel base, which crosses in an X-shape beneath a solid glass top. Its strong compositional elements emphasize structural harmony.
The Tugendhat chair (1930) is another modernist cantilever chair, designed for the Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Like the Barcelona chair, the Tugendhat has a padded leather seat and back, supported by leather straps. But, like the Brno chair, it is bent into a C-shape to form a cantilever with no back legs.
Each piece demonstrates a strong sense of proportion and surrounding space, and a careful attention to detail. They mirror Mies' architectural designs, in structural simplicity and use of materials.
Through his contributions to architecture and furniture design, Mies left his mark on virtually every city skyline and well-furnished home. His iconic furniture designs and his aesthetic of functionality can be seen in today's furniture, from thousand dollar designer pieces to the newest lines . His vision for corporate high-rises is felt by anyone who works in a modern office building or skyscraper.
His goals were lofty – discover a style of architecture which would epitomize the times, and design pieces that would express this architectural philosophy. Yet his ambition paid off. Through his efforts, Mies altered the visual landscape we all experience, enabling us to live in a more beautifully designed world.