Breuer, Marcel, 1902-1981

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1902-05-22
Death 1981-07-01
Hungarians
English

Biographical notes:

German designer and Bauhaus teacher.

From the description of Photographs of furniture designed by Marcel Breuer and Gustav Hassenpflug, 1926-1933. (Getty Research Institute). WorldCat record id: 79881559

Marcel Lajos Breuer was born in Pécs, Hungary, on May 21, 1902. Marcel Breuer is known worldwide both as a designer of furniture and as an architect. Starting in 1920 he attended the Bauhaus at Weimar, headed by Walter Gropius. He graduated in 1924, and soon after Gropius appointed him as Bauhaus master and head of the carpentry workshop, where he stayed until 1928 (teaching both at Weimar and at Dessau). He emigrates to the United States in 1937 where he joins the faculty of Harvard's Graduate School of Design, where he will teach from 1938 to 1946. Marcel Breuer died on July 1, 1981, in New York City.

From the description of The Breuer Lectures Collection : An inventory. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 685183608

Modernist architect and designer, born in Pécs, Hungary. He became director of the furniture department at the Weimar Bauhaus in 1924, and invented a series of furniture-designs using structural frames of bent-steel tubes finished in chrome. In 1928 he set up an architectural practice in Berlin. Came to United States in 1937 to teach at Harvard, where students included students Philip Johnson and Paul Rudolph. In 1946 he moved his practice to New York City. Major projects included the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris (1952-8), the lecture-hall, New York University, the IBM Research Centre, La Gaude, Var, France (1961 with Robert F. Gatje ) and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (with H. Smith, 1963-6).

Source:

"Breuer, Marcel Lajos" A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. James Stevens Curl. Oxford University Press 2006. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Houston. 14 September 2006 http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main=t1.e673

For further information on Barnstone and Neuhaus:

Howard Barnstone Papers, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. "Barnstone, Howard" http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/BB/fbael.html (accessed September 13, 2006).

Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. " Neuhaus, Hugo Victor, Jr. (1915-1987).," http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/NN/fne43.html (accessed September 14, 2006)

From the guide to the Marcel Breuer Letter, 1969-001., 1971, (Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries)

Marcel Breuer (1902-1981) was an architect and designer from New York, N.Y.

Born in Pecs, Hungary. Breuer received a master's degree from the Bauhaus in 1924. During the following year, he became a Bauhaus instructor and designed his first tubular steel chair. At the invitation of Walter Gropius, Breuer joined the faculty of Harvard University in 1937. He left Harvard in 1946 and established an architectural office in New York City. His reputation was enhanced in 1953, when he was commissioned to participate in the design of the U.N.E.S.C.O. Headquarters in Paris. During the following 20 years, Breuer's firm worked on many diverse projects ranging from private residences to government buildings. Due to ill health, Breuer retired in 1976.

From the description of Marcel Breuer papers, 1920-1986. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 78094450

Marcel Lajos Breuer was born in Pécs, Hungary, on May 21, 1902. Starting in 1920 he attended the Bauhaus at Weimar, headed by Walter Gropius, and whose program would transform design education worldwide. Breuer graduated in 1924, and soon after Gropius appointed him as Bauhaus master and head of the carpentry workshop, where he stayed until 1928 (teaching both at Weimar and at Dessau). In 1931-1932 he travels throughout Italy, Spain, Greece and Morocco, and in 1933 he settles in Berlin to open his own architectural practice. He has to leave Germany, and from 1934 to 1937 he works in England, in partnership with F.R.S. Yorke. He emigrates to the United States in 1937 where he joins the faculty of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where he will teach from 1938 to 1946. At Harvard he was an admired teacher, where he succeeded in interpreting the new design to a new generation of architects. Together with Gropius they set up an architectural practice, a partnership that would last from 1938 to 1941, when a controversy over the role of architecture distances them (while Gropius had a program for social reform, Breuer’s interests were mainly formal and technical). When he leaves Harvard, he moves to New York, where he continued his successful practice. Marcel Breuer died on July 1, 1981, in New York City.

Marcel Breuer is known worldwide both as a designer of furniture and as an architect. He did not belong to the generation of the founders of modernism, including Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, but to the generation that immediately followed them. He was among the pioneers of the invention of the tubular steel chair, and by 1923 his furniture design was known for its modern language of pure geometrical form and simplicity of design, with an emphasis on structure. Among his chairs is the Wassily Chair (1925), and the cane-backed Cesca Chair (1928). Although he is best known for his furniture design and early architectural projects of single-family houses of the 1930s and 1940s, he practiced through the mid-1970s and was commissioned several larger buildings with a diversity of architectural programs. His early European works include Haselhorst Housing (Spandau, Germany, 1928), Elberfeld Hospital (Elberfeld, Germany, 1928), Kharkov Theater (Kharkov, Ukraine, 1931), Harnischmacher House (Wiesbaden, Germany, 1932), Dolderthal Apartments (Zurich, Switzerland, 1934), and House at Angmering-on-Sea (Sussex, England, 1936; with F.R.S. Yorke).

In the United States he initially devoted himself to the design of single family houses. His work in association with Gropius reveals interests in standardization, mass production, construction techniques, typology, simple plans, free circulation, and interior walls reduced to light-weight partitions. The early houses include: Breuer House, (Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1939), Fischer House, (Newton, Pennsylvania, 1938), Haggerty House (Cohasset, Massachusetts, 1938), Ford House (Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1939). Among Breuer’s houses made of prefabricated elements, are the Yankee Portables and Plas-2-Point, that were capable of being disassembled. His later houses include Geller House, (Lawrence, Long Island, New York, 1945), Robinson House (Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1947), Tompkins House, (Hewlett Harbor Village, Long Island, New York 1946), Breuer House (New Canaan, Connecticut, 1947), Caesar House (Lakeville, Connecticut, 1951), Neumann House (Croton-on-Hudson, New York, 1953), and Hanson House (Lloyd Harbor, Huntington, Long Island, New York, 1950), among others. His later works include the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, New York, 1963-1964) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (Washington D.C., 1963-1968).

From the guide to the Breuer, Marcel, 1902-1981. The Breuer Lectures Collection: An Inventory., (Special Collections, Frances Loeb Library, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University)

Marcel Lajos Breuer (1902-1981) was a Hungarian-born American Modernist architect and designer.

Marcel Breuer was born on May 21, 1902 in the southwestern Hungarian city of Pécs. His family home at 4 Irgalmasok Boulevard near Szechenyi square may have afforded a view of the nearby Pasha Qasim mosque (built from the ruins of a Gothic church), or the four landmark towers of the nearby Pécs Cathedral. Noted historically for its diverse ethnic population, Pécs had long been a regional cultural center and a university town (home of the 5th oldest university in Europe), as well as an important religious center. Breuer's father Jakab Breuer was a dental technician from Gyor, Hungary. Breuer's mother, Franciska Kann (sometimes given as "Kan") came originally from Budapest. Breuer had two older siblings, Alexander and Hermina Maria.

Always reticent about the facts of his early life, Breuer's formative years must have been marked by the profound political conflicts that defined the era. He would have been just twelve years old when Hungary entered World War I as part of the Austro-Hungarian/German alliance (incidentally, Breuer's subsequent architectural mentor and partner, Walter Gropius, was severely wounded in 1914 while serving as a German reservist on the Western Front). From 1918-1920, the Baranyi region surrounding Breuer's home town was heavily occupied by Serbian forces who, on the basis of ethnic nationalism, had made significant territorial claims there (tentatively resolved by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920). Against this backdrop, Breuer attended secondary school at Pécsi Allami Forealiskola where he excelled at art and mathematics, graduating summa cum laude and earning a scholarship to the Akademie der bildenden Kunst in Vienna.

Breuer arrived in Vienna in the late summer of 1920, but he quickly abandoned the academy, instead taking up an apprenticeship in the shop of a local cabinetmaker by the name of Bolek. It was during this brief respite that Breuer learned about an innovative new school in Weimar from a fellow Hungarian, the Pécs born architect Alfred Forbat. Within a few weeks, Breuer had assumed a place as one of the 143 students enrolled at the Bauhaus in only the second year of its formative existence.

While there is some uncertainty as to exactly when Breuer began his studies at the Bauhaus during the fall of 1920, it is very likely that he arrived about six weeks into the term and began in the Vorkurs, or Preliminary Course, then taught by Johannes Itten. Later that year, he would have done work in the carpentry workshop under Walter Gropius, the Master of Form for the shop at that time, and Josef Zachmann, the shop's first Master of Craft. While many of the personal relationships forged during these years were crucial for Breuer's artistic development, perhaps none more so than his career-defining linkage with Walter Gropius, it was quite possibly the painter Paul Klee who exerted the most formative influence (later in life, Breuer recollected that Klee had been one of the two most important teachers in his life, the other being his high school geometry teacher). As Franciscono contends, in his history of the school, his [Klee's] lessons were conceived in terms closely analogous to those of architecture…painting itself was understood as a construction built up or put together from repeatable, more or less geometric -- in effect modular -- units in ways generally comparable to the way architecture is put together (quoted in Hyman, p.61, n.73).

Breuer's architectural training at the Bauhaus came largely through apprentice work done in Walter Gropius' active practice, as the school offered no formalized program in architecture during those early years. As such, Breuer gained much hands-on experience on a number of projects -- contributing furniture and interior designs to the collaborative Sommerfeld House project (1921), the Haus am Horn exhibition house (1923), and the Bauhaussiedlung housing project (planned 1922, but not built).

After completing his apprentice work at the Bauhaus, Breuer headed to Paris, eventually landing a position in the office of Pierre Chareau in September of 1924. By the following year though, he was back in Weimar to accept a position as instructor and head of the furniture and carpentry shop at the Bauhaus, just prior to its official relocation to Dessau. In additional to involvement in furniture and interior design work for the new Bauhaus buildings in Dessau -- contributing to the design and furnishing of the canteen, theatre and several of the Master's Houses -- Breuer also developed innovative architectural schemes for a series of houses for junior faculty members, known as the BAMBOS houses (1927).

It was during this second period at the Bauhaus (1925-1928) that Breuer began to make the innovative experiments with bent tubular steel furniture for which he became so famous. The first version of his iconic "B3" club chair was developed around 1925, and many experiments with cantilevered steel constructions rapidly followed. In 1926, Breuer established the Standard Möbel company and began marketing a full line of steel furniture. Later that year, Breuer married fellow Bauhaus graduate Marta Erps, a talented artist who had studied in the weaving workshop and collaborated with Breuer on the Haus am Horm interiors. Their marriage seems to have been short lived, as Erps left Germany sometime around 1928-1929 for Brazil, where she later had a successful career as a biologist and illustrator at the University of São Paolo. Breuer and Erps were officially divorced in 1934.

As internal politics at the Bauhaus grew increasingly volatile in the late 1920s, Breuer joined a major exodus from the school, following Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, Josef Albers, Herbert Bayer and others out of Dessau. Breuer made his way to Berlin, officially joining the Bund Deutscher Architekten and setting up an architectural practice with a former student, Gustav Hassenpflug as his assistant. His commissions were small, primarily apartment and commercial interiors, but he also completed a number of formalized designs for competitions and was represented at many important exhibitions of the period, including the Weissenhof estate exhibition (1928), the Paris exposition of 1930 and the Berlin Building exhibition of 1931. In 1932, Breuer secured his first independent architectural commission to build a modern house in Weisbaden for Paul and Marianne Harnischmacher. During this period, Breuer also maintained a partnership in Budapest with Farkas Molnár and József Fischer and traveled extensively through southern Europe and North Africa. In 1935, with the assistance of Gropius, Breuer secured papers to relocate to London where he practiced for a short time in partnership with British architect F.R.S. Yorke, while independently developing a line of bent plywood furniture that was marketed through Jack Pritchard's Isokon Control Ltd.

Frustrated by the limited building prospects in England and always concerned about the possibility of political deportation, in 1937 Breuer was again on the move. The efforts of Gropius were once more instrumental, as he was able to help secure for Breuer a faculty position at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. Aesthetically, Breuer was well suited to his new environment, sharing with his fellow Bauhaus émigrés a strong appreciation for the structural transparency and efficient design of American industrial buildings. The strong appeal of the traditional New England domestic architecture, though, with its reliance on native stone and balloon-frame construction proved an unexpected source of inspiration for many of the European Modernists, Breuer included. He spent roughly the next decade making his mark with a series of iconic modern houses spread across Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New York (for more on the influence of American domestic architecture on Breuer's mid-century work, see Bergdall, Encountering America: Marcel Breuer and the Discourses of the Vernacular from Budapest to Boston, in Marcel Breuer: Design and Architecture ).

Initially, Breuer practiced in the U.S. in partnership with his long-time mentor under the official designation, "Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, Architects." The partnership was relatively fruitful during lean economic years, producing a series of now canonical houses, including the Frank House in Pittsburgh (1939), the Hagerty House in Cohasset (1938) and, the Ford (1939), Gropius (1938) and Breuer (1939) houses at the Woods End colony in Lincoln, Massachusetts. In 1940, Breuer married his second wife, Constance Crocker Leighton. Connie, a native New Englander, had grown up in Salem, Massachusetts and attended the Brimmer School. Originally a secretary for Gropius and Breuer, she played an important role in the formative years of Breuer's Cambridge practice (for a brief period, her father, O.S. Leighton, also served as a sort of business manager and accountant for Breuer). Their son, Tamas (Thomas) Breuer was born in 1943.

The Gropius-Breuer partnership ended in 1941, and Breuer set-up shop on his own in Cambridge with the assistance of several of his former Harvard design students. Although work came slowly at first -- building supply shortages during the war made new construction a difficult endeavor -- by the mid-1940s, the Breuer office was operating at a robust pace.

Breuer took several of his Cambridge cohorts to New York in the spring of 1946, opening a practice there on 438 East Eighty-Eighth Street. The subsequent phase of work in the late 1940s marked the pinnacle of Breuer's domestic architectural production. Working from his fundamental conception of the bi-nuclear arrangement of living areas, Breuer progressively refined his design vocabulary into a popular signature style. Stand-out designs of this period include the Geller House I (1945), Robinson House (1948) and Thompson House (1949), as well and the House in the Museum Garden, constructed for a 1949 MoMA exhibition on the modern house.

The 1950s saw the exponential growth of Breuer's creative prospects and subsequent emergence internationally as a seminal figure of modern design (one of the canonical form-givers of the twentieth century, as dubbed in a 1956 Time magazine piece). In an astonishing creative outburst, encompassing roughly the ten year span from 1953-1963, Breuer saw the realization of the half-dozen or so masterworks most definitive of his major phase: the UNESCO headquarters in Paris (1953), Saint John's Abbey Church in Minnesota (1953-1958), the De Bijenkorf Department Store in Rotterdam (1953), the United States Embassy at the Hague (1956), the IBM Research Center in La Gaude, France (1960), and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (1963). Breuer's work during this period was largely defined by the transition from small-form, residential projects in wood and stone, to monumental sculptural forms rendered in patterned concrete and steel.

In 1956, in order to accommodate the rapid boom in large-project commissions coming into his office, Breuer sought to formalize a partnership agreement with several of the young and talented architects in his employ. Stipulating a formative ten year period under the designation associate, Breuer promised eventual full partnerships to his colleagues. Operating thereafter as Marcel Breuer and Associates, by 1967 Herbert Beckhard, Hamilton Smith and Robert Gatje had all achieved full partner status (former partner Murray Emslie had left the firm in 1965). Later, Tician Papachristou also achieved partner status in the firm.

By the mid-sixties, Breuer had settled his operations at 635 Madison Avenue in New York, and had opened a much needed European office on the Rue Chapon in the former garment district of Paris, an office established by Robert Gatje and later run by Mario Jossa to manage projects at Flaine, the ZUP development in Bayonne and elsewhere on the continent. During these years, Breuer's collaborative partnerships with Smith, Gatje, Beckhard and Papachristou reached their productive peak, yielding a formidable and diverse roster of works: the IBM France complex, the Flaine resort, the Armstrong Rubber Building with Robert F. Gatje; Annunciation Priory, the Whitney Museum of Art, the Grand Coulee Dam Project with Hamilton P. Smith; the HUD and HEW buildings in Washington, D.C. and the Church and Refectory of St. Francis de Sales with Herbert Beckhard; the Soriano House and Stillman House III, with Tician Papachristou.

The effects on Breuer of many years of incessant work and travel began to show by the early 1970s, and after a harrowing trip to Afghanistan that saw Breuer suffer a nearly fatal heart attack, his day-to-day working role in his firm significantly diminished. Breuer's declining health coincided with a difficult economic climate for building; regardless, Marcel Breuer and Associates continued to realize significant building projects throughout the seventies, including the Atlanta Public Library (1971-1980), the American Press Institute in Reston, Virginia (1971), and the Australian Embassy in Paris (1973, with Harry Seidler). These years also saw the realization of two late-phase minor masterpieces -- the third Stillman House (1972) and the stunning slate-roofed Chapel at Flaine (1974-1976). Despite his formal retirement on March 1, 1976, Breuer refused to abandon work altogether, characteristically vowing to his supervising architect at the Baldegg Convent site that he would remain on the project until it was done. The last decade of Breuer's life saw a number of prominent honors and exhibitions of his work. In addition to an honorary doctorate from the Budapest Technical University in 1970, there were major exhibitions at MoMA (1981) and at the Bauhaus-Archiv Museum in 1975 (the first exhibition of his work in Germany since his days at the Bauhaus), as well as a major retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1972-1973), the first ever one-man architectural show in the Met's history. Marcel Breuer died July 1, 1981.

[In addition to material from the collection, this account relied on: Isabelle Hyman, Marcel Breuer, Architect: The Career and the Buildings ; Christopher Wilk, Marcel Breuer: Furniture and Interiors ; Robert F. Gatje, Marcel Breuer: A Memoir .]

  • 1928 - 1931 : Marcel Breuer, Architekt, Berlin
  • 1933 - c. 1935 : Marcel Breuer, Farkas Molnar and Joszef Fischer
  • 1935 - 1937 : Marcel Breuer and F.R.S. Yorke, Architects, London
  • circa Oct 1937 - Aug 1941 : Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, Architects, Cambridge
  • Aug 1941 - c. May 1946 : Marcel Breuer, Architect, Cambridge
  • circa May 1946 - Sep 1948 : Marcel Breuer, Architect, 438 East Eighty-Eighth Street, NY
  • Sep 1948 - Aug 1956 : Marcel Breuer, Architect, 113 East Thirty-Seventh Street, NY
  • Aug 1956 - Jun 1965 : Marcel Breuer and Associates, Architects, 201 East Fifty-Seventh Street, NY
  • established Nov 1964: Marcel Breuer, Architecte, Paris
  • Jun 1965 - Mar 1978 : Marcel Breuer and Associates, Architects, 635 Madison Avenue, NY
  • established Mar 1978: Marcel Breuer Associates (MBA), 635 Madison Avenue, NY

From the guide to the Marcel Breuer Papers, 1921-2001, (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries)

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Subjects:

  • Architecture, American
  • Architecture--United States
  • Architecture, German
  • Architectural design
  • Architectural drawing--20th century--United States
  • Furniture designers
  • Design
  • Architecture, Domestic
  • Architects
  • Architecture--History--20th century
  • Architectural drawing--20th century
  • Interior decoration
  • Architecture--Designs and plans
  • Architectural firms
  • Architecture--United States--20th century
  • Steel furniture
  • Church architecture--United States
  • Architects--United States
  • Architecture--Texas--Houston
  • Architecture, Modern--20th century--Archival resources
  • Bauhaus--History
  • Architecture, Modern--20th century
  • Furniture design
  • Architecture, Industrial
  • Architectural practice
  • Furniture design--United States

Occupations:

  • Architect

Places:

  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Germany (as recorded)
  • Germany (as recorded)
  • Germany--Munich (as recorded)