Who Is Marcel Breuer, Bauhaus Protege?

Bauhaus Steel Tube Furniture and Concrete Architecture

Overhead view of three Marcel Breuer tubular chairs on exhibit with visitor looking on
An exhibition of Marcel Breuer's furniture. Pictured overhead view is the Canteen Stool (left), Wassily Club Chair (right), and Tubular Steel Chair (top),. Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Look at the conference room chairs next time you have a meeting. Chances are you've been influenced by the ideas of Marcel Breuer (1902-1981). Breuer's most important contribution to our own energy-starved future, however, may be his architectural design that redirects natural light. How can we use these ideas of the past to build a better future?

Steel Tube Furniture:

Talk of Bauhaus usually zeros in on Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and their followers. Often overlooked is the Hungarian-born Marcel Breuer, who learned furniture-making at Gropius' Bauhaus school and then quickly became head of its furniture workshop. With Bauhaus, Gropius sought to unite different disciplines—architecture, painting, sculpture—to construct a house (bauhaus). Breuer's contribution to the vision of united disciplines was interiors.

The story goes that while teaching at the Bauhaus school, Breuer became fascinated with the curved tubular steel of his bicycle. He began experimenting with bent steel tubes to form the frames of tables and chairs. His most famous club chair, the Wassily arm chair, is named after abstract expressionist painter Wassily Kandinsky, who headed the Bauhaus workshop of painting. Although Breuer is credited with the idea of steel tube construction, Mies van der Rohe's sleek, curved designs—like the Barcelona chair—became more popular than Breuer's boxy Wassily or the Nonconformist Chair by Eileen Gray.

Sculpting Concrete Architecture:

Likewise, Breuer's architectural experimentations with "raw concrete" or Béton Brut forms are often overshadowed by the works of his contemporaries. Buildings by Breuer have fallen out of favor, and yet they represent an important part of the Bauhaus movement. Throughout his career, Breuer designed a variety of properties, both large and small, including many modernist private homes, public buildings like the Atlanta-Fulton Central Library in Georgia, the curving concrete UNESCO headquarters in Paris, and the brutalist granite Whitney Museum in New York City.

However, the little-known Saint John's Abbey (view image), built between 1958 and 1961, is often cited as Breuer's architectural masterpiece. One of the most remarkable aspects of Saint John's is the now iconic Bell Banner, a cantilevered concrete sail 110 feet tall by 100 feet wide (view image). The tallest structure on the Saint John's University campus, Breuer's banner is like man's stone tablet to God, announcing human cleverness, for, in essence, the concrete banner is as much functional as decorative. Writer G. E. Kidder Smith calls it "stupendous":

"The structure rests on four sculpted supports that straddle the entry to the church. By piercing this trapezoidal banner with a horizontal rectangle for bells and a vertical opening for a cross, the southern sun picks up facets of bells and cross, and with its reflections....creates a masterful introduction to the shadowed [north] entry. Moreover the honeycombed concrete and stained-glass facade of the church reflects the sun bouncing from the south side of the bell banner. Thus the banner brings added life to the front much of the day and helps light the church interior through the latter's windows."

Father Hilary Thimmesh remembers the initial banner design as an "odd and ungainly substitute for a bell tower," as a "curious concrete billboard that stood on stiff legs" in front of the church. The final architectural result, however, is one that any homeowner can take a lesson from—even today, reflectivity has been suggested as one way to Add Light to a Dark House.

Location, location, location. It's has been widely reported that Pritzker Laureate I.M. Pei believes Saint John's Abbey would be an icon of architecture if it were located in New York instead of Collegeville, Minnesota—it is just that good. The value of Marcel Breuer's work is not in his personal popularity, fame, or fortune. Breuer has inspired others to build on his work, whether furniture-making or architecture. The inspiration of ideas is Breuer's continued gift.

Learn More:

  • Saint John's Abbey Church Images, DigitalCommons@CSB/SJU institutional repository for the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University
  • Saint John's Abbey Church and Church Tour (PDF)
  • St. John's Celebrates Marcel Breuer, Architect
  • The Bauhaus, 1919–1933, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • A Bauhaus Life: Is Bauhaus Too International for America?
  • Marcel Breuer and a Committee of Twelve Plan a Church: A Monastic Memoir by Hilary Thimmesh OSB, College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University, Saint John's University Press, 2011
  • Saint John's Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space by Victoria M. Young, University Of Minnesota Press, 2014

Sources: G. E. Kidder Smith, Source Book of American Architecture, Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, pp. 434-435; Saint John's Abbey Books; Marcel Breuer and a Committee of Twelve Plan a Church: A Monastic Memoir by Hilary Thimmesh, pp. ix-x [accessed July 8, 2014]

Photos of Saint John's Abbey ©Bobak Ha'Eri via Wikimedia Commons, CC-By-SA-3.0 AND ©Seth Tisue on flickr.com, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) cropped