Even though Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe said he aspired to be good rather than interesting, this architect by trade has indeed garnered interest as one of the great designers of Mid-Century furniture design. One of his most popular and recognizable products is the Barcelona Chair, which won a Museum of Modern Art design award in 1977.
With popularity and recognition comes imitation. To make sure you are buying a high-quality original rather than a reproduction, learn more about identifying a genuine Barcelona Chair with these four steps.
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Start With the Back Cushion
This chair was originally made with the assistance of modernist designer Lilly Reich. It was an entry for the International Exposition of 1929 held in Barcelona, Spain. It was produced in very limited numbers during the 1930s and 40s. The design was modified by Mies later to make it a bit sleeker. In 1953, Knoll Associates took over production after his original patents expired.
Since the limited production chairs made early on rarely surface for sale, most modernism fans look for those made since the 1950s. Knoll International (the name of the company since 1969) is still producing the "less is more" Barcelona chair today. The company aptly refers to it as "a tribute to the marriage of design and craftsmanship."
To begin the examination of a Barcelona Chair, look for Knoll characteristics. Start with the back cushion. This cushion should be a bit taller than the steel frame it rests against and slightly curved to fit the back. The cushions have always been made with high-quality fillers that hold their shape over time. A saggy chair is a sign of a lesser copycat.
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Examine the Upholstery
Not only is the framework of an original Barcelona Chair of high quality, but the upholstery is always made of top-notch materials. This includes leather from a single cowhide to give the material a handsome uniform appearance. If you notice variations in the texture of the leather, this is a sign that it is probably not an original.
There are also two separate cushions making up the back and seat. They are made of 40 pieces of leather that are hand-manipulated, including the rolling, tufting, and finishing with matching leather-covered buttons. This attention to detail and use of high-quality materials is evident in every chair manufactured by Knoll.
This chair style has been made in numerous colors, but black leather is undoubtedly the most ubiquitous.
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Check the Frame or Cushions for a Logo or Label
There has been some controversy about whether or not Knoll International can still lay claim to the patent rights on this chair style. Other furniture companies have copied the design resulting in lawsuits back and forth between the various manufacturers in the past few decades.
Most Mid-Century Modern enthusiasts purport the very best chairs in this style have been made by Knoll since the early 1950s. These are looked upon as "genuine" or "originals" by modernism connoisseurs. So, for most people, confirmation that Knoll made the chair constitutes authenticity whether new or old.
Many times a Knoll identifier, whether a sticker or label sewn in place, can be found on the bottom cushion of a vintage chair (the Knoll International name was used after 1969). A "Knoll Studios" mark stamped in the frame with Mies' signature is found on chairs made since 1996. In addition to looking for a Knoll mark or labels (which may have been removed from older chairs) take care to look at the other attributes mentioned here for further authentication.
The very first Barcelona Chairs were made with a chrome frame. The style was redesigned by Mies in 1950 using highly polished stainless steel to offer consumers a more sleek appearance.
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Look for Fastening Rivets
The original Barcelona chair is made with 17 strips of leather (other materials like vinyl can indicate copycats) evenly spaced in a ladder-like fashion on the back and under the bottom cushion. Rather than being buckled to the frame, they are attached with aluminum rivets. When the cushions are in place, these fasteners are neatly concealed inside the frame.
Widely used in both office and home settings, along with the matching ottoman, a lookalike chair may suffice for some. But this type of construction is part of the high quality that ardent modernism fans gladly pay big bucks to own whether buying a vintage or new version of this classic Mies style.
Check the Price
An authentic Mies van der Rohe Barcelona Chair can be found at such venues as 1stDibs, an online market venue that connects buyers with vetted sellers. Prices can range from $4,000 to $60,000 for museum pieces. Knoll's patented Barcelona Chair currently sells for $6,700 in a selection of colors that include flint, garnet, and classic black.
The Making of an Icon
The Barcelona Chairs were displayed as a pair in the German Pavilion at the 1929 World's Fair. Their design was inspired by the ancient folding chairs of ancient Greece and Rome. Mies found the design to be fitting for King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain, who viewed the chairs at the event but reportedly did not have time to sit on them. The chairs were the only furnishings in the room, which accentuated their modernist appeal and sealed their iconic status from its positive response.
Barcelona Stool. Knoll International.
Barcelona Chair. Interior Designers Institute.
Protecting America's Mid-Century Modern Masterpieces. United States Customs and Border Protection.