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The Barcelona: iChair or Diva?

Is there any other 20th-century chair that is as iconic as the Barcelona? Designed in 1928 by German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and interior designer Lilly Reich, little did they know that by 2012, this chair would have been showcased in so many movies and television shows. This chair has appeared in the popular teen show iCarly and in movies such as American Psycho (2000), Casino Royale (2006), Twilight (2008), and Iron Man 2 (2010). I am convinced that this sleek and luxurious chair is a testament to the timelessness of superior design in mass production. The Barcelona is universally recognized as a design classic by individuals of all ages and cultures.

So, why is there this fascination with a chair that was designed for the German Pavilion at the Barcelona International Exhibition for the King and Queen of Spain almost 85 years ago? More than a symbol of good design, I believe, this chair is also associated with power and social status. Corporations again and again have displayed a couple of Barcelona chairs in their lobbies and reception areas to showcase their wealth and stability. The design of this chair is said to be derived from the architect’s interpretation of an Egyptian royal folding chair and a Roman folding footstool. Both the Egyptian and Roman civilizations were powerful empires in history, and any association with them carries connotations of similar power and status.

As with most celebrities or, more specifically, divas, there are some people who have not fallen under the spell of this iconic chair. Although it quickly achieved celebrity status because of its regal origin and stylistic silhouette, many argue that this chair and its design disregard the basic requirements—such as ergonomics and comfort—of the people who use the chair. Because of this, not everyone can love this chair. The unaired pilot of the Cartoon Network’s Regular Show illustrates this point. In this episode, the chair is ridiculed as the “world’s most uncomfortable chair,” even though the show’s characters think that it looks “awesome.” Another problematic issue is the chair’s expense. Although it was intended for mass production, it is not accessible to the masses. Between the materials and the labor, the chair costs too much to produce and can run anywhere from hundreds of dollars for a high-quality replica to almost ten thousand dollars for a licensed reproduction.

Despite differences in opinion with regard to the value and comfort of this chair, the Barcelona, curiously, a chair inspired by the chairs of antiquity, has come to represent 20th-century design and perhaps the whole modern movement.

Have you ever had the pleasure, or perhaps misfortune, of sitting in the Barcelona? If so, I invite you to share your views. If not, I invite you to visit The SIDE Chair Library at Salem College and experience it for yourself!

If you are interested in learning more about modern furniture design, the Berniece Bienenstock Furniture Library and the SIDE Chair Library are perfect places to start. We welcome students and design professionals to investigate these libraries and perhaps be inspired in their own designs.

About the Author

Rosa Otero

Rosa Otero

Salem College

Dr. Rosa Otero is the director of the design program at Salem College in Winston–Salem, where she teaches courses in architecture, interiors, and the history of design. Drawing upon the wealth of Salem’s historic setting, Dr. Otero created a Historic Preservation Certificate program. She is the designer and curator of the Salem College SIDE Chair Library, a one-of-a-kind facility that provides access to 20th-century furniture icons. Before working in Salem, she was the program coordinator of interior design at Forsyth Technical Community College and was also the program coordinator of architecture at Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey. In addition, Dr. Otero worked at the Hillier architectural firm in Princeton and Newark. Dr. Otero currently serves on the U.S. Green Building Council North Carolina board and is a member of the Interior Design Educators Council. She is the American Society of Interior Design Salem College student chapter faculty advisor and is an inductee of the National Collegiate Hispanic Honor Society, Sigma Delta Pi.