Design icons: The Cesca Chair
Great moments in design: The Cesca Chair
Words— Jeremy Freed
Marcel Breuer was fascinated by his bicycle. In 1925, Breuer arrived in Desau, Germany, to study at the Bauhaus school of art. One of his first purchases was a steel-framed Adler bicycle, which he took on long rides through the city. It would also serve as a deep well of inspiration for the 23-year old artist. For one thing, Breuer observed, the essential design of the bicycle had barely changed in thirty years. For another, the bike’s tubular steel handlebars were both beautiful and highly functional. What else, he wondered, could this kind of fabrication be used for? Breuer’s efforts at answering this question would establish him as one of the greatest designers of all time.
Even the most casual fans of classic furniture will be familiar with Breuer’s first creation, the Wassily Chair. A club chair reduced to its basic structural elements of lines and planes, the Wassily is a triumph of functional minimalism. For all of its grace and artfulness, however, as anyone who’s owned a Wassily can tell you, it fails at one major point: the chair just isn’t all that comfortable to sit in. Its younger sibling, the Cesca, may not receive as much attention, but it is arguably a far more successful design, and equally deserving of icon status.
Three years after designing his club chair, Breuer embarked upon another experiment that would do for the dining room what the Wassily did for the parlour. Made from a single piece of bent tubular steel with a simple caned wood seat and back, the Cesca chair was an even more pared-down design with arguably more functionality. The Wassily may have introduced the possibilities of tubular steel in furniture design, but the Cesca took it further still, pushing the material’s strength and flexibility with its unique cantilevered design. While the Wassily was named for Breuer’s friend, the painter (and fellow Bauhaus alum) Wassily Kandinsky, he named the Cesca after his daughter Francesca. Mass production began in the late 1920s and continues today.
To imagine the impact the Cesca chair had in the 1920s it’s useful to consider that today, almost a century later, most chairs still have four legs, one at each corner of the seat. “Nothing like it existed at the time,” says Benjamin Pardo the EVP of Design for American furniture manufacturer Knoll, which has been the official producer of the Cesca chair since 1968. “It’s deceptively simple and graphic, too,” Pardo goes on. “The Cesca Chair reflects the Bauhaus aspiration to reconcile art and industry using material as both structure and ornament,” he says. “Caned or upholstered, Cesca works in any setting – home, workplace, public space.”
Knoll sells the canned version of Cesca chair (armed or armless) for about $1,500, while upholstered versions start at just under $1000. The other essential part of the Cesca’s story, however, is that because Breuer never patented the design, it remains a part of the public domain. Being made by countless unlicensed manufacturers results in a wide range of construction standards (not to mention—as die-hard Breuer fans are quick to point out—a lot of variation in the chair’s sweated-over details). This also, however, results in a proliferation of Cesca chairs around the world. From family dining tables to doctor’s office waiting rooms to diners, the Cesca’s utility and availability had made it a ubiquitous part of the modern landscape.
While the Cesca’s popularity soared in the 1970s and 1980s, the design is taking on new life in the 21st century as millennials with fond memories of Cescas from their childhood seek them out for their homes and businesses. A search for #cescachair on Instagram yields thousands of images of living spaces punctuated by artfully-placed Cescas. “A new generation of design enthusiasts is rediscovering the boundary-breaking Bauhaus,” says Pardo, noting that 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the school’s founding.
Like many of his peers at the Bauhaus, Breuer would go on to create a rich body of genre-spanning work from furniture to sculpture to architecture. Among his many achievements, however, the design of the Cesca chair fulfils the promise of the Bauhaus perhaps more than any other. It is, like the bicycle that inspired it, functional, versatile, good-looking and easily mass-produced. A simple equation, perhaps, but as the Cesca’s success over the last century attests, that kind of simplicity is a rare, beautiful thing.