Cover With its contemporary form, the Knoll Barcelona chair is viewed as an icon of modernist design (Image: Courtesy of Knoll)

Did you know that the iconic Barcelona chair was first designed for Spanish royalty? Here, we explore the history and appeal of the timeless chair design

Exuding elegance with its refined proportions and iconic structure, Knoll’s Barcelona chair needs little introduction. It’s also a movie star in its own right, having appeared in multiple Hollywood films such as Iron Man 2, American Psycho and James Bond’s Casino Royale, acting as a shorthand for the refined taste and status of the protagonists. You can also see it appearing in Harvey Specter’s (Gabriel Macht) office in Suits, as well as the living room belonging to a world-weary billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

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The Barcelona chair is often seen as an icon of the modern design movement. It is an exemplar of exceptional craftsmanship. Produced from a single cowhide, the seats are upholstered with 40 individual panels that are meticulously hand-welted and hand-tufted with leather buttons. 

The plush seats sit on a steely frame created from polished chrome that has been grounded and buffed by hand to a shiny, mirror-like finish. Inspired by the ancient curule chairs in Rome, the legs of the chair cross under the back of the seat and come together in a curved X-shaped structure that’s distinctive to the Barcelona chair. Uniquely, the axis is crafted to the side and not in the middle; this creates a cantilevered design that the chair is known for. 

The Barcelona chair is the brainchild of German-American architect and designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, designed in collaboration with his romantic partner Lilly Reich. It’s a chair that was literally first designed for royalty—specifically, King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenie of Spain back in 1929. 

Mies, as he was commonly called, had a growing reputation as a revolutionary modernist architect. He was selected to design the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona. More commonly known as the Barcelona Pavilion, the architect designed an unprecedented space that elevated the use of industrial-age materials.

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With the knowledge that the Spanish king and queen were expected to attend the opening of the exhibition, the trailblazing architect set to create the first two iterations of the Barcelona chair for the royal couple to sit and rest. He is noted to have said that the chairs needed to be “a monumental object” that would be “fit for a king”. The chairs are also distilled with the architect's famous “less is more” maxim.

Although the modern thrones were never used by the royal couple, the Barcelona chair was an immediate hit in the design world. However, even as the alluring chair enjoyed immense popularity, only a few models were made over the next 16 years.

In 1945, Mies, who had fled to the United States during World War II, was approached by his former student Florence Knoll to mass-produce his furniture designs for the American and international markets. After granting manufacturing rights to the American company, Knoll began producing the Barcelona chairs in 1947.

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With Mies’ approval, the chair has had several updates over the years—whether it’s replacing the original ivory pigskin upholstery with bovine leather or switching the aluminum frame to chrome-plating instead. In the 1990s, Knoll started adding the architect’s signature to the back right leg of the Barcelona chair in order to distinguish them from common imitations.

The enduring classic is still in production today, crafted in accordance to the architect's exacting standards. With its contemporary form and sleek structure, the Barcelona chair remains a highly sought-after design that elevates any abode it can be found in.

Knoll is available online, and in Singapore at Proof Living and Royal Interiors.

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